Jane Pierce and Varina Davis: An Unlikely Friendship

Historians are usually negative about First Lady Jane Pierce or tsk-tsk about the tragedies in her life, which were considerable. 

Jane Appleton Pierce: A Tragic woman

Jane Pierce (1806-63) despite her tragedies, is not a particularly sympathetic character.  She was depressive, probably from birth, which makes her tiresome.  Born to a clergyman-educator father who literally “fasted” himself to death, Jane was an uber-religious woman, who believed in a punishing God, i.e. whatever misfortune befell a person in life was

jane_pierce

Jane Appleton Pierce was a melancholy woman by nature, and whose tenure in the White House was marked by the tragic death of her son.

undoubtedly due to one’s own sins – even if they were unknown to the sinner.

The real tragedies in Jane’s life were basically twofold.  First, she married a man who was her polar opposite, and while there was an attraction and even a sincere affection, it did not make for a happy union.  At twenty-eight, Jane Appleton married Franklin Pierce (1804-69), New Hampshire born and raised, and Bowdoin College educated.  He was an outgoing fellow, comfortable in the taverns with his peers.  His promising law career was progressing nicely.  Just prior to his marriage, he was elected to Congress.

Jane Pierce’s honeymoon in Washington was a portent of the mismatch.  Always somewhat frail in health, she worried over every sniffle and cough.  The genuinely abysmal weather in Washington disagreed with her, and she seldom left her boarding house rooms, except for church.  She also shunned society in the nation’s capital, believing it to be ungodly.  When Pierce accepted social invitations in Washington, he went alone.    For subsequent sessions in Congress, Jane remained in New Hampshire, convincing her husband to forgo politics and alcohol (both of which he enjoyed).  He finally promised.

jane and bennie

Jane Pierce devoted herself to raising her third and last child, Bennie. Two other sons had died as babies.

The second (and maybe third and fourth) heartbreak in Jane’s life was the loss of her children.  Two died in early childhood.  Afterwards, her life revolved around their third son.  When eleven-year old Bennie died, truly tragically, in a train accident only weeks before Pierce’s inauguration as 14th President, Jane slipped into a depression that never abated.

Her devastation was compounded by learning that Pierce’s nomination and election was not the surprise he had claimed.  He had actually “politicked” to win it.  He had broken his word.  She was so overwrought by grief, she could not bear to enter the White House for several weeks after the inauguration, and even then, remained secluded.

She believed at first, that Bennie’s death was God’s punishment for leaving New Hampshire.  Then she amended her understanding of the Almightys reasons, by accepting the fact that Bennie was taken from them to remove distraction from his President-father.

Either way, the Pierce Administration was a socially-sad one.

Varina Davis:  Unlikely Friend

Varina Howell Davis (1826-1906) was young enough to be Jane Pierce’s daughter.  She had married widower Jefferson Davis when she was just eighteen.  He was twice her age, a West Point graduate with military experience, a successful Mississippi planter, and about to assume a seat in Congress.

varina-2

Varina Howell Davis was twenty years younger than Jane Pierce, but a sincere friendship grew between them.

Davis and Pierce were close in age, espoused the same Jeffersonian Democratic political philosophies, and had become personal friends.  When Pierce was elected, he asked Davis to serve as his Secretary of War.

The story of Bennie Pierces tragic death was no secret.  It was in all the newspapers, and the country was truly sympathetic toward the grieving parents.  Jefferson Davis, who had lost his young first wife years earlier, was there to console the anguished President, and the two men would grow close and remain lifelong friends despite the Civil War.  With a First Lady who was completely unable to fulfill her obligatory social duties, it was natural that the Davises assume many of those obligations.

The two women were also polar opposites.  Jane was petite and frail; Varina, about 5’10” and robust.  Jane was pious and reclusive; Varina, outgoing and worldly in her attitudes.  Jane believed in the sheltered and proscribed role of womanhood.  Varina was politically savvy and outspoken.  Nevertheless, the young Mrs. Davis was one of the few people Mrs. Pierce admitted to her very select circle.

It was the Davis son who provided the bond between them.  Jane needed to hold a baby in her arms and Varina was happy to share.  The maternal First Lady even “borrowed” the baby on occasion for a carriage ride when Varina was busy.

A year later, the Davises suffered their own tragedy.  Baby Samuel died.  He was only two.  Jane Pierce grieved along with her young friend, whose sorrow was somewhat abated by the fact that she was again pregnant

The Pierce-Davis Friendship Continues:

Jefferson Davis Papers

Varina Davis’ sixth and last child was born after Jane Pierce had died.

Franklin Pierce and Jefferson Davis would remain lifelong friends, despite the Civil War.  Years later, when former-Confederate President Jefferson Davis was incarcerated in Fortress Monroe after the Civil War, an aging and widowed former-President Pierce personally made the journey to visit him. 

Varina, however, would never see Mrs. Pierce again, although they remained in touch.  In 1860, when the Civil War was about to unfold, Varina Davis still corresponded with Jane Pierce, signing her letter “Very sincerely and affectionately your friend.”  She would also credit her with being an intelligent, well-read woman, whose company she enjoyed.

Jane needed a true friend; Varina was happy to oblige.

Sources:

Caroli, Bettty Boyd – First Ladies – Oxford University Press, 1985-, 1999

Cashin, Joan E. – First Lady of the Confederacy: Varina Davis’s Civil War – Belknap Press, 2006

Schenkman, Richard – Presidential Ambition – HarperCollins, 1999

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About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
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7 Responses to Jane Pierce and Varina Davis: An Unlikely Friendship

  1. mason moore says:

    Can I have your acceptance to post this on my twitter?

  2. energywriter says:

    This series is great. We never learned about first ladies in high school history class. How did you get involved in this field of study? sd

  3. nerdtrips says:

    Very interesting! I love your description of Mrs. Pierce as “tiresome.”

  4. “Tiresome” is a pretty good word, at least in my mind. Depressive people in general (as opposed to those who have specific cause) tend to become very difficult to be around. -FSF

  5. awax1217 says:

    It is interesting that things which we have now were not new to just us but to the people of the past. I never thought of depression in the cast of the past. I imagine Lincoln was depressed on many occasions and wonder if he suffered from depression. One of our greatest presidents with a life of pain and anguish.

  6. Depression is not new. Many, if not most people suffer from it in varying degrees and at varying times. The crux of it is “for how long” and “at what level.” And as Truman said, “There is nothing new under the sun except for the history we don’t know.!” – FSF

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