Jane Appleton Pierce

By Olive Tardiff

"They Paved The Way: A History of N.H. Women"

Published by Heritage Books, Inc., Bowie, MD - 1980

Jane Appleton Pierce
Jane Appleton Pierce
March 12, 1806 - December 2, 1863

Poor Jane Pierce! She never knew a moment's happiness during her husband's four years in the White House. Most of the time she stayed in seclusion while her aunt acted as official hostess for the events given by President Franklin Pierce. On the few occasions that Jane appeared in public, she was described as having a "woebegone face . . . sunken eyes, skin like yellowed ivory."

Jane had suffered almost too many tragedies. As a child she had been delicate, and throughout her life had recurrent attacks of tuberculosis. Her father, Rev. Jesse Appleton, was minister of the Congregational Church in Hampton, N.H., at the time of Jane's birth. The next year, Rev. Appleton moved his family to Brunswick, Maine, where he served as President of Bowdoin College until his death in 1819.

The widowed Elizabeth Appleton and her children moved away from Brunswick the year before the handsome, popular Pierce entered Bowdoin in 1820. Jane and Franklin apparently met for the first time in 1828 in Amherst, N.H., where the Appletons were living in the home of Robert Means, Mrs. Appleton's brother. Jane was a deeply religious, serious minded, sensitive, and nervous, -- almost the complete opposite of the man she chose to marry. Pierce, who became a fine lawyer and an enthusiastic politician, was at his best when socializing at public gatherings and hotel bars.

The Pierces' courtship was a long one. They married in 1834 when Pierce had become a successful lawyer in Concord, N.H. He was elected Speaker of the N.H. Legislature at the age of twenty-six, Congressman at twenty-nine, and Senator at thirty-three. Jane did not approve of her husband's political activities. She disliked Washington and the Congressional life. Pierce was, in the works of one biographer, "too much stimulated by the gay life at the Capital."

In 1842, probably at Jane's request, Pierce resigned his Senate seat and they returned to Concord. By this time, Jane had lost two children, one at birth, the other at four years of age, a victim of typhus. Their third child, Benny, was one year old, and Jane must have wanted him to grow up in their comfortable Concord home.

For ten years, Pierce played the role of a family and professional man, declining appointments offered by President Polk as Senator and as Attorney-General. He served briefly in the Mexican War, commissioned a Brigadier-General. However, he never gave up his interest in politics.

In 1852, through a combination of circumstances at the national convention, he was called on to be the Democratic Party's choice for the presidency.

When Jane heard the news, she fainted. Eleven-year-old Benny said, "I hope he won't be elected." Perhaps Pierce hoped so, too. He made no campaign speeches, raised no debatable issues. Nevertheless, he was elected.

The tragic episode from which Jane never recovered occurred just before Pierce's inauguration. When the family was en route to Concord for a last visit before moving to the White House, the axle on their train broke, hurling their passenger car down an embankment near North Andover, Massachusetts. Benny was thrown from his seat and instantly killed.

The President-elect went alone to Washington to deliver his inaugural address. Jane was too grief-stricken to accompany him. The White House loomed as an abhorrent prison for her.

Pierce's administration was hardly a success. He made several poor decisions in international affairs and in dealing with the North-South crisis. It was rumored that he had a serious drinking problem.

Jane did little to help her beleaguered husband. As one visitor put it, "Everything in that mansion seems cold and cheerless." Pierce was not offered the nomination by his party for a second term. When the Pierces left the White House, Jane was so weakened by tuberculosis that she had to be carried out.

During his administration, Pierce had rented a summer home, sometimes called the Little White House, on Little Boar's head in North Hampton, N.H., hoping to improve Jane's health. The seashore may have brought some peace to Jane, but there was little that could be done for her condition.

The "Shadow in the White House", New Hampshire's only First Lady, died at the age of fifty-seven, and has been almost forgotten in history.

Further information on President Franklin Pierce: