Thursday, March 28, 2013

Jane Pierce

Jane Pierce has been called the Shadow of the White House because she was largely absent from Washington during her husband’s presidency. Even when she was there, she was shut in her room. She had seen more than her fair share of grief and hardship.

Jane Pierce
            Just like the last two antebellum First Ladies, there is no biography dedicated solely to Jane Pierce, but I did read an essay entitled ‘A Hell on Earth’ The Pierce Marriage During the White House Years, 1853-1857 by Michael J.C. Taylor from the book Life in the White House. Jane Means Appleton grew up in a prominent Whig family and even as a child was described as stoic and reserved. Franklin Pierce was from a die-hard Democratic family (his dad was governor.) Franklin was outgoing and charming and drank way too much even appearing drunk on the Senate floor and passing out on his desk. They were engaged for eight years before finally marrying probably because Jane’s family was against the match. Jane wished Franklin would do anything else besides politics. She hated politics and the Washington scene.


Jane gave birth to her first son in 1836, but the baby died at just three days old. Their next son died as a preschooler because of typhoid fever. But most tragic of all was the death of Bennie, their third son, in January 1853. Just after Franklin had been elected president, the family was traveling by train when the car they were in broke from the train and derailed. Bennie was thrown from the car. Franklin and Jane emerged from the wreckage and found their son lying still on the ground. When Franklin picked up his body, his little hat fell off and exposed his crushed skull. Jane fainted away when she saw his bleeding lifeless body. Bennie was 11 years old. This most tragic death seemed to suck the remaining life out of their marriage and out of them each personally. Franklin had wanted the presidency so he could make a better life for his son. Jane blamed Franklin for Bennie’s death saying that God took him away so that Franklin wouldn’t be distracted during the presidency.

Jane and Bennie
            Jane mourns for the rest of her life. She locks herself in her room and doesn’t come out for Bennie’s funeral. When she does emerge, she rocks in a chair clutching the box that holds locks of hair from each of her three sons. She refuses to go to Washington with Franklin for his inauguration. She doesn’t come for the next social season either. When she finally musters the energy to come and perform the hostess duties for the New Years Ball of 1855 she is dressed in black satin with a veil and has decorated the White House in black crepe. She spends much time in her room writing letters to Bennie.

            On top of their personal tragedy were their political differences which came to a head with the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Franklin was for it and did sign it, but Jane actively worked against him inviting his opponents to the White House so she can discuss how to block the law.

            After Franklin’s one term as president, the Pierce’s travel abroad then settle back in New Hampshire. Jane dies in 1863 of tuberculosis.

            Taylor seems to see both the failed marriage and presidency as all Jane’s fault. He notes that “Franklin tried to be affection and delicate but Jane rarely, if ever, reciprocated.” He also ponders how successful Franklin’s political career could have been if only he would have chosen a compatible wife. But how often is a bad marriage just one partner’s fault? What about Franklin’s drinking? What affect did that have on the marriage?

Laura Holloway's 1881 book

            To find out more I turned to the idealistic Laura Holloway in her 1881 book on the First Ladies. Although she admits that Jane was naturally inclined to pensive melancholy and was peculiarly uninterested in politics, she calls their marriage “a pleasing union of kindred natures and a source of deep and lasting happiness.” (Huh??)  And Laura sets out to put Jane in a good light by quoting the Marshal of the District of Columbia who remembered her as hardly ever missing a public reception and being a hostess with quiet ease and dignity. This seems so different than the account of Taylor’s in which she is wholly absent from White House public life. I especially love in Holloway’s book a letter from Franklin to Laura about his wife in which he says “ She shrank with extreme sensitiveness from public observation. I cannot help being influenced by that very controlling trait of her character, and this, I am sure, is true of all her relatives.” Wow. Doesn’t that sound charged with bitterness? However, Laura does not comment on Franklin’s letter but skips on to describe further Jane’s perfect character. Sorry, Laura, I think your idealism is a lost cause here!  I am not sure how this could be from a marriage with deep and lasting happiness.

             So what is the true picture of Jane as a First Lady? The reserved but present hostess who despite her hatred of politics participates by trying to block the Kansas-Nebraska Act? Or was she merely a shadow casting gloom all around her the few times she did show her face?

            Lastly, I consulted John B. Roberts II in Rating the First Ladies who points out that I am not the only one confused about who the real Jane Pierce was. He says that to those who want to see a tragic figure, there is Jane paralyzed by her grief but to those who want to see a woman rise above her circumstances there is Jane going through the motions of the duties of a First Lady.

            One question that is not answered for me is why they married to begin with? They even had an eight year courtship. That leaves a lot of time for changing your mind based on all their differences and challenges like his interest in politics and drinking, and her lack of affection. Although there was mention of her family’s opposition to the match, I did not read anything about his family’s opinion. What did their friends think of the pair? What did they see in each other? 

            Jane Pierce remains the Shadow of the White House to me. Not because she was barely there, but because she is a mystery.

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Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Abigail Fillmore

In my bedroom at home I have two big bookcases filled with all my books. There are some history, some great children’s literature, some Biblical and theological books, some cookbooks, and, of course, a growing shelf of First Ladies’ biographies. I love lying in bed at night while I’m trying to fall asleep and glance at each title remembering how I felt as I read each book or think to myself “I really want to read that one soon. I’d better move it to the top of my pile.”  I feel comforted and spurred on being surrounded by books. I imagine that’s how Abigail Fillmore felt in her White House library.

Abigail Powers grew up very poor in New York. She was the daughter of a minister who died when Abigail was only two. The father left the family not much money, but lots of books. As a teen Abigail needed to work for a living and did so as a teacher. When she was teaching at the academy in New Hope, New York, she had a Millard Fillmore in her class.

Millard Fillmore also grew up very poor. He grew up in a home that only had a hymnal, a Bible, and an almanac. He worked hard to educate himself and pull himself out of poverty through education and hard work. He married Abigail after a lengthy engagement allowing Millard time to gain enough law business to support her. Even after they were married, Abigail continued to work as a teacher making her the first First Lady to work outside the home for pay after marriage.

Having met in a classroom, Millard and Abigail’s relationship from the very beginning was centered on education and learning. And it continued to be so. Wherever Millard would travel he would be sure to bring back some new books for Abigail. In their surviving letters from their times apart, there are many mentions of what they were reading and studying. Abigail even says “your society is all that I have thought of-have finished studying the maps of ancient geography. O, that you could have been here to have studied with me.” She also says how she misses their evenings together when she would sew and he would read aloud to her.

The Fillmores show us the Era of the Common Man and the emerging middle class in Victorian America. One mark of this time in history is the home as a place where you could be sheltered from the outside world and could better yourself through gaining knowledge. A library became a popular thing in the average home.

After Zachary Taylor’s death, vice-president Millard Fillmore became president in 1850. When Abigail and Millard came to the White House there was not a single book, not even a Bible. All the previous presidents had brought their personal books to use at the White House and brought them home after their term was up. Millard Fillmore changed this by asking Congress to appropriate funds for establishing a permanent White House library.

The library was placed between the family’s living quarters and the cabinet member’s offices so that it could be used for both work and pleasure.  Most of the library was history and law books, but it also contained popular and classic works deemed necessary for a library at the time.

The earliest photo of the White House library, 1870.

Abigail used the room like we would use a family room today. She spent time there herself but also to informally entertain. She left the official hostessing responsibilities to her daughter, but Abigail did entertain select guests in her library. There also was a harp and piano in the room for entertaining of guests. (I am totally picturing a Jane Austen movie here!)

Since there is no published biography on Abigail Fillmore, I choose to read Catherine Parisian’s The First White House Library: A History and Annotated Catalogue. Only the first hundred pages or so are devoted to the Fillmores including an excellent essay on Abigail by Elizabeth Thacker-Estrada. But the rest of the book has a list of the titles included in the original library the Fillmores created. As I flipped through the catalogue, I imagined I was skimming the shelves while I visited with Abigail. Which of the one-hundred and ninety-five titles would I pull off the shelf and sit and discuss with her?

The Memoirs of Aaron Burr  (yes. What WAS he THINKING?!!)

The Federalist Papers by John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison

Memories of a Hungarian Lady by Theresa Pulsyky, a woman of non-titled nobility who dined with the president after the failed 1848 revolution. She has sketches of Hungary’s social life. Interesting. I know nothing about Hungary.

The American Loyalist or Biographical Sketches of Adherents to the British Crown by Lorenzo Sabine who lived in Maine near Canada during the revolution and captured well- researched, unbiased accounts of his neighbors who were Loyalist.

The Adventures of Gil Blas of Sallentine by Alain Rene Le Sage in 1715. One of the first realistic novels written. About the adventures of a young valet as he goes from master to master. Apparently John Quincy Adams read this book once a year.  I’d love to know why and what did he gain by it.

The Waverly Novels by Sir Walter Scott who created the genre of the historical novel (thank you, Sir Walter!!)

Para or Scenes and Adventures on the Banks of the Amazon by John Esais Warren. Millard commissioned an exploratory trip along the Amazon thinking he could send freed slaves to settle there. Thankfully, he changed his mind about the idea.

There are lots of other books in the library, but mostly law and histories pertinent to the president and his cabinet in their work.

Sadly, Abigail died three weeks after Millard left office in 1853 because she caught pneumonia while standing in the rain listening to Franklin Pierces’ inauguration. But she left a legacy of the importance of study and learning and culture both through her own story and the White House library.