Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Jane Pierce

Jane Means Appleton Pierce detested politics. It was unfortunate, then, that she had married a man whose passion was politics. Although Jane opposed her husband's commitment to public service, Franklin Pierce's ambition and popularity assured him of a bright political future -- and guaranteed a disheartened Jane a dismal private life.

When Franklin Pierce was elected to the United States Congress, Jane moved to Washington to join her newly wedded husband. She was not impressed with the capital and was offended by the drinking, the sordid nature of politics, and the social obligations required of a congressman's wife. Abhorring the social whirlwind of Washington, she often used her ill health as an excuse to decline many invitations.

When her health worsened in 1835, Jane left the city to recuperate with her mother in New Hampshire. So began the first of many separations from her husband. The death of her first child in 1836, three days after he was born, exacerbated Jane's health, as did news that Franklin Pierce was remaining in Washington, D.C., to serve as a United States Senator. Jane reluctantly joined her husband in the nation's capital but made it clear she wanted him to pursue another career. He acquiesced and left Congress in 1842. Yet happiness eluded her after the death of another son in 1843.

A third son and her husband's promise to stay out of politics provided Jane with some relief in the late 1840s. Franklin Pierce refused President James K. Polk's offer to become attorney general, declined to run for the governor of New Hampshire, and promised his wife he would remove his name from the Democratic pool of presidential candidates. But in 1852, Pierce became the Democrats' compromise presidential candidate -- a situation he had assured his wife was unlikely. His wife fainted when she heard the news.

Jane Pierce, like most wives, did not involve herself in the 1852 presidential campaign, except to pray that her husband would be defeated. She had been unhappy in Washington as a congressman's wife, and was convinced that life would not improve as a presidential spouse, especially given the requisite social duties. When Pierce was elected in 1852, a depressed Jane Pierce reluctantly made plans to move to Washington. It was at this time that she suffered the loss of her remaining child, eleven-year-old Bennie, who was killed in a train wreck before his parents' eyes.

As Jane Pierce took up residence in the White House, she was consumed by grief and depression. Franklin Pierce blamed himself for his son's death, while Jane Pierce believed God had taken Bennie so that her husband could pursue his political ambitions without distraction. She saw that once again Franklin Pierce's interest in politics had brought tragedy, separation, and heartbreak. It is not surprising that the couple's marriage suffered, and the relationship did not improve when Jane discovered that Franklin had actively sought the presidential nomination, even after he told his wife that he was pulling out of politics.

The new President's wife declined to attend her husband's inaugural, refused to appear at large public events for two years, and ordered permanent mourning bunting for the White House state rooms. She abdicated her duties as hostess and spent her time writing to her dead son asking his forgiveness, participating in seances in order to contact Bennie, and seeking solace in religion.

Jane's friend and aunt-by-marriage, Abigail Kent Means took over the few official duties required by the Pierce's extremely limited social calendar. The real hostess in Washington, D.C., during these years was Varina Howell Davis, the wife of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Jane Pierce was grateful to Varina Davis for assuming the reins of Washington society and cultivated a friendship with the Davis family.

As time passed, Jane Pierce gradually became more involved in her husband's life and performed a few of her hostessing duties. But her health and her disinterest in Washington society made her unable and unwilling to embrace the organizational responsibilities associated with the role of presidential spouse. Shy, sad, and fragile in both body and mind, Jane Pierce had little influence on her successors. A presidential spouse in name only, Jane Pierce is often a forgotten figure among First Ladies.