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
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.
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 Almighty’s 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.
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 Pierce’s 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:
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.
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