Harriet Lane was one of a number of women who served as the official White House hostess without being married to the President. She was greatly admired and well-liked even though by the end of his term her uncle James Buchanan was almost universally disliked. Referred to as the “Democratic Queen” and the “first lady of the land,” Lane was a superb hostess with a self-confidence that allowed her to push the boundaries and set new trends. She was also a woman of great warmth and generosity whose legacy is still felt today.
Harriet Lane was born on March 4, 1830 to Elliot Tole Lane and Jane Ann Buchanan Lane. The youngest of four children, her mother died when she was 9 years old and her father died when she was 11. Her father was a successful merchant, leaving the children with adequate resources, but at 11 years old Harriet needed a guardian. Her brothers were old enough to make their own way and her sister was already in boarding school, but Harriet didn’t adjust well to boarding school, so she went to live with her bachelor uncle James Buchanan.
Harriet’s mother, Jane, was Buchanan’s favorite sister and he knew and loved her children. He gladly took Harriet into his home and tended to indulge her and her sister who came to him during holidays from school. Harriet did go to boarding school later at Charles Town, Virginia and at the Academy of the Visitation Convent in Washington, D.C. where she graduated with honors. She was an outgoing, friendly girl who enjoyed the social activities which went along with her uncle’s position as a senator and from 1845 to 1849 as Secretary of State in Polk’s administration. But her most advantageous experience was as Buchanan’s companion when he was appointed Ambassador to the Court of St. James in 1854.
Harriet was a great success in London. She served as her uncle’s hostess and they dined often with Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. The Queen even gave her the title of “Honorary Ambassadress” to the Court with the courtesies generally given to the wife of the Ambassador and called her “the dear Miss Lane.” London society was the perfect preparation for her time at the White House.
James Buchanan was elected President of the United States in 1856. Out of the country for the preceding 4 years, he was one of the few experienced politicians who had not become embroiled in the controversy over slavery in the territories. With experience as Ambassador to both Russia and England, many hoped that his diplomatic skills could prevent the breakup of the Union. This wasn’t the case. He became increasingly unpopular as his term went on and by the time Lincoln took office, the Confederate States had formed and elected Jefferson Davis as their President.
In spite of her uncle’s unpopularity, Harriet Lane became one of the most well-liked First Ladies since Dolly Madison and brought elegance to the White House that wouldn’t be seen again until Jacqueline Kennedy. She gave new life to Washington society which had been very somber while Jane Pierce was First Lady. Ships and babies were named after her; she set fashion trends; and she established new customs for the White House.
As mistress of the house, Harriet dismissed all of the slaves on staff whose owners were receiving money for their service, and hired a new staff. She invited artists and musicians to the White House and set up large tents on the lawn for concerts and served refreshments for all who came. For State dinners, Harriet carefully determined seating arrangements to seat Northern and Southern guests at different tables and to separate guests who were on bad terms.
Only 26 when she went to the White House, Harriet possessed the self-confidence and grace of an older woman. She seemed equal to any social situation from soothing angry Congressmen, to entertaining members of the royal families of both Japan and England. But it would be a mistake to assume she was just an ornament to her uncle. While Harriet presided as White House she was determined to make a difference in people’s lives. Her three favorite causes were hospital reform, prison reform, and the needs of American Indians. The Chippewa called her “the Great Mother of the Indians” for her work in obtaining medical and educational services for them.
Once her time in the White House and the Civil War were over, Harriet could focus on herself. She had always had admirers, but none made a great impact until she met Henry Eliot Johnston. They were married in January of 1866 when Harriet was 35 years old. In spite of the death of James Buchanan, this was a happy time as Harriet and Henry had two sons born in November 1866 and 1870.
She spent her time being a wife and mother, and contributing to her causes, until tragedy struck Harriet’s life again. In March 1881, their oldest son James Buchanan Johnston died of rheumatic fever, followed in October 1882 by the loss of their second son Henry Eliot Johnston Jr. to the same disease.
As a memorial to their sons, the Johnston’s set up The Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children which eventually became the Teaching and Research Center of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. Then in May of 1884, Harriet unexpectedly found herself alone when Henry died of pneumonia.
Harriet Lane’s life had always been active, taking care of her uncle and his guests, cantankerous Congressmen, visiting dignitaries and then her family. This part of her personality wouldn’t change. In 1886, Harriet sold their home in Baltimore, Wheatland which she had inherited from her uncle, and many of her possessions. She found a home in Washington, D.C. in the center of the action and resumed her life in society. Beginning with a dinner at the White House where she put the young First Lady, Frances Cleveland at ease, for the next fifteen years no guest list would be complete without the name of Harriet Lane Johnston.
When Harriet was the First Lady she greatly impressed one visiting dignitary, the Prince of Wales. It only seems fitting that the last major event she attended was the coronation of the Prince when he became King Edward VII of England in August 1902. After she returned that fall she was diagnosed with cancer. She spent the next few months getting her affairs in order, then traveled to her summer home in Rhode Island where she wanted to spend her last days. Harriet Lane Johnston, America’s “Democratic Queen” died July 3, 1903.
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