In this article, Wendy S. Loughlin tells us about the results of a recent poll of first ladies. And discusses possible reasons why Jane Pierce came last in the poll and Eleanor Roosevelt first.
Eleanor Roosevelt and Jane Pierce walk into a bar…
Well, maybe not. While Eleanor Roosevelt would have been more than comfortable walking into a bar (or a coal mine) and talking with whomever she met, Jane Pierce probably would have preferred to spend her time in isolation. Which, during her first two years as first lady, she did.
It comes as no surprise that Eleanor Roosevelt takes the top spot in a recent ranking of first ladies. She always has. The ranking, based on a survey of historians, scholars and political scientists, has been conducted five times in the past 31 years. It evaluates first ladies based on 10 criteria: background; value to the country; being the White House steward; courage; accomplishments; integrity; leadership; being her own woman; public image; and value to the president.
Jane Pierce, wife of 14th president Franklin Pierce, comes in last.
You’d be hard-pressed to find a sentient American adult who isn’t aware of Eleanor Roosevelt and the multitude of reasons she is considered the best first lady. But most people don’t know much - or perhaps anything - about Jane Pierce, and why history does not look kindly on her.
Jane Pierce did not attend her husband’s inauguration in March 1853, nor did she preside over any inaugural balls, because there were none. Franklin Pierce moved into the White House directly following his swearing-in, but his wife took more than two weeks to join him there, and would inhabit the place almost like a ghost for the four years of his administration. The author Nathaniel Hawthorne, a close friend of Franklin Pierce, once referred to her as “that death head in the White House.”
And no wonder. By the time she became first lady, a week before her 47th birthday, Jane Pierce had lived through the deaths of all three of her sons. The first, Franklin Jr., died three days after birth in 1836. The second, Frank Robert, died of typhus in 1843 at age four. The loss of her third son, eleven-year-old Benjamin, was perhaps the most devastating. Born in 1841, “Benny” was just two years old when Frank Robert died, and became the sole focus of his doting mother. In January 1853, after Franklin Pierce’s election but before his inauguration, the family was involved in a train accident while traveling to Washington from Boston. Benny’s head was crushed and partially severed in the crash, and he died on the spot, his parents as witnesses.
Deeply religious, Jane Pierce hated politics and had prayed that her husband would lose the election, a sentiment apparently shared by Benny. Now, on the verge of becoming first lady, she believed God had taken her child because he would have been a distraction in the White House. When she finally joined the new president in Washington, she retreated to the upper rooms of the executive mansion and shirked all duties usually required of the first lady, spending her time instead writing sorrowful letters to Benny. She had the White House decorated in the black bunting of mourning. Her health, always uncertain, continued to suffer. Historian Richard Norton Smith calls her “the most tragic of the first ladies.”
Quiet in the White House
Washington has always been a social town and the position of first lady has always been primarily a social role. To some extent, the political (albeit indirect) contributions of many of the first ladies have come through their prowess as hostesses, through which they have created the social settings that allowed for political relationships and agreements to flourish. Franklin Pierce took office at a time when such agreements were sorely needed - on the eve of the civil war, the country was deeply divided over slavery - but Jane made no public appearances for the first two years of the administration.
Eventually, she came around… kind of. She attended a reception on New Year’s Day 1855, her first public appearance, and sporadically served as hostess for the remainder of her husband’s term. But when she did, she usually wore black and had “a sad, distracted look.”
Like Calvin and Grace Coolidge, Franklin and Jane Pierce were a classic case of opposites attract. It has been speculated that “Silent Cal,” famously dour and taciturn, may have achieved the presidency in part because of Grace, who had such an ebullient personality she was nicknamed “Sunshine” by the White House staff. Similarly, the outgoing Franklin and the withdrawn Jane were a seeming mismatch. And while they were purportedly devoted to each other, Jane may have done as much to hurt her husband’s presidency as Grace did to help hers.
Or maybe Franklin Pierce did enough damage on his own. Regarded by historians as one of the worst presidents in history, Pierce pursued policies that likely perpetuated the breakdown of the union and led to war. Though he had been elected in a landslide, he failed even to win the nomination of his party for a second term.
And therein lies a kind of conundrum regarding the first ladies ranking. To a certain extent, the reputation of the president’s wife will always be inextricably tied to that of her husband. Before you compare Jane Pierce to Eleanor Roosevelt, compare the abysmal presidency of Franklin Pierce to that of Franklin Roosevelt, a four-term president who led the country through World War II, died in office a hero and is still remembered as one of the best presidents in U.S. history (In C-SPAN’s 2009 Historians Presidential Leadership Survey, Roosevelt is ranked third from the top, and Pierce third from the bottom).
Of course, Eleanor Roosevelt was a great first lady in her own right. Her contributions to human rights, to international relations and to the role of first lady remain unmatched, and her work continued even after she left the White House. She is one of the most admired women in American history. But how would we regard her today if she had come into the White House grieving the loss of a child, or if her husband had been a failure?
Tell us what you think. Do you have a favorite first lady? Share your thoughts below…
Read more great history in our digital magazine History is Now. It is available by clicking here and downloading the app for iPad and iPhone. It is also free for up to two months if you subscribe!
- Siena Research Institute/C-SPAN First Ladies Study: http://www.siena.edu/sri/firstladies
- National First Ladies Library, Jane Pierce biography: http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=15
- C-SPAN, “First Ladies: Influence & Image” – Jane Pierce: http://firstladies.c-span.org/FirstLady/16/Jane-Pierce.aspx
- Anne Middleton Means, “Amherst and Our Family Tree”: http://books.google.com/books?id=Zcw0AAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&dq=Amherst+and+Our+Family+Tree&hl=en&sa=X&ei=MNwcU6OuC8emygGw2oGwBw&ved=0CEQQ6AEwAA#v=onepage&q=Amherst%20and%20Our%20Family%20Tree&f=false
- New Hampshire Historical Society – manuscript collection: http://www.nhhistory.org/libraryexhibits/manuscriptcollection/manuscript.html
- Philip B. Kunhardt III & Peter W. Kunhardt, “The American President”: http://books.google.com/books?id=m-pNPgAACAAJ&dq=Kunhardt+american+president&hl=en&sa=X&ei=57YcU4ysH4TuyAHX-YHIBA&ved=0CDYQ6AEwAA
- C-SPAN 2009 Historians Presidential Leadership Survey: http://legacy.c-span.org/PresidentialSurvey/Overall-Ranking.aspx
- Burlington Free Press, “Burlington-born first lady Grace Coolidge was happy to ‘talk for two’”: http://www.burlingtonfreepress.com/article/20130224/ARTS/302240006/Burlington-born-first-lady-Grace-Coolidge-was-happy-to-talk-for-two-
- The White House, Franklin Pierce biography: http://www.whitehouse.gov/about/presidents/franklinpierce
- The New York Times, Eleanor Roosevelt obituary: https://www.nytimes.com/learning/general/onthisday/bday/1011.html