Today it’s difficult to imagine a First Lady who isn’t actively involved in her husband’s career. Whether it’s involvement in politics, actively pursuing causes of her own, or at the very least serving as the White House hostess, the First Lady of the Land is scrutinized and judged based on her demeanor and activities. While this has always been the case to a degree, during the first half of the 19th century the public seemed to accept and sympathize with several First Ladies who stayed out of the public view for various reasons. Jane Pierce never had robust health and personal tragedies prior to her husband’s tenure in the White House caused her to withdraw from almost all public contact. She was described as beautiful, but so sad.
Jane was born on March 12, 1806 to Elizabeth Means Appleton and Jess Appleton, a Congregational minister and the President of Bowdoin College in Maine. Jane had a religious upbringing which continued after her father died in 1819 and she moved into her maternal grandparent’s home in Amherst, New Hampshire. Not much is known about her upbringing, but she was apparently well educated for a girl of the time, though she would have received all of her education at home.
We also don’t know how Jane met Franklin Pierce, but her family was against the match. Jane came from an elite family with Whig sympathies; Franklin was a Democrat and Jane’s family considered him of lower social standing in spite of his father’s tenure as the New Hampshire governor. Jane was quiet, introverted, and of “delicate” health, while Franklin was the opposite, outgoing and robust with a tendency to drink, or “tipple” as they would say. Nevertheless after a long courtship, Jane had her way and she and Franklin were married on November 19, 1834. Franklin was within days of turning 30 and Jane was 28 which may have had something to do with her family finally agreeing to the match.
Another reason Jane’s family considered Franklin a poor choice for a husband was his career in politics. He had graduated from Bowdoin College and studied law, but left his law practice to serve in the New Hampshire legislature. In 1832, he was elected to the US House of Representatives and in 1836 to the US Senate. He was a northerner with southern sympathies. Andrew Jackson was a family friend and something of a mentor to Franklin, and he was life long friends with Jefferson Davis.
After they were married, Jane went to Washington with Franklin, but she hated it. She didn’t like the atmosphere or the social activity and spent much of her time in their room at the boardinghouse where they lived. The birth of their children provided her with a reason to remain at home in New Hampshire or with relatives. When Franklin’s term in the Senate ended in 1842, she convinced him to retire from public life and resume his law practice.
Jane had always been described as having a “melancholy” personality, but these early years of their marriage brought tragedy which would have caused depression in even the most healthy of individuals. Their first son, Franklin Pierce Jr., born in 1836, lived only three days. Two more sons were born in 1839 (Frank Robert) and 1841 (Benjamin.) Then Frank Robert died at the age of four from disease. Now Jane’s life revolved primarily around Benjamin or Benny as he was called. She saw to his early education putting a heavy emphasis on religion. She insisted on daily family worship, prayer and Bible reading, and of course regular attendance at church on Sundays.
Franklin was devoted to Jane and did what he could to make her life easier. He hired a couple to manage their household and told Jane that he wouldn’t go back to work for the government except in the event of war. He stayed true to this promise turning down the Democratic nomination for Governor of New Hampshire and even declining an appointment as Attorney General of the United States when President Polk offered him the position. But when the US entered into the Mexican war, he felt he had to do his duty and volunteered.
Franklin acquitted himself well during the war, rising to the level of Brigadier General and officials in the Democratic party saw an opportunity to promote him as a local war hero. During the 1852 Democratic convention the four major candidates were still grid-locked after the 34th ballot, so Franklin’s name was put forth as an alternative presidential candidate. He won the nomination and told Jane that he felt he must accept it. At the time Franklin was very well-liked, known as a fair and honest man, and a brilliant lawyer; his positions were not very well-known and he won the election in a landslide.
Jane was horrified at the thought of Franklin becoming President and she and Benny both prayed that he would lose the election and wrote letters to Franklin saying the same. She also felt betrayed when she found out that even though Franklin hadn’t sought the nomination, that he really did want it and had let his friends put his name forward. After he won the election, she had resigned herself to going back to Washington when tragedy struck again.
On January 6, 1853 the Pierce family was in a train wreck. After getting Jane out of the wreckage, Franklin went back to look for Benny and found him trapped under a beam with his head crushed. The death of the last of their sons hit both of them very hard, but Jane never seemed to recover.
Jane couldn’t bring herself to go to Franklin’s inauguration, but did eventually join him at the White House. He hired a couple to oversee the household and organize the obligatory social events, and he brought Jane’s widowed aunt to stay with them as a companion to Jane and to be his hostess until she felt up to it. For the first two years Jane remained in seclusion upstairs and appeared in public only to attend church. She saw only a few friends, Nathaniel Hawthorne a close friend of Franklin’s, Jefferson Davis and his wife, Varina Davis, who was Jane’s close friend.
Jane’s first official appearance was at the New Year’s Day reception in 1855 and she did appear from time to time after that, but for someone prone to melancholia, what we would call depression today, she just wasn’t able to recover. She continued to wear black during her time in the White House and often wrote letters to her dead son Benny. She believed that Benny’s death was a result of Franklin’s political ambitions and that God had taken him so that he wouldn’t be a distraction to Franklin while in office.
Franklin was not a successful President and although very popular when he went in to office, he was so hated at the end of his term that he became the first incumbent President not to receive his party’s nomination for a second term. After being escorted out of the White House under guard for his own safety, Franklin took Jane to Europe hoping to help her recover both physically and emotionally.
Nothing seemed to help Jane and she died on December 2, 1863, probably of tuberculosis, which would explain her life-long “delicate” condition. She lived a very sad adult life and the society of the time was forgiving of First Ladies who weren’t up to the task. Because she was seen so rarely and then always seemed to have a smile that didn’t successfully cover her sadness, she was referred to by some as “the shadow in the White House.”
First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama by Betty Caroli
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr. Life
Portrait of Franklin Pierce – C-Span American President Series