Jane Means Appleton Pierce was the wife of the 14th President, Franklin Pierce. She served as First Lady of the United States from 1853 to 1857.
In looks and in pathetic destiny young Jane Means Appleton resembled the heroine of a Victorian novel. The gentle dignity of her face reflected her sensitive, retiring personality and physical weakness. Her father had died–he was a Congregational minister, the Reverend Jesse Appleton, president of Bowdoin College–and her mother had taken the family to Amherst, New Hampshire. And Jane met a Bowdoin graduate, a young lawyer with political ambitions, Franklin Pierce.
Although he was immediately devoted to Jane, they did not marry until she was 28 — surprising in that day of early marriages. Her family opposed the match; moreover, she always did her best to discourage his interest in politics. The death of a three-day-old son, the arrival of a new baby, and Jane’s dislike of Washington counted heavily in his decision to retire at the apparent height of his career, as United States Senator, in 1842. Little Frank Robert, the second son, died the next year of typhus.
Service in the Mexican War brought Pierce the rank of brigadier and local fame as a hero. He returned home safely, and for four years the Pierces lived quietly at Concord, New Hampshire, in the happiest period of their lives. With attentive pleasure Jane watched her son Benjamin growing up.
Then, in 1852, the Democratic Party made Pierce their candidate for President. His wife fainted at the news. When he took her to Newport for a respite, Benny wrote to her: “I hope he won’t be elected for I should not like to be at Washington and I know you would not either.” But the President-elect convinced Jane that his office would be an asset for Benny’s success in life.
On a journey by train, January 6, 1853, their car was derailed and Benny killed before their eyes. The whole nation shared the parents’ grief. The inauguration on March 4 took place without an inaugural ball and without the presence of Mrs. Pierce. She joined her husband later that month, but any pleasure the White House might have brought her was gone. From this loss she never recovered fully. Other events deepened the somber mood of the new administration: Mrs. Fillmore’s death in March, that of Vice President Rufus King in April.
Always devout, Jane Pierce turned for solace to prayer. She had to force herself to meet the social obligations inherent in the role of First Lady. Fortunately she had the companionship and help of a girlhood friend, now her aunt by marriage, Abigail Kent Means. Mrs. Robert E. Lee wrote in a private letter: “I have known many of the ladies of the White House, none more truly excellent than the afflicted wife of President Pierce. Her health was a bar to any great effort on her part to meet the expectations of the public in her high position but she was a refined, extremely religious and well educated lady.”
With retirement, the Pierces made a prolonged trip abroad in search of health for the invalid–she carried Benny’s Bible throughout the journey. The quest was unsuccessful, so the couple came home to New Hampshire to be near family and friends until Jane’s death in 1863. She was buried near Benny’s grave.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Jane Means Appleton Pierce’s spouse, Franklin Pierce.