The old cliché states that “Actions speak louder than words.” It was operative in September 1861 between Gen. John C. Frémont and his wife Jessie, on the one hand, and President Abraham Lincoln, on the other. The word that best describes the Frémonts’ actions that month is defiant.
Certainly John Frémont was cagey rather than defiant with Lincoln in his letter of September 8, 1861, responding to Lincoln’s polite letter of September 2. Frémont complained it was difficult to act in harmony with his superiors, given the speed of events in Missouri as opposed to the slowness of communicating with Washington, D.C. He also discussed the background behind his decision to free the slaves of disloyal owners and politely invited Lincoln to overrule him publicly if he wished.
Frémont took the interesting step of dispatching his letter to Lincoln in the care of his wife acting as his courier and representative. Jesse Benton Frémont was a formidable person in her own right. She was the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton, Missouri’s longtime U.S. Senator. Jesse Frémont had spent much of her childhood in Washington, D.C., enjoying a superior education for a woman of her day and acquainted with the leading national politicians of the antebellum period. With a personality as forceful as her husband, nonetheless the Frémonts enjoyed a strong marriage and were very much a team. Given the delicate nature of the situation, no doubt John C. Frémont felt his wife was the only person he could trust to make his case as he wished it.
Yet as a recent issue of Disunion in the New York Times relates Jesse Frémont was not the best emissary for her husband. The meeting with Abraham Lincoln occurred at midnight soon after her arrival in the nation’s capital, meaning that she was tired and likely cranky. Plus, like many other leading Republicans in 1861, she probably saw President Lincoln as an unworthy compromise candidate not up to demands of his office. Jesse Frémont no doubt also resented Lincoln, a one-term Congressman and Illinois railroad lawyer, for being in a chair that she felt her husband should have been sitting in as the Republican Party’s first presidential candidate in 1856. As Rick Beard relates in his recent Disunion article, the late night meeting did not go well, as Jesse Frémont treated the President not with diplomacy, but angry defiance. Beard writes:
With Judge Edward Coles, a well-known abolitionist and family friend from New York, in tow, Frémont set off for the nearby Executive Mansion. Years later Mrs. Frémont recalled that Lincoln greeted her in the Red Room; remaining standing, and failing to offer her a seat, the president accepted General Frémont’s letter, “smiled with an expression that was not agreeable,” and read it. Hoping to strengthen her husband’s case, Jessie quickly launched into an argument that striking such a blow against slavery would solidify Great Britain’s support for the Union cause.
Lincoln abruptly cut her off, noting in a “sneering tone” that “You are quite a female politician,” and, in a voice she found “repelling,” told her that “It was a war for a great national idea and … General Frémont should not have dragged the Negro into it.” Things went downhill from there.
Lincoln’s recollection of the meeting was no more positive. “She sought an audience with me and tasked me so violently with so many things, that I had to exercise all the awkward tact I have to avoid quarreling with her,” he told his secretary John Hay. “She more than once intimated that if Gen. Fremont should conclude to try conclusions with me he could set up for himself.” The meeting concluded, Lincoln related to Iowa Congressman Josiah Grinnell, when Mrs. Frémont departed “in anger flaunting her handkerchief before my face and saying, ‘Sir, the general will try titles with you. He is a man and I am his wife.’”
In any case, with Gen. Frémont’s September 8 letter in hand, inviting the President to overrule his emancipation order, Lincoln promptly did just that. In a letter to John C. Frémont, dated September 11, 1861, he wrote:
SIR: Yours of the 8th in answer to mine of the 2d instant was just received. Assured that you upon the ground could better judge of the necessities of your position than I could at this distance on seeing your proclamation of August 30 I perceived no general objection to it. The particular clause, however, in relation to the confiscation of property and the liberation of slaves appeared to me to be objectionable in its non-conformity to the act of Congress passed the 6th of last August upon the same subjects, and hence I wrote you expressing my wish that that clause should be modified accordingly. Your answer just received expresses the preference on your part that I should make an open order for modification which I very cheerfully do.
It is therefore ordered that the said clause of said proclamation be so modified, held and construed as to conform with and not to transcend the provisions on the same subject contained in the act of Congress entitled “An act to confiscate property used for insurrectionary purposes,” approved August 6, 1861, and that said act be published at length with this order.
When Frémont learned of Lincoln’s decision is not known. But to judge from related correspondence, the President did not send the general a telegram on the matter but dispatched his letter by courier. But had John C. Frémont been a wiser man, he would not have done what occurred the next day, September 12, 1861. On that date, Gen. Frémont, acting under the authority of his martial law proclamation, freed two slaves of Thomas L. Snead, a St. Louis man, who was then serving as a high-ranking officer in the Confederate army. Given that Lincoln had indicated his clear opposition to Frémont’s emancipation order, freeing Snead’s slaves arguably was insubordination and certainly an act of defiance strongly suggesting his September 8 letter was disingenuous.
John and Jesse Frémont no doubt felt they were acting in defense of their convictions. They both believed that slavery was wrong and given Missouri’s bitter unrest and with the power to act, they must strike a blow against slavery by freeing the slaves of disloyal owners. Given their zeal and John C. Frémont’s impetuous nature, the Frémonts no doubt believed they could prod a weak Lincoln and his administration toward emancipation. They underestimated Abraham Lincoln and would pay a high personal price for their daring, as Gen. Frémont would be forced from his post the following month. But their actions would point the way to the future, and within a year both Congress and Lincoln himself would embrace emancipation. The Frémonts were merely rashly audacious and ahead of northern public opinion in the early months of the Civil War.