Born March 12, 1806, in Hampton, New Hampshire, Jane Means Appleton would one day become the wife of the 14th President of the United States, Franklin Pierce. Her parents were Jesse Appleton and Elizabeth Means, a Congregationalist minister and his wife, and Jane was the third of their six children. Growing up, Jane was described as petite, shy, frail, and prone to melancholy.
Her father died when she was 13, at which time she moved to Amherst, New Hampshire to live with her mother’s parents. Her maternal grandparents were wealthy and had an opulent mansion, and were able to afford Jane an impeccable education in Keene, New Hampshire, where she discovered a deep interest in literature.
Literature was somewhat of a refuge for tiny 5 foot 4 Jane, who was estimated to weigh only 100 pounds at maturity. As in childhood, she was prone to melancholy, which became periods of deep depression, where she had to rely heavily on others to help her do everyday things, including getting out of bed and going to school. Her aunt-by-marriage, Abigail Kent Means, and her older sister, Mary Appleton Aiken, were her two closest friends and confidants, and she relied on them most of all.
Though the exact way Jane met Franklin Pierce is unknown, it is assumed they met through her brother-in-law, Alpheus Packard, who was one of Franklin’s instructors at Bowdoin College. At any rate, they met and fell in love by presumably the normal means, and were married on November 19, 1834, at Jane’s grandparents’ home in Amherst. Franklin was 30, and Jane was two years younger.
Jane’s family opposed the marriage because Franklin wanted to go into politics. However, their attachment was strong enough that quiet Jane went against their wishes and married him anyway. It was a small, intimate ceremony with only a few of their closest friends and relatives in attendance. Afterward, they honeymooned for six days at a boarding house in Washington, D.C.
Two years later, Franklin was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Jane gave birth to a son, Franklin Pierce, Jr., who died three days after he was born. This did not do anything for Jane’s tendency toward depression, and she declared she never wanted to be a political wife, though knowing Franklin’s political ambitions did not deter her from the marriage. Franklin became a U.S. Senator the next year, and Jane was miserable living in Washington, D.C. She begged Franklin to resign his Senate seat and come back to New Hampshire.
Eventually, he did, in 1842, and went into the military. This pleased Jane, as she blamed politics on the death of her son, Franklin’s alcoholism, and her depression. She thought she would be happier as the wife of a military man. Franklin did well in the military, serving in the Mexican-American War and gaining the rank of Brigadier General. He was widely considered a hero from that war and returned home to much local acclaim. During this time, Jane gave birth to another son, also named Franklin Pierce, Jr.
The Pierce family lived a quiet domestic life for four years in Concord, New Hampshire, and Franklin even turned down an offer for a post as U.S. Postmaster General because Jane objected. He was also offered a seat in the Senate and the position of Governor of New Hampshire, all because Jane wanted him to. Franklin was clearly devoted to Jane to turn down all of these prestigious political appointments because she desired it.
During the time they lived in Concord, their second Franklin Pierce, Jr. died of typhus. However, they had another son, Benjamin Pierce, called Benny. In 1852, when Benny was 11 years old, the Democratic Party nominated Franklin Pierce for U.S. President, and Jane passed out when she heard the news. Benny wrote to Jane that he did not approve of his father’s nomination, because he did not want to live in Washington, D.C., and knew she would not, either. However, Franklin convinced Jane his being president would be beneficial for Benny’s future prospects in the world.
While Jane and Franklin genuinely loved each other and showed affection to one another, they also argued frequently, usually when Jane’s desire for a quiet life and Franklin’s political ambitions clashed. They gradually began drifting apart, at least emotionally.
Two months before Franklin’s inauguration, after he won the election, the Pierce family was traveling from Andover, Massachusetts to Concord, New Hampshire, to attend the funeral of a family friend. Just a few minutes after their train left the station, their passenger car broke loose from the train and rolled down an embankment. Benny was killed in the accident and was the only person killed in the incident. It was the last straw for Jane; this tragedy was more than her fragile emotions could take. She did not attend the inauguration and believed the loss of all of her children, particularly Benny, was because God was displeased with Franklin’s political ambition.
She did move into the White House, but she was not happy about it. For two of the four years Franklin was president, she remained upstairs in the White House, refusing to come down, and spent her days writing letters to Benny. Her aunt-by-marriage, Abigail Kent Means, took over official White House hosting duties for her during this time.
Jane made her first official public appearance as First Lady during a New Year’s reception in January of 1855, and then served as White House hostess on a semi-regular basis after that, with Abigail filling in for her during the times Jane felt unable to perform as First Lady.
Franklin only served one term as president, and he and Jane went back to Concord. She died of tuberculosis six years later and was buried in the Old North Cemetery in Concord. Franklin was buried next to her six years later.