If most historians wouldn't name Franklin Pierce as the worst president of all time, he would certainly be in the top five. Not only did Pierce seem to have a hard time dealing with the political and personal challenges of being president, he seemed to surround himself with unfortunate people. While many of his cabinet seemed to just be typically compromisers, or actively pro-slavery; some stick out as particularly unfortunate, such as his vice-president, William King, who died, unreplaced, less than two months into his term; and Jefferson Davis, perhaps the most treasonous figure in the history of the United States.
Being First Lady isn't an easy job. Although the mores and expectations of the 1850's are hardly what they are today, there is no doubt that First Lady was still a difficult job, with the constant attention and expectations of the presidency, without having any power. Since most of the figures in the Pierce administration seemed to be ill-fated, and Jane Pierce had the not very pleasant job of first lady, it could be surmised that she was one of the worst first ladies in the history of the United States. Such a guess would be correct.
Jane Pierce, like Franklin Pierce, was a New Englander, and an extreme example of the breed at that. Her father was the President of Bowdoin College, and she was raised rather genteely, with her official White House biography describing her as having "resembled the heroine of a Victorian Novel". Her life seemed to be marred with illness and death, although in the first half of the 19th century, this was not extremely rare. One of her children died at the age of three days, the other at four years. It was when her husband made the rather unexpected move from New Hampshire lawyer and minor political figure to presidential candidate that things became very bad for her. When she, her husband, and their eleven year old son Benjamin Pierce were on their way to Pierce's inauguration, their train derailed, killing their young son in front of their eyes. This ruined the already shy Jane Pierce, with her refusing to be seen in public for the first two years of her term. Eventually, she did come out, but at that point, other events were probably overshadowing the Pierce's marital difficulties.
Jane Pierce was probably relieved when her husband failed to gain his party nomination, and left public life. However, both of them would enjoy their private lives only briefly, with Jane dying in 1863 of tuberculosis, six years before her husband died of cirrosis of the liver.
Guide to the First Ladies of the United States, Frederick Lawrence Jackson, Santa Monica Press, 1994
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