John C. Fremont and Blazing Trail for America

By Carl M. Cannon

Good morning. It’s January 31. And on this day in 1848, John C. Frémont, the military governor of California, was court-martialed after losing a power struggle to Army Gen. Stephen Kearny.

It seemed that the meteoric rise of Frémont – a man dubbed “The Great Pathfinder” by the popular press of the day – was over. But it wasn’t. Capt. Frémont had one more great path to blaze for his country, and that was a path out of the shame of slavery.

Frémont was always on the move. A noted explorer and mapmaker, he solidified his colorful sobriquet as a pathfinder when, as the leader of the famed California battalion (it flew both the California “bear” flag and the Stars and Stripes), he led his troops through the Santa Ynez mountains on Christmas Eve 1846 and surprised the Spanish garrison at Santa Barbara.

Frémont’s trip to California had the personal blessing of President James K. Polk, whom he visited at the White House before heading out West. After taking the Santa Barbara presidio, Frémont was promoted by Commodore Robert Stockton to the rank of major and, later, after Spain ceded all of upper California to the Americans, to the rank of military governor.

It turns out that Stephen Kearny had that job in mind for himself. Kearny and Stockton “had a history,” as we say today, and it wasn’t a happy one. Frémont naturally sided with his benefactor, but both he and Stockton were outranked by Gen. Kearny, who promptly court martialed The Pathfinder for insubordination.

This put President Polk, whose own conflicting orders had exacerbated the problem, in a tough spot. The commander-in-chief upheld the verdict against Frémont, but commuted his sentence to a dishonorable discharge. But that actually helped propel Frémont even higher.

He settled with his wife on a ranch in California, got rich in the Gold Rush, and became one of California’s first U.S. senators. By then, he had fully embraced a new cause – ending slavery – and his outspoken abolitionism didn’t go down well in the Democratic Party; he served in Washington less than a year.

By decade’s end, however, Frémont was in the vanguard of a new political movement. He was the Republican Party's first national standard-bearer. He didn’t win the presidency, of course. History would reserve that honor four years later for man who truly had the temperament for it.

Nonetheless, the Republicans’ 1856 platform set the stage for Abraham Lincoln, and its campaign slogan was one of the greatest in history: “Free soil, free men, and Frémont!”

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