First Lady Biography: Harriet Lane
Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston
- Harriet Rebecca [Buchanan] Lane Johnston. (Library of Congress)
9 May 1830
- Harriet Lane's birthplace and childhood home on Main Street in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. (constantcontact.com)
The home where Harriet Lane was born was built two years before her birth by Thomas Lane, her father's brother. Still standing, it is a rare of example of Fedferal architecture still remaining in southern Pennsylvania. Commodious with fine woodwork craftsmanship, it reflected the wealth and success of her father.
Elliot Tole Lane, born Virginia, 1790, merchant, died 23 November 1840. His family emigrated from England to western Virginia during the American Revolution. Very little seems firmly established about Elliott Lane. He met his wife while trading in the store owned by his father-in-law, where he was then employed.
Jane Buchanan, born 18 July 1793, Cove Gap, Pennsylvania, married Elliot Lane 1813, died 20 February 1839. Her older brother was James Buchanan, who later became President. There were eleven siblings in all. Although she lived until her daughter Harriet was nine years old, there is nothing recorded of her life or personality beyond the mere dates of her biography.
- Elliott Tole Lane (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Scotch-Irish, English. Harriet Lane's maternal grandfather was an immigrant of Scottish ancestry from Northern Ireland as were the parents of her maternal grandmother. Her parental grandparents were immigrants from England.
sixth of seven children, five brothers, one sister: James Buchanan Lane (1814-18350) Thomas N. Lane (1817-1835), Joseph Stark Lane (1820-1822), Elliott Eskridge Lane (1823-1857), Mary Elizabeth Speer Lane [Baker] (1826-18550, William Edward Lane (1833-1834). Harriet Lane outlived all of her siblings.
tall, red-blonde hair, dark blue eyes often described as violet-colored
Harriet Lane was raised in the Presbyterian faith of her mother's Scotch-Irish heritage. As an adult, she was baptized in the Episcopal Church and became a generous and consistent financial supporter of any parish she joined. She displayed throughout her life an acceptance of all faiths, however different each might be from her own. Prior to being enrolled at the Academy of the Visitation Convent School, a Roman Catholic institution where she would be taught tenets of that particular religion, her uncle asked if she thought the influence of the nuns who would serve as her teachers there would lead her to convert to that faith. "I can''t promise. I don't know enough about their faith," the 15-year old responded, her honesty earning her uncle's confidence in her judgment.
- Jane Buchanan Lane (Los Angeles County Museum of Art)
Her exposure to Catholicism is credited for developing in Harriet Lane a singular lack of religious bigotry. This was an unusually progressive trait in an era of religious intolerance marked especially by politically-fueled claims that "Popery" posed a threat to the American government and Protestant-majority culture.
Miss Young School, Mercersburg, Pennsylania, (approximately 1838-1839) There is no documentation of the anecdotal claim that Harriet Lane first attended this day school. Harriet Lane's life before the death of her parents is largely unknown. Practically all that is attributed as a trait from her early years is her expert skill as a horsewoman.
Misses Crawford Boarding School, Lancaster, Pennsylvania (approximately 1839-1841) Her mother died when she was nine years old and she was placed in the care of her maternal uncle Edward Y. Buchanan. He placed her in this local school where she boarded with the two elderly and unmarried sisters who offered young women educational instruction; as is true with her other three known places of education, there is no record of the curriculum Harriet Lane followed here. It is known that by the time she became the ward of her bachelor uncle James Buchanan, she was already widely read in classic literature as well as current international events, learned through her assiduous reading of newspapers, journals and contemporary magazines. She especially disliked living under the house rules of the Crawford sisters, however, who restricted her healthy appetite by refusing to permit her to use sugar in her tea and other dietary measures intended to limit her weight.
- The Georgetown Visitation Academy, the school which had the greatest impact on her. (wikipedia)
Merritt Boarding School, Charleston, West Virginia (1841-1845) At the time of her father's death, when Harriet Lane was left without either parent, her legal guardianship was assumed by her bachelor uncle James Buchanan. It was not a random decision made by elders of her extended family but rather the explicitly expressed intention of the young woman. whom she had expressed a specific desire to live with. Some sources suggest that Harriet Lane was unhappy with her education at the Misses Crawford Boarding School in Lancaster. Then a United States Senator living in Washington, D.C. he enrolled Harriet Lane and her sister Mary Elizabeth in the girls boarding school. He chose this school not only because it had a relative proximity to him Washington but since it also afforded the Lane sisters to be physically close to the family of their late father (located in what was then still the state of Virginia, although not part of West Virginia).
Buchanan often interrupted Harriet Lane's education by encouraging her to come to be with him in Washington during the winter social season, a decision opposed by school's owner Mary Merritt, who wrote him on 15 October 1845 that such "indulgence is subversive of discipline where she is concerned....She needs a guiding hand and watchful eye to preserve her from that indiscretion." Harriet Lane seemed to require some degree of disciplinary action. In 1842, for example, Buchanan admonished, "Had Mary [her sister] written to me that you were a good girl and had behaved yourself entirely well, I should have visited you during the Christmas holidays," he said.
Academy of the Visitation Convent School, Washington, D.C. (1847-1849) Upon Buchanan's appointment as Secretary of State by President Polk, he transferred Harriet Lane from the Merritt Boarding School in Charleston, West Virginia to the Catholic convent school in the capital city, writing her "I think of all the places for you, the nunnery at Georgetown would be the best." Famous for not only its moral influence and inculcation of students in Catholicism but also its highly academic curriculum, Harriet Lane lived on the cloistered campus during her school term, while her uncle resided in rented quarters in the city. While enrolled here, she began to score high grades in three fields of study for which she had already evidenced passionate study, history, astronomy and mythology. She also studied French, writing, arithmetic and chemistry. Her musical abilities also began to emerge under instruction from the school nuns although she resisted their efforts to teach her the harp to instead prove her skill on the piano. There is a claim that she graduated at the top of her class. Perhaps more important than her academic training was the shaping of Harriet Lane's world-view by the nuns who taught her the principal of "Salesian Spirituality," which emphasize common sense, faith, kindness, gentleness, patience, perseverance, hope, and joy. As the activities of her life would prove, Harriet Lane led a life guided by the "inspired common sense" she was taught here.
Life before White House:
- James Buchanan. (National Archives)
In the history of the American presidency, the personal story of James Buchanan stands unique, he being the only bachelor to be elected and to serve a full term as Chief Executive (the other bachelor elected President was Grover Cleveland, who married fifteen months into his first term). His decision to adopt his orphaned niece Harriet Lane and to make her partner of his political career provided him with perhaps even more advantage than what he may have found in a wife. Without the traditional responsibilities of parenthood, both James Buchanan and Harriet Lane were able to keep their energy and efforts focused on his public life. There was no false flattery in the observations of his political colleagues who credit Harriet Lane's use of social skills as well as her ability in employing the political tactics of the era to advance her uncle's steady rise in political power.
James Buchanan (born 23 April 1791, Cove Gap, Pennsylvania) was elected to the U.S. Congress in 1822 and began his service in that office from 4 March 1823 to 4 March 1831, resigning to assume the appointed position of U.S. Minister to Russia, a position he held until 5 August 1833. He was successfully elected to the U.S. Senate and served in that role from 6 December 1834 to 5 March 1845. He left that office to assume the position of Secretary of State, appointed by the newly-inaugurated U.S. President James K. Polk, and served in that position until the conclusion of the Polk Administration in 1849.
In 1841, he became the legal guardian of Harriet Lane, but always referred to her as his "adopted daughter." Recognizing that her interests far exceeded those traditionally focused on domesticity and that she possessed a high intelligent uncommon for young women of that era, he would soon consciously train her to become the partner she did to him. He was 40 years old and she was 11 years old; despite their 29 year age difference, she rapidly matured as a result of his exposing her fully to his male world of politics, further instructing her in the social etiquette that was used at the highest levels of power.
Having endured and come to accept the deaths of her parents and siblings in rapid succession with an unusually high degree of emotional maturity, Harriet Lane became not only her uncle's political consort, but also his personal confidante. According to the memoirs of Sara Pryor, "In her affection [he] found the only solace of his lonely life...She was his confidante in all matter political and personal." Soon after he became Secretary of State, for example, she wrote him, concerned about the pressure his new responsibilities might cause him. "My labors are great, but they do not 'way' me down, as you write the word," he responded with both assurances of his well-being and a correction of her spelling.
- William Rufus Devane King. (Library of Congress)
Her fulfilling this often-neglected role in his life may have factored into his decision to never seek a traditional married life with a wife. This particular aspect of the 15th President's private life remains a matter of much speculation. Documentation unambiguously establishes his long-term emotional closeness to U.S. Senator William Rufus Devane King of Alabama, with whom he made a home in rented quarters during their tenancies in Washington. Contemporary descriptions of their relationship make clear the unusualness of these two men appearing to be a couple. To date, no information suggests a physical relationship although by 21st century construct James Buchanan is considered by some historians as "the first gay President." Whatever the nature of the true relationship between Buchanan and King, Harriet Lane accepted the latter man as part of her life with her uncle. She further formed a permanent friendship with her counterpart, King's niece. At a later date, both women mutually agreed to destroy the correspondence between the two men.
Previous to Harriet Lane coming to create a sense of family for him, James Buchanan claimed to be living a life in which "happiness has fled from me forever." According to a previously unstudied source, the 9 December 1819 suicide by intent or accident of his fiance Ann Coleman, and social and professional ostracizing by her powerful family led him to abandon his planned legal career law in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, having only been admitted to the earlier that year, and to seek and win his district's state representative seat and relocate to the state capital of Harrisburg within a year. In the Farleigh Dickinson College archives, an 1881 letter written by Buchanan friend Samuel Barlow to the late president's biographer, he recalled a "long confidential talk in London" with the future President, and quoted him on the Coleman incident: "I never intended to engage in politics but meant to follow my profession strictly. But my prospects and plans were all changed by a most sad event which happened at Lancaster when I was a young man. I found the most wealthy and influential family in that part of the state hostile and desirous of breaking me down. There was no cause for this but I saw I must leave my home or fight my way."
As detailed and often humorous letters to the young niece for whose life he had now assumed responsibility show, his commitment to Harriet Lane animated Buchanan. Cautious not to recklessly indulge her, he also never limited her intense curiosity, even if it defied the societal conventions placed on women. This responsiveness to this young woman's unusual degree of intelligence suggest a progressive attitude towards the potential for gender equality in American life, though there is no record of his opinion of the 1845 Seneca Falls Convention which gave birth to the formal women's suffrage movement.
- Secretary of State James Buchanan and Harriet Lane stand at far left, along with Miss Rucker, First Lady Sarah Polk, President James Polk and former First Lady Dolley Madison for a photograph on the White House South Portico, circa 1845. (Eastman House)
It was not merely the teenager's comprehension of, and ease in discussing complex political questions but also the degree of confident ease she displayed in her social interactions with powerful figures which led Buchanan to recognize her as a political asset. Once she was enrolled at the Visitation Academy School on the outskirts of Washington, he permitted her to join him at his F Street home for one weekend of each month, gradually exposing her to the social circles of the political elite.
Although she was only 15 years old, Harriet Lane made a strong impression on the new First Lady Sarah Polk and others in the Polk Cabinet "family." As he reported to her at school, "Your friends, Mrs. Bancroft [wife of the Secretary of War] and the Pleasantons often inquire for you. They have given you some-what of a name here, and Mrs. Polk and Miss Rucker, her niece, have several times urged me to permit you to come and pass some time with them. I have been as deaf as the adder to their request, knowing, to use a word of your grandmother, that you are too 'out setting' already. There is a time for all things under the sun, as the wise man says, and your time will yet come." The first photograph which Harriet Lane was known to have posed for was part of a prestigious group which included her uncle, the President and Mrs. Polk, and the former First Lady Dolley Madison.
When his term as Secretary of State ended, Buchanan purchased an estate in Lancaster, Pennsylvania which he called Wheatland, and here he and Lane returned. The elegant house and grounds were not only a home for the family but also served as an operational base from which the ambitious Buchanan hoped to launch a bid for the presidency.
The years from 1849 to 1853 represented the first period in which James Buchanan and H
- Wheatland. (webspace.webri
arriet Lane had an unbroken length of time together, during which they truly forged a political partnership. Buchanan invited Harriet Lane to enter a room while he was conducting a political meeting or discussing legislative initiatives, international negotiations or business matters and silently take in what she heard. In the evenings, he reserved time alone with her to discuss observations she drew from literature and also current issues of national debate. Among their rituals, uncle and niece also read newspaper and journal articles of interest to themselves to one another about which they then exchanged opinions. Buchanan also gave her unfettered access to reference materials in his extensive library.
It was also an important period in Harriet Lane's development from the political perspective of her uncle. Given her youth, he sought to ascertain with certainty the degree of discipline she was capable of applying over her impetuous impulses before he introduced her into all aspects of his professional life and to essentially serve as a representative of him in public. In 1849, he observed how she had voluntarily chosen to spend her summer quietly with relatives rather than at the popular summer spas where she could indulge in a social life "This act of self-restraint has raised you in my estimation," he wrote her.
- Seated at center with hat, Harriet Lane with friends at Bedford Springs, including her future husband Henry Elliott Johnston, standing. (Lancaster Historical Society)
The few known examples of Harriet Lane's specific political opinions generally aligned with those of her uncle. Motivated by personal loyalty to him, she animatedly encouraged his presidential candidacy in 1852, an ambition which Buchanan nursed more discreetly. Although they began in this period to spend some weeks of summer together in the resort of Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania, by the time she was 21 years old, Harriet Lane was also given the freedom to travel independently of any male escort.
During the winter of 1851 while Harriet Lane made a visit of several months duration to friends in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Buchanan relied upon her to confirm the support for his potential presidential candidacy from that city's mayor David Lynch, the state's western region political boss. Harriet Lane succeeded in aligning Lynch's political commitment to her uncle; while Buchanan would not prove to be the 1852 Democratic presidential nominee, his niece's overt "campaigning" led to wider public recognition of her political role in Buchanan's career.
Democrat Franklin Pierce's 1852 election as President led to Buchanan's appointment as Minister to Great Britain. In May of 1854, Harriet Lane arrived in London to join her uncle on the diplomatic mission, calling it the "realization of a beautiful dream!"
While there is no evidence of Harriet Lane being involved in foreign policy matters, her letters to Pennsylvania friend Lily Macalester and the recorded observations of contemporaries, evidence that she perceived herself not as a private citizen who happened to be the ambassador's niece but rather a representative of the United States. She acted conscientiously in fulfilling what she interpreted to be a public role, intent on improving European perceptions of her country. This was a parallel effort of Buchanan's determination to guide the creation of new British foreign policy which favored the U.S.
Harriet Lane reported on a formal Literary Club dinner where the speeches delivered by Lord Mahon ("talked too much, and said too little") and Lord Stanley "talked a great deal, and said nothing") failed to impress her, compared to those she'd heard made by American political leaders. Amused by the pomp of it all, she still concluded that "without doubt, our people are more prompt and eloquent." Thus, despite her age, Harriet Lane was not intimidated by any official, regardless of rank.
- Harriet Lane as a young adult, political partner to her uncle. (President James Buchanan's Wheatland)
During routine verbal discourse with English nobility and foreign representatives of European nations who were stationed in London, she often mentioned Americans who were immigrants or descendants of immigrants from different countries and who had contributed to American life through technology, law, the arts and science; she may have adapted this tactic from observing that the "Amalgamation" wing of Pennsylvania's Democratic Party which Buchanan led was composed of ethnically-diverse European-Americans, including German former Federalists from the eastern part of the state, Scotch-Irish farmers from the western counties, and new Irish Catholic laborers Scots-Irish Democratic farmers.
Although it has become a primary point in her biographical profiles for over a century now, the claim that Harriet Lane used examples of Native American Indian art to advance a better understanding of American culture among Europeans appears apocryphal. No documentation can currently found to substantiate this claim. It is perpetuated in the context of Harriet Lane displaying a sample of her painting and crafts collection as a counter-point to canvases in British art collections depicting the cultures of those African, Middle Eastern and Asian lands colonized by European nations. The correspondence of Buchanan and Lane from this period include no inventory of American art being shipped to them in England, nor is any mentioned in their personal letters. No such works were recorded as being on display in Wheatland nor included in the art collection Harriet Lane would later bequest. It may be rooted in a misunderstanding of the fact that her donated collection included a large number of works by English artists and one which depicted a street scene of India, and extrapolation of her wider commitment to Native Americans based on a later letter she received from a Chippewa tribal leader. While there is no evidence to support the claim that Harriet Lane arrived England already an art collector, the provenance of her later donated collection show that she had become one by the time she left that country.
- A display of George Catlin's Native American Indian portraits in London 2013. (The Telegraph:Paul Gower)
What seems more likely is that Harriet Lane arrived in London during a overlap of the final weeks of an Egyptian Hall public exhibition in London’s Piccadilly of artist and her fellow Pennsylvanian George Catlin's legendary "Indian Gallery." He described his display of not only three hundred watercolor portraits of Plains tribal Sioux, Mandan and Ojibwe members and Native American landscape scenes but also cultural artifacts he collected from upper midwestern tribes, including ceremonial costumes, medicine bundles, pipes, weapons, and a Crow tribe tepee as a “fair and just monument, to the memory of a truly lofty and noble race.” She was likely to have seen and been familiar with the exhibition during its earlier displays in Philadelphia and Washington. Catlin's enlightened view of Native Americans as a dignified and intelligence people aligned with the view ascribed to Harriet Lane at the time; it may be that she either took several British art collectors to see the exhibition before it was brought to South America in 1854 or discussed its merits at great length with them. Catlin had also brought several Native American groups to England where they also performed a ceremonial dance for Queen Victoria.
- Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1854, the year they befriended Harriet Lane. (Wikipedia)
The pursuit of her ambition to improve the impression of her country first necessitated a public visibility among in the international community and, as she wrote within days of arriving, "until presented to the Queen, [I] will not be fairly in the "London world." In anticipating her formal court presentation to Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert, Harriet Lane gave great consideration on how to indelibly impress the monarchs and watching diplomatic corps with her visual appearance. "My court-dress is now absorbing most of my attention," she reported on 4 May 1854, "this is rather intense as I must act entirely for myself...I go to decide upon it today."
It was not only the 24-year old woman's wise judgment in assembling an appropriate court costume which nevertheless managed to stand apart from others, but also Harriet Lane's expert skill in performing the ritual curtsy and deft handling of her cumbersome dress train which made an immediate impression on not only those watching from the sidelines but on Queen Victoria herself. Harriet Lane's agility in the formal dressage of horse riding and familiarity with English literature further so endeared her to members of Victoria's family that they formed a permanent and personal friendship. Queen Victoria even decreed that Harriet Lane be given the protocol status of spousal ministerial consort instead of the lower one usually accorded the young women relatives of diplomats.
The Queen's personal closeness to "dear Miss Lane," a she called her, won over the British people. At Oxford University students and faculty rose and cheered as she entered to watch the ceremony conferring Doctor of Civil Law degrees on Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson and her uncle. One diplomat stated that she made "more friends than...any lady ever attached to the American Embassy." So impressed was the legal reformer and jurist Sir Fitzroy Kelly. who served as Prime Minister Palmerston's attorney general that he proposed marriage to Harriet Lane. Despite a forty-year age difference, they did seriously date but even Queen Victoria's urging her to wed the widowed multi-millionaire so she could remain in England failed to convince Harriet to defy her uncle's opposition to the union.
Her unprecedented alliance between the British monarch gave the young American woman immediate public prestige and access to many of England's most influential figures, including leaders of various public service endeavors and reform movements, towards whom she gravitated. While she reportedly strove to always assert the American perspective, her fuller exposure to social problems in England and an elite class which considered public service to be a matter of duty is believed to have been the inspiration for Harriet Lane's later philanthropic pursuits. Among the most important of those she befriended were the Archbishop of Canterbury, physician Sir Henry Holland, then conducting pioneering studies on the connection between mental and physical health, Marianne the Dowager Marchioness of Wellesley, a primary force behind her husband's Catholic Emancipation and the Reform Bill of 1832, Margaret the Dowager Duchess of Somerset, who helped underwrite the rural housing projects of her husband Edward Seymour and repeal of the Corn Laws, and Richard Cobden, of the Anti-Corn Law League.
Before her return to the U.S. in the fall of 1855, several months before her uncle, Harriet Lane also travelled to visit several European countries. During her stay as the guest of the American minister to France John Y. Mason at his Paris residence, the secretary at the American legation James Edward MacFarland recalled how awestruck many Parisians became when they encountered the healthy vigor yet poised maturity of Miss Lane as she strolled the streets of the city. While in France, Harriet Lane was also presented to Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugenie.
Campaign and Inauguration:
Within weeks of returning to the U.S. Harriet Lane learned that Mary Baker, her sister who had married and moved to San Francisco, had suddenly died there. The mourning period which Harriet Lane observed limited her and her uncle, upon his return from Europe in the spring of 1856, from making public appearances during the summer months, when he was nominated by the Democratic Party as its presidential candidate. Other than the private homes of friends she visited during her summer sojourn at the Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania resort, she made no public appearances which could be construed as campaigning. She was with her uncle and some gathered friends in his Wheatland estate on election night when a torchlight parade of local supporters came to congratulate him outside the home.
- A later depiction of the new President and First Lady James Buchanan and Harriet Lane. (Library of Congress)
It is unclear if Harriet Lane appeared on the outdoor, public Inaugural stand where her uncle took the oath of office as president on 4 March 1857, but it is highly likely. In a pen drawing carried by a British illustrated magazine, she was depicted with Buchanan as he was welcomed upon first entering the White House as President. This is the first known instance of a First Lady being portrayed in a public activity during her incumbency. She was the prominent figure at the Inaugural Ball that evening, promenading the hall on the arm of the new President. Some sources even suggest that she danced at the ball. Contemporaries noted that she wore a pearl necklace.
The 1857 Inaugural ceremonies were also overshadowed by an unexpected dark cloud on the new First Family, Both the new President and his nephew Elliot Lane, Harriet's older brother, were stricken by severe stomach ailment contracted in the hotel they occupied before moving into the White House. Harriet Lane had anticipated again living in the same household with her brother since he began the Administration by serving as the President's Private Secretary; one month after the Inauguration, however, his lingering illness turned to a severe fever which killed him in April 1857. A first cousin also raised by her uncle, James Buchanan "Buck" Henry, had become like a brother to Harriet Lane and also came to live in the White House, working as the President's Private Secretary.
- Harriet Lane.photographed during her White House tenancy. (Wheatland
27 years old
4 March 1857 - 4 March 1861
Just weeks into Harriet Lane's tenure as First Lady, the sudden death of her brother marked a period of mourning and thus halt to any formal entertaining in the White House.
With the start of the Administration's first full social season, from November of 1857 to April of 1858, Harriet Lane was charged by her uncle with the formal responsibilities of arranging all social events in the White House, as well as overseeing the interior refurnishing of state rooms.
- James Buchanan "Buck" Henry (Wheatland)
She worked in tandem with her cousin Buck Henry in drawing up the guest lists, and making seating arrangements. With the experience she gained in the household of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James, she particularly excelled in this, integrating her knowledge of protocol rank with the more subtle understanding of political and social alliances among the Washington elite. Alabama's U.S. Senator's wife Virginia Clay Clopton later wrote that Harriet Lane's youthful viewpoint but maturity of experience combined "to qualify her to meet the responsibilities that for four years were to be hers."
While later romanticized as elegant events, there is an indication that the mechanics of planning White House entertaining were less Harriet Lane's strength than was the intellectual engagement she encouraged among guests, led by her own interests in their work. One regular guest, for example, noted a singular lack of floral ornamentation at her event, despite the new greenhouses which had been built on the west side of the residence. During one formal dinner when a cured salty ham had been soaked for too long and rendered it tasteless, the President complained to Harriet Lane in front of other guests, that the quality of food being served reflected her poor oversight of kitchen staff. He had also reprimanded her for failing to arrange for music during the Administration's first formal dinner and for canceling the order of wine he had placed for his guests that evening.
- Despite her youth, Harriet Lane restricted her public demeanor with formality. (St. Alban's School)
At least one frequent guest challenged a prevailing perception of Harriet Lane, claiming "it cannot be said" that she was "a popular woman." As Sarah Pryor recalled, Harriet Lane "followed a prescribed rule of manner from which she never deviated" and thus "lacked magnetism."Harriet Lane adhered strictly to the limitations which the President believed were appropriate for the family of a leader of a democracy, namely that she refuse all gifts offered to her. "Think of my feelings when the lovely lacquered boxes and tables from the Japanese Embassy brought me were turned form the door," she later recalled her frustration, "to say nothing of the music-boxes and these fascinating sewing-machines they had just invented."
Despite this regulation, Harriet Lane still managed to lead a personal life not atypical of her gender, class and era. She was highly flirtatious with number of prominent men who courted her. New Yorker Augustus Schell was avidly pursuing her and after she picked up some pebbles during their stroll along the Potomac at Mount Vernon he had then polished and set with diamonds as a Christmas present for her. Another beau was South Carolina Congressman Porcher Miles, with whom she overtly flirted at a public reception, as she watched him stare and her and she turned to snap a flower bud with her fingers then direct a servant to bring it to him. Although Lord Lyons, the third and final British Minister to the U.S. during the Buchanan Administration, found Harriet Lane to be "fascinatingly accomplished" and sought her hand in marriage, she didn't "fancy him overmuch." For a period of several years both her uncle James Buchanan and former President Martin Van Buren encouraged the latter's son, John Van Buren, to pursue a romance relationship with Harriet Lane, which she also resisted.
- A violet-upholstered divan chair ordered by Harriet Lane for the Executive Mansion. (The White House)
James Buchanan, however, influenced Harriet Lane's reluctance to transition her life as his unmarried consort to that of a traditional wife. As he wrote her: "I wish now to give you a caution, never allow your affections to become interested, or engage yourself to any person, without my previous advice. You ought never to marry any person who is not able to afford you a decent and immediate support. In my experience I have witnessed the long years of patient misery and dependence. which fine women have endured from rushing precipitately into matrimonial connections without sufficient reflection. Look ahead and consider the future, and act wisely in this particular."
Without concern for religious judgment she played card games for small stakes and indicated her view on temperance by drinking wine openly at formal White House dinners.
During a formal state dinner for the French Prince de Joinville, the First Lady stole away with him to an alcove, along with some Cabinet wives and an ambassador when one bottle of a rare vintage was opened and poured around in glasses to be raised in toast to her, until she protested for a glass too, "And I! I cannot drink to my own health! Am I to have no wine?!"
- A tinted engraving of Harriet Lane n the greenhouse. (White House Historical Association)
The one place in the White House Harriet Lane seemed to best relax without being observed was the greenhouse, which was attached to the west side of the residence in 1856. Here she often came with friends to walk and speak freely, as they looked over the flowers which bloomed all year.
Apart from her mature poise and political intelligence, Harriet Lane's physical appearance made her distinct from women who were her contemporaries and was frequently the subject of commentary by many observers. Her hair was a bright reddish-brown, full and shiny and she kept it unadorned in a plain style rather than the elaborate manner more common to her gender and class in that era.
- Harriet Lane made the low-neck lace bertha her distinct fashion trademark. (NFLL)
She had a robust physicality, with a more muscularly developed neck, back and arms which were visibly displayed by the clothing style she invariably wore at formal public occasions. Her healthy, flushed skin was often a point of focus in contemporary descriptions of her. All of this spoke to Harriet Lane's healthy well-being, a result perhaps of her unusual degree of physical activity and strength. As a younger woman she had climbed trees, run races and performed manual labor like carrying heavy objects in wheel-barrels and as she matured she enjoyed long-distance and fast-clipped walking, swimming, and vigorous dancing.
Harriet Lane's clothing drew the greatest degree of attention of First Ladies since Julia Tyler. Several women left detailed descriptions of her clothing style, which included the popular hoop skirts of the era, but often in dresses made of simple white muslin with a dotted design and blue ribbons or a head wreath of clematis flowers, but never with heavy jewelry, flowers or "the billows of ruffles, then in fashion."
She bought hats from the Washington shop of Leonide Delarue, a Greek-American milliner who imported her wares from Paris and other European capitals of fashion but had most of her clothes hand-made by a seamstress.
The mark of distinction to Harriet Lane's formal gowns was an unusually low neckline, her bosom line veiled by a strip of lace known as a "bertha," and some fashion historians have credited her with popularizing this stylist change which increased among the gowns worn by the elite class of women in the pre-Civil War era.
She dismissed a fashion faux pas of less than urbane guests by snapping, "Oh, that's nothing. Such things happen here any day - nobody notices these people from the rural districts."
- The Ulke photograph of Harriet Lane was then copied as an engraving and reprinted in the article which first used the term first lady in reference to her. (Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper)
Posing for a photograph made by Julius Ulke, Harriet Lane permitted the image to be publicly sold as a "carte-de-visite," much like the latter-day postcard, joining a host of celebrities like military leaders, author and poets and political figures whose images were collected by the public for their photo albums.
The image was also copied by a newspaper illustrator using a pen to make a full page sketch of her, which then appeared in the 31 March 1860 edition of the weekly Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper; this made her the first incumbent First Lady to have her visual image widely disseminated throughout the nation and the world. Although Julia Tyler had permitted a painting of her to be drawn and sold as an engraved print, advancing technology permitted the printing of the hand-drawn pen sketch of Harriet Lane. This landmark in First Lady history was due entirely to the personal popularity of Harriet Lane for it had existed since the late 1830s.
Accompanying the image was an article which praised her conduct as hostess. Owing to the fact that she was the first woman to preside at the White House for a bachelor President, there seemed to be a need to identify her with a new and unique designation.
- The first printed use of the term First Lady in 1860. (carlanthonyonline.com)
Thus, Harriet Lane was the first woman presidential family member who was called "first lady in the land" in public print (anecdotal legend claims that President Zachary Taylor first applied this title to the late Dolley Madison at her July 1849 funeral).
While newspaper articles about her, the new title and the visibility of her image only further increased the public awareness and interest in Harriet Lane, later claims that she had "clubs, streets, houses, and even articles of dress" and "waltzes, songs, colors" named for her are without any documented foundation.
- The Harriet Lane revenue cutter. (Library of Congress)
It was true that a revenue cutter was named for her; she encountered some public censure when she requested the vessel to use for a pleasure trip along with several friends. Reprimanded by the President, there was no further such incident.
- "Listen to the Mockingbird" sheet music, with the composer's alias name listed. (Library of Congress)
The popular claim that Septimus Winner wrote the song "Listen to the Mockingbird" (1855) in her honor is untrue. The song, telling the story of a young woman who has died and is being recalled by her lover with the bird song they once both enjoyed, was once played at the White House, the Marine Band leader announced to Harriet Lane and her guests that he was dedicating that one, particular performance of the song to her since the woman's nickname of "Hal" heard in the lyrics also happened to be the First Lady's nickname among several of her friends.
Another claim often made about Harriet Lane without any specific documentation is that she included many artists among the guest lists at White House social events. This seems likely, given the wide variety of acquaintances she was known to have and her genuine interest in the fine arts. Mary Jane Windle reported two years into her tenure that Harriet Lane's interest in art was shared by several other leading social figures in Washington who "stimulated a group of artists to launch a drive in May, 1857 for the establishment of a national gallery."
- A Chippewa Indian family on their reservation home. (rootswebs.ancestry.com)
The one documented instance which indicated that Harriet Lane may have had an interest in the legal protection and welfare of Native American Indians was a letter she received in 4 February 1858 from Wingematub, a member of the Chippewa tribe in Wisconsin. He reported to her about a U.S. Indian Affairs agent who had illegally introduced the sale of liquor on reservation lands and asked the First Lady to use her influence and have him removed from his post, prevent the further importing of alcoholic beverages among the native population and to further remove Christian missionaries. Wingematub's reference to Harriet Lane as "the great mother of the Indians" in his one letter to her have led some to presume this indicated her having previous interceded on behalf of Native Americans. To date, however, there is no documentation to suggest this was, in fact, true. It has also been assumed that Harriet Lane did intervene as Wingematub had requested of her and that this led to a change of the situation on the Chippewa reservation. To date, no response from Harriet Lane to this request, if indeed she made one, has been located.
- Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt. (Metropolitican Museum of Art)
Similar to the claim of Harriet Lane being as an overt lobbyist of protective measures for Native American and encouraging wider appreciation of their arts, chroniclers during the century and a half since her White House tenure has also come to credit her with being an advocate of various reform movements. This has been attributed to Lane merely by virtue of her friendship with individuals such as Augustus Schell who founded the New York Institute for the Blind, Cornelia Van Ness Roosevelt who helped establish New York's Roosevelt Hospital for the indigent, Congressman Job Robert Tyson who was a prison reform activist, and Nahum Capen who established the first board of public education in Massachusetts. To date, there is no evidence that Harriet Lane as First Lady supported directly or indirectly any of these public welfare institutions.
Based on current, limited scholarship, at best it can be surmised that her association with these figures may have brought their efforts greater prestige and visibility but the claim that it was her "sponsorship" which led to the pre-Civil War emergence of an elite class committing to civic welfare and a social movement may well be an exaggeration.
- Harriet Lane at far left, was the only American woman formally presented to the Japanese delegation, depicted here greeted by President Buchanan in the East Room. (Leslie's Illusrtrated Newspaper)
In 1860, there were three notable visits by representatives of foreign governments, Harriet Lane playing a central public role during the social events marking these incidents.
She became the first American woman to be officially presented to a delegation of Japanese representatives who travelled to the U.S. to ratify a new Treaty of Friendship, Commerce and Navigation.
François-Ferdinand-Philippe-Louis-Marie d'Orléans, known as the "Prince de Joinville," a son of the late and deposed King Louis Philippe I, visited the U.S. during the 1860-1861 social season in Washington, and befriended Harriet Lane. She may have been a factor influencing President Buchanan's intervening to permit the prince's son entrance in the U.S. naval academy at Annapolis.
- A later illustration depicted Harriet Lane and Prince Edward dancing. (carlanthonyonline.com)
The 1860 visit of Edward, the United Kingdom's Prince of Wales, was of especial interest to Harriet Lane, since she had befriended him and his family during her eighteen months in London.
- An engraving made at the time showing Harriet Lane bowling with the Prince of Wales. (carlanthonyonline.com)
In light of the personal attachment between the two families, Prince Edward was the first member of a European royal family to sleep in the White House as a guest.
Although President Buchanan would not lift the ban on dancing in the White House in place since the Polk Administration, the First Lady and the Prince indulged their mutual love of dancing at a ball held in his honor at a hotel, sponsored by the British Legation.
The incident of Harriet Lane and Prince Edward playing a game of kingpins, an early form of bowling, was startling for the fact that it was not socially acceptable in the mid-19th century for women to display any physical prowess, let alone in competition with a man.
She also accompanied him and the President on a visit to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington where the Prince placed a wreath at the first president's tomb.
- This painting depicts Prince Edward's visit with President Buchanan to Mount Vernon, Harriet Lane seen under the parasol. (Smithsonian)
Since Harriet Lane and James Buchanan lived together during his presidency, there is little correspondence between them from which an assessment of her political interests during his presidency can be made. Certainly his previous letters to her evidence Buchanan sharing his views and experiences with statesmen and political figures. She was also noted for her mimicry of his political colleagues which captured not only their gestures and voices but also spoofed their political philosophies and opinions.
There is some suggestion of tension between the First Lady and her uncle the President, particularly due to the fact that he continued to open her incoming mail and read it, a violation she circumvented by having at least one personal correspondent send letters to her by addressing them to a household staff member, who then passed them on surreptitiously to her.
- A cartoon spoofing Buchanan's compromises to the South on slavery. (library of Congress)
As reflected in her correspondence towards the end of the Administration, Harriet Lane held a significant and important difference of opinion with her uncle on the increasingly contentious national dilemma of slavery. Buchanan held to the belief that a coalition of pro-slavery and anti-slavery leaders would lead to a voluntary process of emancipation. Sharing his intense repulsion of slavery and the view that a federal decree of "immediate emancipation" would lead to a worse crisis of displacement and poverty for suddenly-freed slaves, her subtle difference with his policy seemed to be her belief that a gradual but legally enforced schedule of emancipation was necessary for complete abolition.
- The Buchanan china used at formal dinners where Haarriet Lane carefully arranged seating. (JFK Library)
Harriet Lane, it was claimed, ensured that the seating arrangements she made for White House dinner guests never placed those with antagonistic views on the slavery issue. Sarah Pryor, a Virginian friend of Harriet Lane who nevertheless became loyal to the Confederacy, observed that, to avoid the appearance of showing any preference towards the remarks or personality of sectional figures, this First Lady was "always courteous, always in place, silent whenever it was possible to be silent, watchful, and careful, she made no enemies, was betrayed in no entangling alliances and was involved in no contretemps of any kind.... She was very affable and agreeable, in an unemotional way...I imagine no one could take a liberty with her." Another southerner, the wife of Alabama U.S. Senator, recorded that Harriet Lane "served to keep the surface of society in Washington serene and smiling, though the fires of a volcano raged in the under-political world."
- Adele Cutts Douglas. (onealwebsite.com
The estrangement between Harriet Lane and Adele Douglas, the niece of Dolley Madison who she had known as a schoolgirl, was often characterized as one of feminine jealousy over social popularity when, in fact, it was an overt result of the First Lady's resentment of the woman's husband, Democratic leader Stephen A. Douglas, a U.S. Senator from Illinois (he had married the 20-year old as his second wife at the time of Buchanan's election).
When Douglas defied Buchanan by supporting a Kansas territory constitution which would permit it to become a free state forbidding slavery, he created a schism in the Democratic Party which further eroded the President's power and reputation. "What think you of Douglas's pronunciamento?!!!," Harriet Lane wrote to her friend Lily Macalester.
The First Lady refused to acknowledge Adele Douglas at the theater where they both held viewing boxes or invite her to any White House receptions during the 1859-1860 social season.
- The pictures of his parents which Prince Albert gave Harriet Lane as a personal gift. (James Buchanan's Wheatland)
Before the Buchanan Administration ended, seven southern states seceded from the United States. Harriet Lane is reputed to have acted as a personal emissary on behalf of her uncle, pleading with southern members of his Cabinet and other political allies to resist abandoning him and resigning their positions as acts of regional loyalty.
In the Administration's final weeks, James Buchanan was widely vilified for failing to take stronger action to prevent the onset of inevitable Civil War.
Harriet Lane was also criticized on the false claim that she stole portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert which were public property, when they had actually been given to her a personal gift from Prince Edward.
Life After the White House:
Although James Buchanan and Harriet Lane did not support Stephen A. Douglas as the Democratic presidential candidate of 1860, neither did they support the Republican nominee Abraham Lincoln. Based on what she had been told, Harriet Lane judged her successor Mary Lincoln to be "loud and western," but there is no evidence that the two women ever met on Inauguration Day in 1861 or at any other time.
Joining her uncle in retirement at Wheatland, Harriet Lane shared his personal resentment of President Lincoln although they passively supported him as leader of the Union to which they both remain loyal. In 1864, she and her uncle both supported the presidential candidacy of General George McClellan, opposing the re-election of Lincoln. Her reaction to Lincoln's April 1865 assassination is unknown.
- Harriet Lane's wedding gown. (Smithsonian)
35 years old, 11 January, 1866, at Wheatland, Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to Henry Elliott Johnston, banker, (born 30 June 1831, Baltimore, Maryland, died 4 May 1884, New York).
Harriet Lane had first met Henry Johnston when she was 19 years old and he was 18 years old, while both were vacationing with family members at Bedford Springs, Pennsylvania. Upon returning to school, she was reprimanded for writing him a letter without permission of her uncle.
Although she enjoyed flirting and romantic outings which a wide number of men in both England and the U.S., she once declared that,"Beaux are pleasant but dreadfully troublesome." Having heeded her uncle's admonishment against "rushing precipitately into matrimonial connexions," she delayed accepting any of the numerous marriage proposals she received through the years until what was then considered the very late age of 35 years old.
In the summer of 1864, Lane and Johnston resumed their friendship at Bedford Springs, but she was reluctant to leave the home of her uncle who had begun to fail in health. At Buchanan's insistence, however, the couple announced their engagement in October of 1864.
- Henry Elliott Johnston. (St. Alban's School)
Their wedding ceremony took place at the former president's estate, conducted by her uncle, the President's brother, Reverend Edward Young Buchanan (who was married to the sister of the famous American composer Stephen Foster’s sister). They honeymooned in Cuba. Two months after her wedding, Harriet Lane became pregnant.
- James Buchanan Johnston, Harriet Lane's first son. (stalbanschool.org)
two sons; James Buchanan Johnston (born 11 November 1866, died 25 March 1881), Henry Elliot Johnston (born 1 September 1869, died 30 October 1882)
Although Harriet Lane, her husband and children returned to her uncle's home during the summer months, upon marriage she moved into the home of her husband in Baltimore.
A devoted mother, Harriet Lane she nevertheless continued to live a public life, involving herself in civic activities in her new home city.
When Johns Hopkins University opened there in 1876, she took an interest in its mission of new research, beyond mere education. She would commit substantial funds to the institution, and eventually create a trust fund to underwrite graduate level and independent research study fellowships in the liberal arts and sciences.
Harriet Lane's evolving interest in art also led to her beginning to collect pieces with a qualified discernment not only for antiquities but works by contemporary artists in different mediums.
- Harriet Lane's son Henry was depicted in the angel sculpture. (Smithsonian)
In 1872 when the famous sculptor William Henry Rinehart was visiting Baltimore, for example, she commissioned him to create not only busts of her and her husband but full-length sculptures of Henry Jr., age two, and James, age five as two Cupids, identical except for the faces.
- The Rhinehart bust of Harriet Lane. (Smithsonian)
With the 1868 death of James Buchanan, Harriet Lane inherited Wheatland and began the effort of finding a biographer to annotate and publish his papers with the intention of recovering his historical reputation.
- Henry Johnston. (stalbansschool.org)
This process was truncated by the sudden onset of an unknown illness affecting her eldest son and then, shortly thereafter, her second child, leaving both physically impaired with hearts weakened by rheumatic fever.
Their parents widely sought medical advice and treatment but to no avail. Henry, Jr. died at home in 1881. Believing that a warm climate might improve the condition in James, Harriet Lane and her husband moved him to the seaside of Nice, France. He died there of rheumatic fever, a year and seven months after his brother.
In reaction to their dual loss, Harriet Lane Johnston and her husband determined to spare other families with less means who had children with long-term or terminal illnesses. In December of 1883 she incorporated a pediatric medical facility which her husband wanted to be designated with the title of the "Harriet Lane Home," to suggest it be a comforting place to provide care for those children requiring lengthy care. She would make it explicit that the institution must treat children "of all races, creeds, and nationalities," without regard to any legal segregation which was in place at the time.
- Harriet Lane Johnston in the 1870s. (Frick Reference Library)
Before Harriet Lane Johnston could determine how to best establish the institution for pediatric medical care she envisioned, her husband died unexpectedly at 53 years old in New York while undergoing surgery.
Within a span of four years she lost her entire nuclear family.
Traumatized, she spent the summer of 1884 isolated and grieving in Manchester, Massachusetts, but also regained her sense of purpose.
Upon returning to Baltimore, she began firmer efforts to establish the Harriet Lane Home. After Johns Hopkins School of Medicine opened in 1893, Harriet Lane successfully established her institution there, making it the first pediatric medical center in the U.S.
With great foresight, she further recognized the need for research and specialized training of undergraduate and graduate medical students and nurses to sustain the institution; in later trusts she established for individuals in her will she had the principal of each revert to the Harriet Lane Home after the death of the recipients.
Harriet Lane Johnston also provided underwriting to private welfare institutions in Baltimore to strengthen the low budgets of local and state services but with the stipulation that if and when there was greater coverage of the social problems by the municipalities, the funding she provided would also then revert to the Harriet Lane Home.
- The Harriet Lane Clinic, a pediatric care division of Johns Hopkins which perpetuates the First Lady's legacy. (Johns Hopkins)
Nine years after her death, the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children building was completed and opened. By 1930, researchers there discovered drugs capable of preventing the heart damage of rheumatic fever which killed her sons. It continues today as the Harriet Lane Clinic, located in the Rubenstein Child Health Building. Johns Hopkins Hospital continues to publish the Harriet Lane Handbook: A Manual for Pediatric House Officers, updated with new medical information since its first publication in 1950, and also now available online and on mobile devices.
- Harriet Lane Johnston's home on I and 17th Streets in Washington, D.C.
Seeking to move beyond her personal losses and create a new life for herself, Harriet Lane sold Wheatland and her Baltimore home. In 1892, she bought a home in Washington, D.C. where she made her primary residence for the rest of her life. Growing closer to her great-niece May Kennedy, who became a frequent companion, the former First Lady also began to spend her summers initially at Bar Harbor, Maine and then Newport, Rhode Island which had become a gathering place for the nation's elite, living in a Narragansett home.
- This romanticized scene of life in India, was one of the paintings of the collection Harriet Lane Johnston left to what she hoped would someday be a National Gallery of Art. (Smithsonian)
Harriet Lane also continued voyaging to Europe, spending the spring season in Paris and London where she maintained friendships with many of the former members of the diplomatic corps who had represented their nations in Washington during her tenure as First Lady. While in Europe, she continued to buy pieces of art, enlarging her already substantial collection.
Although others before her had previously proposed the idea of a national American museum of art to be located in Washington, D.C. as part of the Smithsonian Institution, Harriet Lane Johnston laid groundwork by a stipulation in her will that is credited for helping to establish it.
She willed her art collection of about thirty pieces to the existing Corcoran Gallery of Art unless the federal government was to finally establish a National Gallery of Art along the lines of London's National Gallery or Paris's Louvre.
- An early 20th century public display of Harriet Lane's art collection intended for a National Gallery of Art. (Smithsonian)
After the Corcoran Gallery turned down her gift because it lacked the funds to maintain her collection, the Supreme Court determined that the Smithsonian was, in effect, a repository for art works and that institution accepted her collection, inspiring other collectors to soon donate their pieces to the new entity.
While her gift was posthumous and her role was passive, Harriet Lane Johnston can accurately be considered a founder of what became the Smithsonian Institution's National Gallery of Art.
- The Lane-Johnston dormitory at St. Alban's School. (wikipedia)
Having become an Episcopalian at the time of her marriage, Harriet Lane Johnston took an interest in the plans to erect a National Cathedral following its charter in 1893.
Especially moved by the Vienna Boys Choir during her visits to Austria, Harriet Lane Johnson envisioned an American counterpart at the rising cathedral. In recognizing the need for financial support of the training and education of a boy's choir, she provided in her will for the establishment of a boy's school and scholarship endowment, resulting in the creation of what became St. Alban's School six years after her death.
When the National Cathedral School for Girls was formed, a dormitory was named in her honor;, the Lane-Johnston Building remains in use.
- The Buchanan Memorial statue in Washngton, D.C. which Harriet Lane funded but did not live to see. (flickr.com)
Harriet Lane Johnston continued to strive for ways to protect and honor her uncle's legacy. She left substantial funds in her will for what would eventually become the James Buchanan Monument Fund in the nation's capital. Political stalling in both the House and Senate delayed the construction of this until 1930. Located in what is now Meridian Park-Malcolm X Park, it was dedicated by President Hoover.
- Harriet Lane Johnston (St. Alban's School)
Her will also provided the funding for creation of a James Buchanan Birthplace Memorial in a wooded area now known as Stony Batter State Park in Pennsylvania.
While spending the winter social seasons in Washington, Harriet Lane was on friendly terms with nearly all of her successors, including Martha Johnson Patterson, who had also attended the Visitation Convent School at the same time and been a frequent guest of Sarah Polk at the White House, Julia Grant, Lucy Hayes, Lucretia Garfield, Molly McElroy, Rose Cleveland, Frances Cleveland and Ida McKinley.
A frequent and honored guest at formal White House occasions, she assumed a role similar to the one played by Dolley Madison as former First Lady earlier in the century. Her last known appearance at the White House was for a December 1901 hosted by Edith Roosevelt.
Continuing her personal friendship with Prince Edward, Harriet Lane Johnston accepted his invitation to attend his June 1902 coronation as King. It proved to be her last overseas trip.
Death and Burial:
3 July 1903