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