She has been referred to as the “Democratic Queen”. Just as Jackie Kennedy was copied in dress and appearance so was the young niece of President James Buchanan.
Harriet Lane was born in Franklin County, Pennsylvania in May 1830. At an early age she lost her parents and Senator James Buchanan became her legal guardian.
Buchanan enrolled his niece in a boarding school in Charleston, Virginia, now present day West Virginia. Later he put her in the Academy of the Visitation Convent in Georgetown, Virginia.
Becoming First Lady
James Buchanan never married, so when he was elected as President in 1857 he needed someone to take on the role of hostess. His best choice for that role was Harriet Lane. As her legal guardian, Buchanan gave her the opportunity to travel with him and to learn about social functions in Washington, D.C.
American women became fascinated with her and began to imitate her hair style and her dress. It is rumored that Queen Victoria of England was so taken with the young beautiful American woman that she wanted her to “marry a nobleman and stay in England”.
Presidential Receptions at the White House
Prior to Harriet coming to the White House the former First Lady, Jane Pierce, wife of former President Franklin Pierce, was uninspiring. Harriet was young and eager to entertain the Washington, D.C. elite.
The receptions regularly cost more than her uncle’s presidential salary, which at the time was $2,083.33. In persuading her uncle as to why so much money needs to be spent was to show that the United States is a forward moving country. Buchanan could not say no to her.
A Distinguished Honor for the First Lady
As women were fighting for voting rights and other areas of being recognized the United States Revenue Service bestowed the honor of naming a ship the USS Harriet Lane.
The Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, took a leisurely ride down the Potomac to Mount Vernon. At the Washington’s tomb the Prince removes his hat, plants a tree and heads back to the White House for an elaborate party. The song “Listen to the Mocking Bird” was performed in honor of the First Lady. The Prince told the President and his hostess that the party was a “smashing success”.
The “Democratic Queen” Leaves the White House
In 1860 a new President and First Lady was moving to the White House. It was inevitable that there was going to be a Civil War and Buchanan had done little to try to prevent it. So, upon the arrival of President Abraham Lincoln and First Lady Mary Todd, Harriet Lane traveled with her uncle to his Wheatland home in Lancaster County, Pennsylvnaia.
Life after the White House
At thirty-six years old Harriet Lane married Henry Elliot Johnson. But her life would not be filled with joy. Within eighteen years she lost her uncle, two sons, and her husband.
She decided to move back to Washington, D.C. to live amongst friends. She collected art, mainly that of European artists, which after her death in July of 1903, she left to the United States government. They turned the display into the “First Lady of the National Collection of Fine Arts”.
She also left funds for a home for invalid children at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Maryland. Today the facility is an outstanding pediatrics center.
- Klein, Philip. President James Buchanan: A Biography. Newtown, CT. American Political Biography Press, 1995.
- Baker, Jean H. James Buchanan (The American Presidents). NY, Times Books, 2004.
- The White House First Lady Website