First Lady Biography: Harriet Lane
Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston
Born: May 9, 1830
Died: January 13, 1903
Birthplace: Mercersburg, Pennsylvania
Father: Elliot Tole Lane (1784-1840)
Mother: Jane Buchanan Lane (1793-1839)
Siblings: Four brothers and one sister
Physical Description: Tall, blonde (almost ash colored), with violet-blue eyes, a full bosom and figure, and very regal in bearing and a good dancer. She would become a very handsome older woman with snow-white hair.
Education and childhood: Having lost both her parents within a year of one another, Harriet Lane came to live with "Nunc" as James Buchanan was called by his ward. As a child, she was rather gawky, wild, and more prone to climb trees than to read books, something that alarmed her rather stoic guardian. He would see to it that she received a good, sound education, which turned her into a genteel, proper lady. Call "Hal," by the future president, Harriet became his closest confidante. She moved into his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where he even provided her with her every need, even with a piano. Harriet was sent to a day school run by Miss Young and later to Miss Crawford’s Boarding School, which she disliked so much that her uncle placed her in a boarding school in Charlestown, Virginia (later West Virginia). When Buchanan became Secretary of State under James K. Polk, he placed Harriet in the highly regarded Georgetown Visitation Convent, where she finished her education and graduated in 1848.
Personality: Cheerful, playful and generous to a fault, Harriet Lane was popular and admired for both her looks and spirits. Although she was already in love with her future husband, Henry Elliot Johnston, Harriet delayed her marriage so she could help her bachelor uncle. James Buchanan had purchased a large house and lands around it called Wheatland, and Harriet Lane served as his hostess. With her love of dancing, music and receiving people, Harriet was an asset to her uncle.
Life before White House: (1848-1857): By the time Harriet was twenty-two, she was an accomplished hostess. With the election of Franklin Pierce in 1852, Harriet Lane’s beloved "Nunc" was named American Minister to Great Britain. Harriet joined Buchanan in London in 1854, where she was presented to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Her presentation was so correct and performed so flawlessly that the Queen decreed that Miss Lane be accorded the same respect due a wife of an ambassador. She would become a regular in Court circles. While in England, Harriet acquired a life-long love for art. She began collecting works of art. Her interest in Native American art led her to take more interest in the cause of Native Americans. Upon their return to America, Buchanan found himself elected to the presidency. He turned to his niece to serve as official hostess.
The White House: 1857-1861. Harriet’s brother, Elliot Lane – who served as James Buchanan’s secretary, died of a fever in April 1857. Once the mourning period ended, Harriet Lane’s term as First Lady would be one of light, music, and beauty. She was young, beautiful, and extremely popular. Dances, waltzes, songs, colors, ships, and other items were named for her. She was highly visible and always at her uncle’s side. She and her uncle made full use of the conservatory put in by President Pierce.
In 1860, the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VII) arrived in the United States and was received at the White House. There was music for the royal guest but no dancing, because it had been banned since the Polk administration. The bedroom the Prince used (and where Willie Lincoln died in 1862) was long afterwards referred to as "The Prince of Wales Room". The royal visit was a great success.
Harriet Lane joined a movement to start a national art gallery. She also spoke on the cause of Native Americans. Among the many honors given to her, none pleased her more than having the song, "Listen to the Mockingbird" dedicated to her. Her only error in judgment was when she invited friends on board the USS Harriet Lane for a party, only to be sharply reprimanded by her angry uncle and press since the ship was government property.
Harriet Lane loyally defended James Buchanan against criticism. Towards the end of her time in the White House, Harriet could look back on four eventful years.
Husband: Henry Elliot Johnston (died 1884)
Courtship and Marriage: Having met Henry Johnston years before when both were young, Harriet kept up a friendship with him through the years. They announced their engagement in October 1864, to the great joy of James Buchanan. They were married at Wheatland on January 11, 1866 by another uncle, the Rev. Edward Young Buchanan (who was married to Stephen Foster’s sister). They honeymooned in Cuba.
Age at Marriage: 35 years
Children: James Buchanan Johnston (1866-1881)
Henry Elliot Johnston (1869-1882)
Death: January 13, 1903 in Narragansett, Rhode Island
Age at Death: 73 years
Legacy: Though Harriet Rebecca Lane is not a "wife" of a President, she nonetheless filled the difficult position of First Lady with a grace, elegance, and aplomb of a woman much older and much more experienced than her. Her legacies include helping the Native American, helping children and joining a movement for a national art gallery. In her will, she donated her invaluable art collection to the Smithsonian, which eventually became the nucleus of the National Gallery of Art. Having lost both her sons in a year’s time, Harriet Lane turned her attentions to issues that would benefit children. The Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children is now part of Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. She also watched the building of the National Cathedral and funded a school, St. Albans, to train boys to become choristers. This school still exists.