Hard Life for America's First Lady from Hampton
By Scott E. Kinney, Atlantic News Staff Writer
Atlantic News, Friday, March 21, 2008
[The following article is courtesy of Atlantic News.]
HAMPTON -- Last Wednesday, March 12, marked the birth of Jane Means Appleton Pierce, former First Lady and wife of Franklin Pierce.
But before she was all of those things, Jane Pierce was a Hampton resident.
Carl Anthony, author and historian with the First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio, says Pierce's life was both reflective of her contemporaries of the mid-1800s as well as political wives of the modern age (most recently Silda Spitzer, wife of former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer).
"She's very indicative of the people of her era," says Anthony, "and yet her life serves as a sort of Cautionary tale. The long-suffering political wife is not a new occurrence. Jane was inclined towards depression and her husband really exacerbated it."
In addition to a depression that lasted through much of her life, Anthony says Jane suffered from a chronic disability -- there was good evidence that she suffered with tuberculosis, as well as had an eating disorder. Her husband exacerbated her illness because Jane hated politics.
Anthony says even today, letters are surfacing that shows the duality of Jane Pierce's personality.
"A lot of what's been written was done so without the privilege of access to her letters and writings," he says.
While Jane once wrote of hosting an event at the White House as something "to be endured rather than enjoyed," she also attended several Supreme Court arguments on slavery and was a staunch abolitionist. She even went so far as to convince her husband to release Dr. Charles Robinson, an ardent republican and abolitionist from a Kansas prison. The Pierces were also friendly with Mr. and Mrs. Jefferson Davis.
To add to Pierce's mental and emotional woes she also suffered through the death of all three of her young children.
Franklin Pierce Jr. died just three days after his birth. Frank Robert Pierce would die seven years later at the age of four from epidemic typhus. Ten years later, the third son, Benjamin died at the age of 11 in a tragic railway accident witnessed by his parents. The accident occurred a mere month prior to Franklin's inauguration.
But Anthony contends that Jane's suffering began much sooner, as the daughter of Congregational minister and president of Bowdoin College, Jesse Appleton. He is a man Anthony identifies as a "religious zealot."
"She was made to feel responsible for the things that happened to her family," he says. "Her father would starve himself and by doing so became closer to God. He essentially starved himself to death. Jane's upbringing could be described as a very severe situation."
But there was even a duality in Jane's upbringing as well.
"She was unusually well-educated while being raised in an extraordinarily wealthy family," Anthony says. "She had the benefit of being raised in a family that valued an intelligent and well-educated woman as much as a man."
Anthony says a look into the life of Jane Pierce sheds a light on a very dark era in American history.
"It was a dark era, shadowed by strife and the abolitionist movement," he says. "In a sense she served her times well."