In January of 1856, a radical physician from Massachusetts, Charles Robinson, won election as governor of Kansas. President Franklin Pierce declared him and others in his government to be revolutionaries and ordered their arrest. Pierce’s wife, Jane Pierce, interceded and her husband agreed to free Robinson from the miserable prison where he was confined.
Lobbying her husband was one of the few political actions undertaken by Jane Pierce – other than imploring her husband to leave politics and never return. Jane was one of the first ladies of the United States least suited to the position.
The marriage of Franklin Pierce and Jane Means Appleton was an unlikely one to begin with. Pierce had attended Bowdoin College in Maine, where Jane’s father had presided as president.
Jane was born March 12, 1806, in Hampton, N.H., the daughter of the Rev. Jesse Appleton and Elizabeth Means Appleton.
Her father was a strict religious zealot, prone to compulsive dieting to offset his sedentary lifestyle. He held a fanatical devotion to his duties and to his goal of making Bowdoin students more pious. He slept but four hours a day for years.
In 1809, Jesse Appleton moved his family from Hampton to take the post at Bowdoin. He died 10 years later at the age of 47. The Appletons left Brunswick, Maine, one year before Franklin entered the college in 1820.
The couple would meet in New Hampshire years later when Franklin was pushing 30 and Jane in her late 20s.
Devout and Depressed
Jane was, like her father, stick thin. She was smart, but devout in her faith. Prone to depression, it’s not clear how Jane and Franklin came to meet, though he would have likely known her brother at Bowdoin.
He was a dashing, young congressman with a thirst for liquor who enjoyed Washington’s social whirlwind. She was a lifelong teetotaler with a strong dislike of society.
Overriding her family’s objections, Jane married Franklin in 1834, and the two lived in Concord, N.H. Franklin pursued a successful career as a lawyer. Though he gave up politics at her request in 1842, Franklin secretly urged friends to put his name up to become the Democratic nominee for president. He received the nomination and won office in 1852, much to his wife’s disappointment.
Jane Pierce bore the death of all three of her children, the last just months before the Pierces were to leave New Hampshire for Washington. She spent the first half of Pierce’s presidency in mourning, refusing all political and social responsibilities. Jane Pierce had prayed that Franklin would lose the race for presidency, and she believed there was a divine connection between deaths of her children and Franklin’s political activities.
The White House and Later
She did eventually take an interest in politics and attended congressional hearings. Her biographers say that when Dr. Robinson was imprisoned, she convinced her husband to release him. Robinson was one of the anti-slavery activists fighting to turn Kansas into a state where slavery was illegal. Franklin Pierce, on the other hand, supported a pro-slavery government. Nevertheless, he yielded and released Robinson.
When Franklin’s presidency ended, he and Jane undertook an effort to restore Jane’s health and happiness. They toured the Caribbean and Europe. He even dabbled in sobriety, but the effort failed. Depressed and suffering from tuberculosis, Jane Pierce spent her final days with her sister in Andover, Mass,. until she died in 1863.
At the end, the two were ideologically divided over the Civil War, with Jane taking the abolitionist side and Franklin opposing war with the South. Franklin resumed his heavy drinking and would follow Jane to the grave in 1869.
This story about Jane Pierce was updated in 2018.