Some people are born with a melancholy gene. Like Jane Appleton Pierce.
A Solemn Girl
There was nothing in Jane Appleton’s (1806-63) childhood that suggested merriment. She was a New Englander, her father a Congregational minister, and strict religious observance was key to her personality and character. But it was morbid devotion, inasmuch as she believed in a punishing God. Whatever ill befell her (as it must to everyone from time to time), Jane believed it was due to her own shortcomings – even though she couldn’t understand what it was she had done to displease the Almighty.
As she grew into womanhood, she was pretty, dark-haired and petite, with finely chiseled features. Pretty enough to attract a very good-looking New Hampshire attorney.
A Convivial Man
Franklin Pierce (1802-1869) was her polar opposite. Outgoing by nature, religion was acquired rather than bred into him. Yet it was willingly “acquired” and he sincerely tried to abide by its tenets. He became a lawyer, and gravitated easily to the social end of it: i.e politics.
He courted Miss Jane Appleton off and on for a few years. He seemed genuinely attracted to her, and every indication is that he truly cared for her. But they were a mismatch of personalities.
Her family was reluctant to encourage the romance; in fact they were not pleased at all. Rumor was, Pierce drank. Rumor was correct. Pierce enjoyed passing an evening with his fellows at the tavern, bending the elbow and talking politics.
The Pierce Marriage
The courtship may have been mild, rather than intense, but they married. Jane, by that time, was twenty-eight, and courted or not, considered an “old maid.” Franklin Pierce at thirty-two, was established firmly enough to win a seat in Congress as a Jacksonian Democrat. Their honeymoon was to be in Washington.
It began auspiciously, but deteriorated. The Washington climate in the 1830s was abysmal. Hot and sultry in the summer, damp and chilling in the winter. Jane, always frail, caught cold easily, and found herself confined to her boarding house rooms.
In addition, small town Washington (and it was still a small town) was nothing like small town Concord, New Hampshire. Washington was extremely sophisticated, worldly and, of nature, political. The few women who accompanied their Congressional husbands were not to Jane’s liking. If she went out at all, it was to church. When Pierce socialized, he usually went alone.
Subsequent Congressional sessions saw him alone as well. Jane remained in Concord, but this time she had a purpose. She was pregnant. In her limited world, the highest, if not the only duty of a woman, was motherhood.
The true pleasure she felt from bearing her first son was short lived. The infant died shortly after his birth.
Her second son, Frank, was born healthy, as was Bennie, her third son. But Frank died before his fourth birthday, and all Jane’s hopes and dreams became centered on Bennie.
The Acquiescence of Pierce
More than anything (other than motherhood), Jane Pierce wanted her husband home with her. Not in Washington. She obviously made her wishes known, and Pierce, no doubt reluctantly, agreed. He would practice law in Concord and forsake politics – except on a local level. He even declined a cabinet position under President James Polk. But of course, he would continue to correspond with many of his political friends throughout the country.
Then too, Jane wanted him to forsake drinking. He agreed to that as well and took the pledge. For a time he was the President of their local temperance society.
Jane may or may not have realized what a great effort it was on her husband’s part. He loved politics. He loved socializing in the taverns. But he obviously loved his wife more. Then.
When the War with Mexico was declared, Pierce was in his mid-forties, but he wished to serve and volunteered. It is unknown if he wished to have a respite from his generally somber wife.
The First Straw
By 1852, the country was reeling through abolitionism, secession, states’ rights and a host of other divisive issues. Pierce had been away from the national scene for a decade, and told his wife everyone had forgotten about him.
Not true. Nor did he want to be forgotten. The political situation assured that no Southerner (slaveholder) could be elected. If the presidency was to go to a Northerner, it could only go to someone who was sympathetic to the needs of the South. Pierce was sympathetic, and encouraged his supporters to quietly promote his candidacy.
It took 49 ballots, but he won the nomination. He told Jane it was a complete surprise, and it is said that she fainted. A few months later, he won the election. When she finally adjusted to the reality of the situation, she determined it was God’s will.
Only a few weeks before they were to depart for Washington, the Pierce’s and 11-year-old Bennie went to visit family in Massachusetts. En route, the train derailed, and their son was killed instantly.
Jane was completely devastated and never recovered from the shock.
The Second Straw
It was a gloomy President-elect and Mrs. Pierce, still in deep mourning, who took another train to Washington in late February, 1853. Along the way, Jane overheard some Pierce supporters discuss the nomination and election, indicating that Pierce had personally encouraged his nomination.
Her husband had blatantly lied to her. She had just lost her son, and now she lost faith in her husband’s word. She left the train in Baltimore, unable to continue. She would not arrive in Washington till a month after the inauguration.
Her four years in the White House were glum and morose. She wore black continually, made few public appearances, and relied on an aunt-by-marriage to “do the honors” when honors were required.
As their long-time close friend author Nathaniel Hawthorne would remark, “Jane Pierce was never really of this world.”
Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies – Oxford University Press, 1995
Nichols, Roy Franklin – Franklin Pierce: Young Hickory of the Granite Hills – University of Pennsylvania Press, 1959 (rev.)
Shenkman, Richard – Presidential Ambition: Gaining Power at Any Cost – Harper, 1999