Why you should care
Because even winning the most powerful job in the world doesn’t exempt you from personal tragedy.
The transition between election and inauguration is an eventful time for presidents-elect, who, like Donald Trump, are busy ramping up for the new job and administration. But even the best-laid plans of mice and powerful men can go awry in the wake of unexpected personal tragedy. In fact, two American presidents-elect, Andrew Jackson and Franklin Pierce, suffered searing family tragedies just prior to entering the White House — tragedies that would mean, to paraphrase John F. Kennedy, the fruits of their election victory would become ashes in their mouths.
Almost two centuries before the New York Post published nude photos of future first lady Melania Trump in the middle of her husband’s presidential campaign (to very little fanfare), the political opponents of another presidential candidate were attempting to damage his chances by publicizing an earlier scandal connected with his wife’s behavior. Andrew Jackson, a populist Tennessee Democrat, would defeat incumbent John Quincy Adams in the 1828 presidential election, but not before the Adams campaign pilloried Jackson, and his wife, Rachel, over the circumstances of their relationship.
Filled with grief and anger, the new president struggled to focus on governing.…
When Jackson, then a young bachelor, first met Rachel, she was unhappily married to an abusive man. It was an age when divorce was rarely allowed, says Ann Toplovich, executive director of the Tennessee Historical Society, and “women were expected to be pure and virtuous, even if it meant tolerating an abusive or unfaithful husband.” When Rachel fled her violent husband, says Toplovich, “she became a fallen woman, and Jackson was the blackguard who lured her into ruin.”
When Jackson’s political enemies, and the press, learned of the scandal, they slammed Rachel as an adulterer, bigamist and divorcée. One editorial wondered, “Ought a convicted adulteress and her paramour husband to be placed in the highest offices of this free and Christian land?” Jackson tried to shield Rachel from the attacks, but the relentless assault on her virtue took a toll on her, exacerbating an existing heart condition. Then, in December 1828, as the Jacksons were preparing to move from their home in Nashville to Washington, D.C., Rachel suffered heart failure, and died a few days later. She was buried on Christmas Eve in the white gown she had been planning to wear to her husband’s inauguration. At her funeral, Jackson said he hoped he could “forgive my enemy who has ever maligned that blessed one … whom they tried to put to shame for my sake!”
But the president-elect was undone by Rachel’s loss. He wore a black mourning band at his inauguration and slept with a portrait of his wife at his bedside. Filled with grief and anger, Jackson struggled to focus on governing and tried to purge the government of anyone involved in the attacks. “Jackson deeply mourned Rachel,” says Toplovich, “and blamed his political opponents and their attacks for hastening her death.”
It didn’t take long before an even more bereaved president took office in Washington. A New Hampshire congressman and general in the Mexican-American War, Franklin Pierce’s ascent to the presidency was rather unexpected: It had taken until the 49th ballot for the Democratic Party to select him as its nominee at the 1852 convention. By the time of his election, Pierce and his wife, Jane, had already lost two of their three young sons. Then, on a cold January morning in 1853, two months prior to Pierce’s inauguration, the couple boarded a train in Andover, Massachusetts, with their sole surviving child, 11-year-old Benjamin, for the short trip home to Concord, New Hampshire. Suddenly the axle on one of the railcars broke and the train overturned, crashing down an embankment and crushing the back of Bennie’s head. “The little boy’s brains were dashed out,” The New York Times grimly reported. “When Gen. Pierce took him up, he did not think the poor little fellow was dead until he took off his cap.”
The Pierces were devastated. Jane became a near recluse in Washington; she was called “The Shadow of the White House,” and social functions there were rare, with one official observing that “everything in that mansion seems cold and cheerless.” Angry at providence, Pierce refused to take the oath of office on a Bible, and in his inaugural address, the new president virtually admitted he was not ready for the challenge ahead given his recent tragedy, reflecting that “no heart but my own can know the personal regret and bitter sorrow over which I have been borne to a position so suitable for others rather than desirable for myself.” The death of Bennie Pierce would also affect the course of the nation, which careered toward civil war under the traumatized Pierce’s indecisive leadership.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that presidents are people too, and, just like anyone else, can struggle to persevere in the wake of enormous personal tragedy. And despite being the most powerful person on earth, a U.S. president can still be broken by the unexpected death of a loved one. As an anguished Calvin Coolidge observed upon the untimely death of his 16-year-old son during his first term in office, when Calvin Jr. went, “the power and glory of the presidency went with him.”