Not Quite First Lady – Rachel Jackson

Rachel Jackson c. 1830 by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (source)

Rachel Jackson c. 1830 by Ralph Eleaser Whiteside Earl (source)

The Presidential campaign of 1828 was brutal. Andrew Jackson felt that the election of 1824 had been stolen from him (he won the popular vote) and John Quincy Adams was defending his position as incumbent. Although it was considered undignified for the candidate to campaign, their supporters pulled out all the stops even attacking the wives. Louisa Catherine Adams was considered by many a foreigner who brought unwelcome influence to Washington, (she was born and raised in England, although her parents were Americans), but the worst criticism was reserved for Rachel Jackson. Called a whore, a bigamist, and an unsophisticated westerner (my goodness she smoked a pipe!), many considered her unqualified to inhabit the White House.

When Rachel Donelson was 12 years old, her family left Virginia to travel to the frontier of Tennessee. The trip was arduous and the situation with the Indians unsettled, but eventually they established themselves as one of the most prominent families in the area. They built a palisade which surrounded the family home and several cabins where boarders lived. This is where Rachel and Andrew met and fell in love. Rachel was a beautiful young woman and Andrew was tall and handsome with an instinct to protect women. Rachel may have seemed like she needed protecting – from her husband, her first husband.

A few years earlier, when the situation with the Indians was very dangerous, the family briefly moved to Kentucky. There Rachel met and married Lewis Robards. The Donelsons and Robards were of similar social standing and circumstances. Lewis was from a large family who welcomed and liked Rachel. It seemed like a good match. And it was for a while, but the vivacious and friendly nature of Rachel that attracted Lewis became a problem. She was raised with seven brothers and quite innocently enjoyed the company of men, but Lewis was of a jealous nature. By 1788, the situation had become unbearable and Rachel’s brother came to get her, bringing her home to her family in Tennessee. It is unsure whether Rachel intended the move to be permanent or not, but later in the year Lewis followed her to Nashville and moved in with her and her family.

Andrew Jackson c. 1824 by Thomas Sully (source)

Andrew Jackson c. 1824 by Thomas Sully (source)

It was during this time that Andrew Jackson moved to Nashville. Rachel and Andrew were attracted to each other, but there is no evidence that their relationship was inappropriate. However, Lewis couldn’t accept this; he forbid her to talk to Jackson and interrogated her about the few interactions they had. Finally, during the summer of 1789, Lewis made the mistake of telling other men that Jackson was too intimate with his wife. Lewis was not well-liked, but Jackson and the Donelson family were. Word got back to Jackson and he confronted Lewis and threatened to cut off his ears.

Rather than challenge Jackson to a duel, which he undoubtedly would have accepted, Lewis had a warrant issued against him. While traveling to see the magistrate, under armed guard, the looks that Jackson gave Lewis terrified him so much that he ran off. Of course the fact that the guards allowed Jackson to carry a knife and to chase after Lewis, may have had something to do with the fact that Lewis didn’t show up at the magistrate’s office. Without a complainant, the charges were dismissed. This was the last straw for Lewis, he left Tennessee and returned to Kentucky swearing to have nothing more to do with Rachel and her family.

By this time, Rachel and Andrew knew that they were in love and wanted to marry. While attitudes toward marriage and divorce were more relaxed in the west, including self-marriage and self-divorce determined by the families rather than a bureaucrat from across the mountains, the Donelsons liked to abide by the legal niceties when possible. This was particularly important with regard to property rights. Rachel’s father had died in 1885 and although his will had yet to be settled, anything that came to Rachel would legally belong to Lewis Robards.

Women had no legal right to divorce (at least none that would be acceptable to a southern judge), so the hope was that Lewis meant what he said and would file. In the meantime, the only option Rachel and Andrew had to live as husband and wife was to elope to an area beyond American Law. The closest place whether Andrew could hope to earn a living was Natchez (now in Mississippi) which was then still Spanish territory.  In the summer of 1789, Andrew began to establish connections there.

Approximate location of Natchez Trace between Nashville, TN and Natchez, MS (source)

Approximate location of Natchez Trace between Nashville, TN and Natchez, MS (source)

That fall, they heard rumors that Lewis was angry and preparing to come get Rachel and force her to return to Kentucky with him. He was within his legal rights to do so and Rachel and Andrew made a decision. In December of 1789, they boarded a flat boat and headed down the river. There is no documentary evidence that they married in Natchez, but there is evidence that they presented themselves as Mr. and Mrs. Jackson. They made connections with family friends and entertained, making no effort to hide who they were. Neither purchased land; presumably they rented with the intent of returning to Nashville when they could.

By July 1790, Lewis had not returned to Nashville and Rachel and Andrew decided to go home. The journey up Natchez Trace with an armed party was uneventful with one exception. One of their traveling companions knew Lewis Robards and later reported to him that Rachel and Andrew were living as husband and wife. This testimony was the tangible evidence he had been waiting for and he made a petition to the Virginia legislature for an action of divorce. This gave Lewis permission to sue Rachel for divorce in Kentucky supreme court. (Kentucky was still part of Virginia at the time.)

There were other requirements that had to be met: notice in the Kentucky Gazette, filing a writ in Kentucky, and taking depositions from witnesses. But, Lewis put off doing these things. Maybe because of anger toward Rachel or because of lingering hopes of receiving her inheritance, nevertheless, the divorce wasn’t finalized until three years later in September of 1793. The charge was adultery, but neither Rachel nor Andrew appeared in court. After all, they weren’t going to fight something they had been hoping for all along.

Rachel and Andrew had been living in Nashville as husband and wife since 1790, so they quietly married (remarried?) on January 17, 1794. They enjoyed their lives together and the events of the previous years receded into memory until the election of 1828.

In spite of the ugliness of the campaign, Jackson won the election by a landslide. Briefly, Rachel considered not going to Washington with Andrew, but they decided that that would be admitting they were wrong, which they didn’t believe. So Rachel prepared to become First Lady of the land. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. On December 22, 1828, Rachel Donelson Jackson died, leaving Andrew a deeply sad and embittered man. He would always blame those who attacked Rachel for her death. Two days later, Rachel was buried in the white satin gown she had planned to wear to the inaugural ball.

The tomb of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (source)

The tomb of Rachel and Andrew Jackson (source)

Resources
A Being So Gentle: The Frontier Love Story of Rachel and Andrew Jackson by Patricia Brady
C-SPAN: First Ladies Influence and Image – Rachel Jackson

Florence Harding – Wild Child

Young Florence Harding

In 1920, when Warren G. Harding was running for President of the United States, he had secrets to hide, many secrets; and they all had female names. In fact, one of his mistresses is the only person, that we know of, to successfully blackmail a presidential nominee. But, he wasn’t the only one with a past that they wanted to keep hidden. His wife Florence had a few indiscretions of her own.

Florence Kling Harding was supposed to be a boy, at least in the mind of her father. When Amos Kling and his wife, Louisa, were expecting their first child, he told everyone around town in Marion, Ohio, that the child would be a boy. Aside from just wanting a boy, Amos owned a successful hardware store which required much of his time; a son could work along side him and eventually take over the business. So on August 15, 1860 when Florence Mabel, Flossie, was born, although Amos resented the fact that she wasn’t a boy, he had a practical solution. He would raise her as if she were a boy.

From the time Flossie could walk, Amos took her with him to the store. It became an environment that she would always be comfortable in, the sights, smells, sounds, and the company of men. As she grew, Amos trained her in the running of the store and his other businesses as they came about. By the time Flossie was a teenager, Amos had expanded into banking, real estate, and land/tenant management. He had also become a very wealthy man.

Florence with her horse Billy in Marion, OH

Florence with her horse Billy in Marion, OH

Florence’s education was extensive, including subjects not always studied by women such as math, rhetoric, logic, Greek, and Latin. She was also very active physically, running and playing with the neighborhood boys. Her favorite outdoor activity was horseback riding. Many of her Marian neighbors commented that she was the best horsewoman they had ever seen. (I suspect she was better than many of the men as well.)

All of this continued in spite of the fact that Florence had two younger brothers. Amos never switched his training to the boys. He was a tyrant in the home and it seems that Louisa and the two boys were more submissive, and thus less like Amos in personality than Florence. She was just as competitive and driven as he was and perhaps that’s why he seemed to favor her, but as is the case with many strong-willed children of overbearing parents, there came a time when Florence rebelled against Amos’ demands.

Florence also showed a talent for music. She spent hours practicing the piano, one time for eight hours, until her fingers bled. Music for the sake of art didn’t mean anything to Amos, but he was a firm believer that a woman should be able to provide for herself if necessary. For this reason, he allowed Florence to enroll at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, so that she would have a means to support herself by giving piano lessons. Her ambition, however, was to become a concert pianist.

Amos Kling

Amos Kling

Cincinnati was the country’s center of culture in the west and it opened up a new world to Florence. A world that she reveled in, a world with new people and experiences, but more importantly, a world of independence. After only a year, Amos called Florence home. Whether it was to take care of things at home while her mother was ill, as he said, or because he wanted to reign in his newly liberated daughter, I don’t know. But whatever the reason, he released a tiger that he couldn’t put back in the cage.

Amos tried to impose his own standards on Florence once again and their arguments were long and loud, sometimes lasting all night and heard in the street outside their home. More than once he locked her out of the house when she didn’t return before curfew. Sometimes she crawled into the window of her best friend Carrie Phillips, but other times who knows. Amos particularly disliked the fact that she was *gasp* hanging around the new roller rink in town.

Roller skating was a new fad that was sweeping the country. It gave young men and women a chance to socialize and listen to music, and if a few proprieties were breached well, you had to keep your balance, right? In fact the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1885 passed on a minister’s warning that roller skating rinks “corrupt the morals of all who associate with them.” As might be expected, it wasn’t long before Florence became interested in a young man, Henry De Wolfe, Pete to his friends. Amos was livid, which of course made Pete that much more attractive.

Couple roller skatingFor young women who feel trapped at home, there is one way of escape which has often been used, although it can sometimes have dire consequences. Florence had never expressed a desire to marry or have children and a family like her mother. She had been greatly inspired by Clara Baur, the unmarried founder of the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music who was a proponent of careers for women. But at the end of 1879, she found herself in trouble. Trouble that could provide a way out of her father’s house.

Kathleen Lawler, Florence’s long-time assistant said that Florence became pregnant to get away from Amos. Florence herself didn’t admit it, but in her diary early in 1880, she makes a cryptic statement: “Vice often comes in at the door of necessity, not at the door of inclination.”

Pete was fun-loving and handsome, and he drank to excess. Just a year older than Florence, they grew up across the street from each other. Pete’s father, Simon, was one of the few men in town who wasn’t afraid of Amos Kling and there was no love lost between the two, so when Pete and Florence took up with each other people held their breath waiting for the explosion which was sure to occur. Neither family approved, but Simon was a different kind of man than Amos and when Pete told him that he had gotten Florence pregnant, Simon told him to take her up to “Columbus, and get married as soon as possible.” So in March 1880, Florence and Pete eloped to Columbus to get married. But, they didn’t.

Carl Anthony, Florence’s biographer, states in his book that there is no record of a marriage between a Kling and a DeWolfe for 10 years before or after 1880 in Franklin County (Columbus), Marion County, or in Crawford County, where they soon set up housekeeping. Florence may or may not have wanted it that way, but Amos had to believe that they were married to prevent him trying to force her back home. And it worked. Not only did Amos leave Florence to her “marriage”, he cut her off and refused to talk to her.

Life with Pete was difficult. They tried to run a roller skating rink, but failed, and Pete didn’t adjust well to the responsibility of a family. He would be gone for days at a time and finally, before their son Marshall was two years old, he deserted them. Florence had no choice except to return to Marion. A friend’s father was kind enough to allow her to stay at their house as she began to teach piano lessons, until she finally was able to raise enough to get a small apartment of her own.

Kling home in Marion, Ohio

Kling home in Marion, Ohio

Even though Florence’s marriage was from all appearances a common law marriage, she did finally get a divorce from Pete in 1886. At that time there was some communication between Amos and Florence and he offered to provide for Marshall. The conditions were that Marshall would live in the Kling home and take the Kling name. Florence agreed.

Amos may have hated losing control of Florence, and hated the choices she made, but he had given her the tools to make them. She was now on her own, independent, free of responsibility for anyone but herself, and she set out to start over. She also set her sights on the dashing young publisher of The Marion Star, Warren G. Harding.

Young Warren Harding

Warren Harding

Resources
First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama by Betty Caroli
Florence Harding: The First Lady, The Jazz Age, and the Death of America’s Most Scandalous President by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History by Paul F. Boller Jr.
The Library Company of Philadelphia: “Roller Skating Fun

Nellie Taft, Eliza Scidmore, and Japanese Cherry Trees

386px-Washington_C_D.C._Tidal_Basin_cherry_treesHelen Herron Taft, Nellie, was the most well-traveled First Lady that the United States had seen when she entered the White House with her husband President William Howard Taft in 1909. She had seen more of the world than most Presidents much less First Ladies. So after settling in to the routines at the White House and hosting her first few events, Nellie was bored. For so many years, her husband and his career had been her purpose and now that her ultimate goal had been achieved, she needed a project.

Nellie had heard of plans to beautify the city during the time she was a Cabinet wife. She loved the idea and decided to look for a place that she could develop. She had in mind something like Luneta Park in Manila, her favorite place in the Philippines. Luneta Park was a large open space with two bandstands at opposite ends of the park overlooking the bay. Concerts were held there and it was frequented by people of all races and classes. She wanted to do something similar for the people of Washington, so at the beginning of April she went driving alone and found the perfect place along the Tidal Basin with a “road” leading to it that people had begun to race their cars on. She imagined the “Speedway” as it was called lined with beautiful Japanese Cherry trees leading down to the bandstand.

The original idea of planting cherry trees in the nation’s capitol belongs to Eliza Scidmore, an author whose brother, George Hawthorne Scidmore, was a diplomat in the Far East. Her brother’s career allowed Eliza the opportunity to travel that many women didn’t have during the 19th century. She published numerous books based on her travels and joined the National Geographic Society in 1890. She became a regular correspondent and later the Society’s first female trustee.

Eliza_Ruhamah_Scidmore

Eliza Scidmore

On Eliza’s return from the Far East in 1885, she proposed the idea of the cherry trees to Washington officials, but there was little interest at the time. Her proposal was to the US Army Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds. After the first rejection, she continued to propose the idea to each new Superintendent over the next 24 years.

Around 1906, another person became interested in the trees. Dr. David Fairchild, an official at the US Department of Agriculture, imported close to 100 trees to plant on his property to test their hardiness for the region. They did very well and in 1908 he gave trees to each District of Columbia school to plant for Arbor Day. During his speech he expressed a wish that the Tidal Basin could be transformed into a “Field of Cherries.”

Eliza Scidmore was in the audience that day and decided to try to raise the money herself to plant the trees. Either as a courtesy, or because she knew a First Lady could get things done, she sent a note to Nellie Taft to tell her about her plans for a field of cherry trees. This was just what Nellie was looking for and she quickly responded.

April 7, 1909

Thank you very much for your suggestion about the cherry trees. I have taken the matter up and am promised the trees, but I thought perhaps it would be best to make an avenue of them, extending down to the turn in the road, as the other part is still too rough to do any planting. Of course, they could not reflect in the water, but the effect would be very lovely of the long avenue. Let me know what you think about this.

Sincerely yours,
Helen H. Taft

First Lady Helen Taft

First Lady Helen Taft

Never shy about taking charge, Nellie took it upon herself. As soon as the First Lady made the request, the Superintendent of the Office of Public Buildings and Grounds, Colonel Spencer Cosby, initiated the purchase of the first Japanese Cherry trees. Around the same time, Dr. Jokichi Takamine, a Japanese chemist, was visiting Washington with the Japanese consul, Mr. Midzuno. The good doctor asked if Nellie would accept a gift of another 2000 trees, given in the name of the City of Tokyo and she accepted them.

Unfortunately, the 95 trees ordered by the Superintendent of Grounds turned out to be the wrong variety, but the worst blow was to come. The next January when the 2000 trees arrived from Japan it was discovered that they were diseased. Infested with insects and nematodes, they had to be burned to protect American growers.

Because of the nature of the gift, President Taft had to give approval for the destruction of the trees and the State Department expressed regret to the Japanese Ambassador. They understood the problem, in fact the mayor of Tokyo, Mr. Yukio Ozaki, suggested that another gift be sent. The Tokyo City Counsel approved the donation of 3020 more trees and the scions to be grafted were taken from the famous collection along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, a suburb of Tokyo.

The Mayor of Tokyo Mr. Yukio Ozaki and his wife Viscountess Chinda

The Mayor of Tokyo Mr. Yukio Ozaki and his wife

After grafting and preparing the trees, on March 27, 1912, Washington DC’s first Cherry Tree celebration was held when First Lady Helen Taft and Viscountess Chinda, wife of the Japanese Ambassador, planted two cherry trees on the banks of the Tidal Basin. These original trees still stand with a plaque located near by to commemorate the occasion.

Over the next seven years the Cherry trees were planted around the Tidal Basin and in East Potomac Park. Over the next two decades, the first official Cherry Blossom Festival was held, a pageant was started, and they came to symbolize something important to the citizens of Washington. In 1938, a group of women chained themselves to some of the trees to prevent their destruction for the building of the Jefferson Memorial. A compromise was reached and the trees were moved and more were planted to frame the memorial.

Cherry Blossom Grove on the National Mall

Cherry Blossom Grove on the National Mall

The trees have continued to connect the Japanese and American people. During WWII, a few were vandalized and the trees were referred to as Oriental Cherry trees instead of Japanese Cherry trees. But after the war Japan’s trees needed help. The trees along the bank of the Arakawa River in Adachi Ward, where the Washington stock originally came from, were badly damaged during the war. The city of Washington DC was able to give new stock to the city of Tokyo to replace the very trees from which they had come.

In 1965, there was another First Lady who would be known for her beautification projects. The Japanese Government gave another gift of 3,800 trees and Lady Bird Johnson with Mrs. Ryuji Takeuchi, wife of Japan’s Ambassador, reenacted the original planting ceremony of 1912.

Lady Bird Johnson planting a cherry tree in 1965

Lady Bird Johnson planting a cherry tree in 1965

The National Cherry Blossom Festival is held for two weeks each year beginning on the last Saturday of March.

Resources
Nellie Taft: The Unconventional First Lady of the Ragtime Era by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
History of the Cherry Trees

Harriet Lane – The “Democratic Queen”

439px-HLaneHarriet Lane was one of a number of women who served as the official White House hostess without being married to the President. She was greatly admired and well-liked even though by the end of his term her uncle James Buchanan was almost universally disliked. Referred to as the “Democratic Queen” and the “first lady of the land,” Lane was a superb hostess with a self-confidence that allowed her to push the boundaries and set new trends. She was also a woman of great warmth and generosity whose legacy is still felt today.

Harriet Lane was born on March 4, 1830 to Elliot Tole Lane and Jane Ann Buchanan Lane. The youngest of four children, her mother died when she was 9 years old and her father died when she was 11. Her father was a successful merchant, leaving the children with adequate resources, but at 11 years old Harriet needed a guardian. Her brothers were old enough to make their own way and her sister was already in boarding school, but Harriet didn’t adjust well to boarding school, so she went to live with her bachelor uncle James Buchanan.

Harriet’s mother, Jane, was Buchanan’s favorite sister and he knew and loved her children. He gladly took Harriet into his home and tended to indulge her and her sister who came to him during holidays from school. Harriet did go to boarding school later at Charles Town, Virginia and at the Academy of the Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C. where she graduated with honors. She was an outgoing, friendly girl who enjoyed the social activities which went along with her uncle’s position as a senator and from 1845 to 1849 as Secretary of State in Polk’s administration. But her most advantageous experience was as Buchanan’s companion when he was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1854.

Harriet was a great success in London. She served as her uncle’s hostess and they dined often with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen even gave her the title of “Honorary Ambassadress” to the Court with the courtesies generally given to the wife of the Ambassador and called her “the dear Miss Lane.” London society was the perfect preparation for her time at the White House.

James Buchanan was elected President of the United States in 1856. Out of the country for the preceding 4 years, he was one of the few experienced politicians who had not become embroiled in the controversy over slavery in the territories. With experience as Ambassador to both Russia and England, many hoped that his diplomatic skills could prevent the breakup of the Union. This wasn’t the case. He became increasingly unpopular as his term went on and by the time Lincoln took office, the Confederate States had formed and elected Jefferson Davis as their President.

414px-Harriet_Lane

Harriet shocked society matrons by having her neckline lowered for the inaugural ball, but dressmakers all over the city soon began to get similar requests.

In spite of her uncle’s unpopularity, Harriet Lane became one of the most well-liked First Ladies since Dolly Madison and brought elegance to the White House that wouldn’t be seen again until Jacqueline Kennedy. She gave new life to Washington society which had been very somber while Jane Pierce was First Lady. Ships and babies were named after her; she set fashion trends; and she established new customs for the White House.

As mistress of the house, Harriet dismissed all of the slaves on staff whose owners were receiving money for their service, and hired a new staff. She invited artists and musicians to the White House and set up large tents on the lawn for concerts and served refreshments for all who came. For State dinners, Harriet carefully determined seating arrangements to seat Northern and Southern guests at different tables and to separate guests who were on bad terms.

Only 26 when she went to the White House, Harriet possessed the self-confidence and grace of an older woman. She seemed equal to any social situation from soothing angry Congressmen, to entertaining members of the royal families of both Japan and England. But it would be a mistake to assume she was just an ornament to her uncle. While Harriet presided as White House she was determined to make a difference in people’s lives. Her three favorite causes were hospital reform, prison reform, and the needs of American Indians. The Chippewa called her “the Great Mother of the Indians” for her work in obtaining medical and educational services for them.

Wheatland

Wheatland – James Buchanan’s home which he opened up to Harriet Lane when her parents died

Once her time in the White House and the Civil War were over, Harriet could focus on herself. She had always had admirers, but none made a great impact until she met Henry Eliot Johnston. They were married in January of 1866 when Harriet was 35 years old. In spite of the death of James Buchanan, this was a happy time as Harriet and Henry had two sons born in November 1866 and 1870.

She spent her time being a wife and mother, and contributing to her causes, until tragedy struck Harriet’s life again. In March 1881, their oldest son James Buchanan Johnston died of rheumatic fever, followed in October 1882 by the loss of their second son Henry Eliot Johnston Jr. to the same disease.

As a memorial to their sons, the Johnston’s set up The Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children which eventually became the Teaching and Research Center of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Then in May of 1884, Harriet unexpectedly found herself alone when Henry died of pneumonia.

St Albans School

Harriet founded St. Albans School

Harriet Lane’s life had always been active, taking care of her uncle and his guests, cantankerous Congressmen, visiting dignitaries and then her family. This part of her personality wouldn’t change. In 1886, Harriet sold their home in Baltimore, Wheatland which she had inherited from her uncle, and many of her possessions. She found a home in Washington, D.C. in the center of the action and resumed her life in society. Beginning with a dinner at the White House where she put the young First Lady, Frances Cleveland at ease, for the next  fifteen years no guest list would be complete without the name of Harriet Lane Johnston.

When Harriet was the First Lady she greatly impressed one visiting dignitary, the Prince of Wales. It only seems fitting that the last major event she attended was the coronation of the Prince when he became King Edward VII of England in August 1902. After she returned that fall she was diagnosed with cancer. She spent the next few months getting her affairs in order, then traveled to her summer home in Rhode Island where she wanted to spend her last days. Harriet Lane Johnston, America’s “Democratic Queen” died July 3, 1903.

John Henry Brown, Harriet Lane Johnston, 1878, watercolor on ivory, 4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of May S. Kennedy

John Henry Brown, Harriet Lane Johnston, 1878, watercolor on ivory, 4 3/4 x 3 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of May S. Kennedy

Resources
First Ladies: From Martha Washington to Michelle Obama by Betty Caroli
First Ladies: The Saga of the Presidents’ Wives and Their Power 1789 – 1961 by Carl Sferrazza Anthony
Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady by Milton Stern

 

Jane Pierce – “The Shadow in the White House”

Jane Pierce c. 1886, engraving by John C. Buttre (source)

Jane Pierce c. 1886, engraving by John C. Buttre (source)

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.

Franklin Pierce c. 1860 by Mathew Brady (source)

Franklin Pierce c. 1860 by Mathew Brady (source)

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 Pierce with her son Benny (source)

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.”

The house where Jane and Franklin lived with their children by Craig Michaud (source)

The house where Jane and Franklin lived with their children by Craig Michaud (source)

Resources
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

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