Jane Means Appleton was born on March 12, 1806, in Hampton, New Hampshire, the third of Elizabeth Means and Jesse Appleton’s six children. A Congregational minister and the president of Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, Mr. Appleton was able to provide his family with a comfortable lifestyle. Young Elizabeth received a solid education, with literature and music among her favorite subjects. Yet, even as a child she displayed the physical frailties and nervous disposition that would mark her adult years.
Jane met Pierce through her brother-in-law Alpheus S. Packard, who had taught the budding lawyer as a professor at Bowdoin College. Finding Jane to be delicate and charming, the future U.S. president won her affections despite her lack of enthusiasm for his political interests. He also managed to overcome the disapproval of Mrs. Appleton, who felt her daughter should wed someone from a higher social standing. Jane married her sweetheart at the then-relatively old age of 28 on November 19, 1834, in Amherst, New Hampshire.
Jane was happiest as an adult after her husband returned from the Mexican War in late 1847. Having settled in the New Hampshire town of Concord, she doted on her young son, Benjamin, as Pierce built his legal practice and immersed himself in regional politics. The good times ended when Pierce was named the Democratic nominee for President in 1852, news that reportedly caused Jane to faint. A few weeks after Pierce won the election, as the first-lady-to-be was steeling herself for the move back to Washington, she endured the crushing blow of witnessing 11-year-old Benjamin die in a train accident.
Jane did not attend Pierce’s 1853 inauguration, and it took nearly two years for her to participate in a reception alongside her husband at the White House. But although she did not fulfill many of her hosting obligations as first lady, she was not completely detached from politics. A staunch abolitionist, Jane helped secure the release of Free-State leader Charles Robinson from a Kansas military camp. Her views inflamed tensions with her husband, who was morally opposed to slavery but believed the preservation of the Union took precedence.
After the Pierces left the White House in 1857, they sailed to the Caribbean and then to Europe. However, their departure from Washington did little to improve Jane’s spirits and health. Chronically depressed and stricken with tuberculosis, she spent much of her final years with her sister Mary Aiken in Andover, Massachusetts. After her death on December 2, 1863, she was laid to rest alongside her sons at Old North Cemetery in Concord.