Summary

Birth:
09 May 1830 1
Stony Batter, PA 1
Death:
03 Jul 1903 1
Narragansett, Rhode Island, 1
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Personal Details

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Full Name:
Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston 1
Also known as:
Niece of President James Buchanan 1
Birth:
09 May 1830 1
Stony Batter, PA 1
Female 1
Death:
03 Jul 1903 1
Narragansett, Rhode Island, 1
Cause: Cancer 1
Burial:
Burial Place: Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, MD 1
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Birth:
Mother: Jane Ann Buchanan Lane 1
Father: Elliott Tole Lane 1
Marriage:
Henry Elliott Johnston, 1
11 Jan 1866 1
Baltimore, Maryland 1
Spouse Death Date: 1884 1
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Occupation:
First Lady 1
Religion:
Anglican/Episcopalian 1
Employment:
Employer: White House 1
Position: First Lady 1
Place: Washington DC 1
Start Date: 04 Mar 1857 1
End Date: 04 Mar 1861 1

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  1. Contributed by bruceyrock632
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Stories

Harriet Lane

 

Unique among First Ladies, Harriet Lane acted as hostess for the only President who never married: James Buchanan, her favorite uncle and her guardian after she was orphaned at the age of eleven. And of all the ladies of the White House, few achieved such great success in deeply troubled times as this polished young woman in her twenties.

In the rich farming country of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, her family had prospered as merchants. Her uncle supervised her sound education in private school, completed by two years at the Visitation Convent in Georgetown. By this time, "Nunc" was Secretary of State, and he introduced her to fashionable circles as he had promised, "in the best manner." In 1854 she joined him in London, where he was minister to the Court of St. James. Queen Victoria gave "dear Miss Lane" the rank of ambassador's wife; admiring suitors gave her the fame of a beauty.

In appearance "Hal" Lane was of medium height, with masses of light hair almost golden. In manner she enlivened social gatherings with a captivating mixture of spontaneity and poise.

After the sadness of the Pierce administration, the capital eagerly welcomed its new "Democratic Queen" in 1857. Harriet Lane filled the White House with gaiety and flowers, and guided its social life with enthusiasm and discretion, winning national popularity.

As sectional tensions increased, she worked out seating arrangements for her weekly formal dinner parties with special care, to give dignitaries their proper precedence and still keep political foes apart. Her tact did not falter, but her task became impossible--as did her uncle's. Seven states had seceded by the time Buchanan retired from office and thankfully returned with his niece to his spacious country home, Wheatland, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

From her teenage years, the popular Miss Lane flirted happily with numerous beaux, calling them "pleasant but dreadfully troublesome." Buchanan often warned her against "rushing precipitately into matrimonial connexions," and she waited until she was almost 36 to marry. She chose, with her uncle's approval, Henry Elliott Johnston, a Baltimore banker. Within the next 18 years she faced one sorrow after another: the loss of her uncle, her two fine young sons, and her husband.

Thereafter she decided to live in Washington, among friends made during years of happiness. She had acquired a sizable art collection, largely of European works, which she bequeathed to the government. Accepted after her death in 1903, it inspired an official of the Smithsonian Institution to call her "First Lady of the National Collection of Fine Arts." In addition, she had dedicated a generous sum to endow a home for invalid children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It became an outstanding pediatric facility, and its national reputation is a fitting memorial to the young lady who presided at the White House with such dignity and charm. The Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics serve thousands of children today.

Harriet Lane

When James Buchanan became the first bachelor President, various rumors circulated in Washington society about the unusual situation. One tale told the story of a youthful Buchanan who had vowed never to marry when a misunderstanding with his fiancée caused her suicide. Another more persistent account cited Buchanan's longtime relationship with the also unmarried Senator William Rufus Devane King from Alabama. The two had lived together in Washington for sixteen years, and letters between them indicate that Buchanan and King had, at the very least, shared a deep friendship.

 

In any event, Buchanan was without a wife but not at a loss for female companionship. He surrounded himself with the wives of his friends and political advisers and contented himself with the company of his ward and niece, Harriet Lane. "Nunc," as Harriet referred to him, had educated his niece about the importance of politics, discussing political issues with her. When James Buchanan became President, he asked Harriet to assume the duties of presidential hostess.

 

The role did not intimidate the twenty-seven-year-old. When her uncle served as ambassador to Britain, Harriet experienced life at the British court and became a favorite of Queen Victoria. During James Buchanan's 1856 campaign for the presidency, Harriet hosted events which helped promote his bid for office. Thus, when Harriet entered the White House, she took up her duties with great confidence.

 

Although she pursued no one special project, Harriet used her position to draw attention to the fine arts. She invited artists to her events and began to lobby for a national art gallery. Interest in art spurred another passion. During her time in England, Harriet began to study, collect, and promote Native American arts at a time when the arts of Africa and Asia were generating interest in the West. Her appreciation of indigenous artistic expression led to her tolerance of minorities in general and to her interest in the welfare of Native Americans in particular. She worked with reformers to educate lawmakers about the medical and educational needs of the various tribes and tried to stop the sale of liquor on the reservations. Because of her efforts, the Chippewa Nation heralded her as the "Great Mother of the Indians."

 

If Harriet Lane was a "Great Mother" to some, she was a "Democratic Queen" to many others. After four years of the sad and dour Jane Pierce, Americans were ready for a vivacious social leader. Harriet Lane did not disappoint them. Her inaugural gown marked her as a fashion icon, and her penchant for carrying bouquets of roses and vacationing at exclusive spas made her a glamorous figure. Her youth and beauty captivated an American public which named flowers, perfumes, poems, and clothing for her, treating her as American royalty. But some soon wondered if their "Democratic Queen" would actually become Queen of England. In 1860, Edward Albert, the Prince of Wales, paid a visit to the United States. His trip was followed closely by the press, which noted that the couple toured Mount Vernon, danced together, and played games of tenpins.

 

But even as Harriet entertained English royalty, she was more than a social hostess for her uncle; she was in many ways James Buchanan's partner. He clearly appreciated Harriet's role and accorded her all the prestige enjoyed by a presidential spouse. Despite the pair's closeness, the relationship at times grew strained. Harriet never appreciated having to entertain suitors with "Nunc" looking on, and she resented him opening her mail. Her discontent was evident when, in 1859, she took a three-month summer vacation from the capital and the President.

 

Despite their differences, Harriet remained an important source of support for her uncle during the sectional crisis. Like most Americans, Harriet had been aware of the increasing tensions in the country. It appears that she privately opposed slavery and Southern secession, though she worried about the country's economic future if the "peculiar institution" were abolished. Publicly, however, she remained silent on the issue of slavery and insisted that her guests follow her example. Her social skills began to serve a political purpose as she manipulated complex seating arrangements at dinner parties and entertainments, keeping political foes apart and dispensing equal favor to all. Unfortunately, her efforts at keeping the peace at White House social gatherings translated neither into a smooth presidency for her uncle nor into peace for the nation. Indeed, the commencement of the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln's valiant and successful struggle to save the Union, as well as the shrewishness of Mary Todd Lincoln, have eclipsed both the presidency of James Buchanan and the tenure of Harriet Lane.

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