Substitute First Lady – Harriet Lane

Harriet Lane, Niece of US President James Buchanan

James Buchanan (1857-1861) was the only bachelor President. But he wasn’t the first President to enter the White House without a wife to act as official hostess. Other Presidents had been widowers or had wives too ill to serve in the rigorous role of White House hostess. The first had been Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), who had Dolley Madison, the wife of his Secretary of State, act as official hostess. Andrew Jackson’s wife had died between the election and inauguration day. He used his niece as his official hostess.

So when the bachelor Buchanan moved into the White House, the idea of a substitute official hostess was nothing new. Buchanan called on his twenty-seven year old niece, Harriet Lane, to serve as the official White House hostess during his term.

Harriet Lane was born in 1830. Her parents died when she was a child, and Buchanan assumed her guardianship in 1840, while serving as a U.S. Senator. Harriet was 27 when Buchanan moved into the White House. Harriet came to the White House with a wealth of social experience.

As a girl, Harriet attended an exclusive boarding school in Georgetown while her uncle served as Secretary of State in the cabinet of President Polk. Harriet visited the White House, and once had her picture taken (then a unique novelty) on the South Portico of the White House with the Polks and some fiends, including Dolley Madison. Harriet was a bright student, but had little use for school or the strict rules. A free spirit, she would much rather have been at a White House party than in a classroom. In one letter to her uncle, she wrote that she would much rather be with him attending balls and parties. He responded, “ After your education shall have been completed and your conduct approved by me . . . I shall be most happy to aid in introducing you to the world in the best manner.”

As firm as Buchanan tried to be with his niece, she had “Nunc” wrapped around her little finger. He could deny her nothing. When he went to England as Minister to the Court of St. James in 1853, she began writing him letters begging to be allowed to join him. In less than a month, she was on her way to England to visit.

Shortly after arriving, Harriet was presented to Queen Victoria. She appeared before the Queen in a gown made from 100 yards of white lace, her head crowned by diamonds and ostrich feathers. She quickly became a great favorite of the Queen, who broke with tradition and accorded Harriet the social rank of a minister’s wife.

The Queen was not alone in her admiration of the lively young Harriet. At least one elderly, titled gentleman proposed marriage, and the Queen openly encouraged Harriet to accept and remain in England. But Harriet rejected both the offer and the advice and returned to the United States where her uncle had finally been elected President after a long career aimed at the White House. Her experience in Washington society and Queen Victoria’s Court of St. James provided her considerable background and ability as a social hostess. Her cousin, Buck Henry, who also worked for Buchanan in the White House wrote that Harriet had a “natural aptitude and tact” further developed by her experience in London where she had managed “such details” for her uncle while he was minister.

At the inauguration, the press described Harriet as the “Democratic Queen” and in many ways she performed like a member of royalty. The wife of one southern Congressman described Harriet’s management of the White House as “the highest degree of elegance.” Most agreed that the capital had never been gayer than in the years of Harriet Lane, in spite of the tensions posed by the coming conflict of the Civil War.

Harriet’s popularity was astounding, and very reminiscent of more modern first ladies. The whole nation was taken with her youth, vitality and charm. One contemporary judged her as the perfect combination of “deference and grace.” A United States Coast Guard cutter was named after her, necklines went lower in response to her fashion lead, and the popular tune “Listen to the Mockingbird” was dedicated to her. She is the first White House occupant to be credited with having a song dedicated to her.

Her popularity also caused some potential problems. Harriet was offered and sent many gifts. President Buchanan had warned her against accepting the more expensive ones because of the appearance of impropriety. One oft told story had it that a young admirer of Harriet’s had picked up some pebbles and fashioned them into a bracelet for her. He added some diamonds to make the bracelet more attractive to Harriet.

Harriet realized that the President would object to her keeping such as expensive gift. Waiting until her uncle was in a good mood one evening, she asked is she could keep some “pebbles” she had been given. He told her that she could keep the pebbles. When Harriet told that story in later years, she would remind her listeners that, “Diamonds are pebbles, you know.”

Such stories of Harriet’s girlish innocence and her insistence on having her own way might have caused some embarrassment, but didn’t. The press and the public indulged the ingénue at the “head of female society.” But there was a more serious side to Harriet’s role in the White House.

Even before her uncle had been elected President, Harriet had taken a role in politics that was unprecedented. It was not acceptable for women to engage in political campaigning, but Harriet met with a prominent Pennsylvanian political leader to promote her uncle’s Presidential candidacy. She got away with it because of her youth, her beauty, and probably because she thoroughly charmed the politician in question.

Once in the White House, she used her position to help people. As the acting First Lady, she used her position to support and promote philanthropic causes such as hospital and prison reform, and better conditions for the Indians. Many people who felt they could get help nowhere else often appealed to Harriet. Her personal papers indicate that she often tried to get help for those who asked for her assistance. It is interesting to note the gratitude of Indians who sought her help. Many Indian daughters of that period were named Harriet out of gratitude and respect. She often helped get jobs for friends, and mixed artists with politicians at White House functions to give more importance to cultural matters. It was Harriet Lane who instituted concert evenings at the White House. Her personal interest in the arts is shown by the fact that she later left her own art collection to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. Her collection, along with others, became the basis of the National Collection of Fine Arts at the Smithsonian. The highlight of her time in the White House was the visit in 1860 of the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VII. One of the memorable events was an evening cruise down the Potomac River in aboard the U.S.S. Harriet Lane, the Coast Guard cutter named after her.

Inevitably, Harriet’s prominence and popularity led to accusations that she influenced the President, and many believed that he listened closely to her advice. Sarah Agnes Pryor, a writer who commented on Washington personalities, said that Harriet was her uncle’s “confidante in all matters political and personal.” Harriet’s political astuteness was especially valuable during Buchanan’s last few stormy months in office.

After leaving the White House, Harriet did not choose a political life for herself, although she easily could have. She married a banker named Henry Johnston, and they had two sons, James Buchanan Johnston born in 1866 and Henry Elliot Johnston born in 1870.

Her later life held many tragedies for Harriet. Her uncle died in 1868. In 1881, her oldest son died of rheumatic fever at the age of 14. In 1882, her other son died of the same illness at the age of 13. In 1884, her husband died suddenly of pneumonia. Harriet sold Wheatland, the estate of James Buchanan inherited after his death, and the family home in Baltimore. She moved to Washington, D.C. where she spent the rest of her life working for various philanthropic causes and the capital social circles she loved so much. Harriet Lane died of cancer in 1903.

One of her causes was the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children in Baltimore, which she and her husband had established after the death of their two sons, for the sole purpose of caring for children with chronic diseases. This was the first American pediatrics institution. It has since become the teaching and research pediatrics center of the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine.

Harriet Lane’s record as White House hostess indicates that she played a much more significant role than a lady of her time would normally have played. Her remarkable popularity, her experimentation with behind-the-scenes campaigning, her use of her position to help both friends and strangers in need, and her support of the arts, all make her sound like a more modern and recent First Lady.