Review: John Bicknell's "Lincoln's Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856"

Dred Scott. Bleeding Kansas. Sumner-Brooks. In my past experiences, these events are depicted as steps on a predetermined path to Civil War. As simply things that happened along the way, rather than events central to the development of the war’s inevitability.

 

John Bicknell’s new book, Lincoln’s Pathfinder: John C. Fremont and the Violent Election of 1856, is an engaging, wonderfully written account of the crucial events of 1856. In his telling, these moments are examined with an eye for their repercussions for a volatile nation and with a clear emphasis of the context surrounding them. 

His deep dive into the events of 1856 illuminate how a series of events made war inevitable despite the hopes of many for a peaceful outcome. In the process, otherwise ordinary events like the Dred Scott case became receptacles for the hope of the competing sides of a fracturing nation. Bicknell writes, “Until now this had simply been the latest in a long line of cases considering whether the presence in a free state emancipated an enslaved traveller. Now it was more, encompassing the central political issue facing the nation in a presidential election year. With the lawyers in charge and politics in the forefront, Scott almost ceased to matter. Blair’s client was the Republican Party. Johnson’s was the South.” 

As Bicknell’s subtitle suggests, violence runs throughout the book as illustrative of the path the nation is on. It is used to particularly great effect when discussing the brutal caning of Charles Sumner by Preston Brooks. While this is a familiar story, Bicknell invests it with larger significance for those Americans processing how such violence could occur in the halls of Congress. “The attack on Sumner brought home the distant outrages in Kansas in a way newspaper reports of faraway atrocities never could. If people wondered about the accuracy of reports from Kansas…‘Brooks knocked the scales from the eyes of the blind.”

The year of violence and chaos ends with Fremont’s defeat to James Buchanan, a man often considered our worst president. Despite Fremont’s popularity as a military hero and handsome adventurer, he simply could not rise above the uncertainty of a troubling year. Bicknell writes: “the widespread feeling that things were falling apart, that the center would not hold” led to “voters craving stability and...Buchanan as the safer choice.” Even at this moment, the American people thought war could be averted if the right man held power. Unfortunately, they picked the wrong man. 

While I greatly enjoyed Bicknell’s book, I did have a hard time with his use of Fremont. As the title suggests, Fremont should be at the heart of the book. Instead, the reader gets a series of stories of violence, ranging from John Brown to the struggles of Mormon travelers. As a whole, these stories are riveting and well-told, but what they don’t provide is a clear picture of Fremont and how he served as a pathfinder for Lincoln. Perhaps a different title would help manage expectations. 

But that is a minor quibble with an otherwise excellent book. One I would strongly recommend to anyone interested in this fascinating era. 

3 ¾ out of 4