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This Day in History: First Lady Harriet Lane

On this day in 1830, Harriet Lane is born. The young Pennsylvanian would go on to act as First Lady for her uncle, James Buchanan. She was just one of several First Ladies who served, even though they were not married to the President.


In this case, Harriet assumed the role of White House hostess because her uncle was our country’s only bachelor President.


Harriet’s life began on a tragic note: Her mother passed away when Harriet was only nine, and her father passed away not long afterwards. The young preteen became the ward of her favorite uncle, James Buchanan. He was then a United States Senator from Pennsylvania.

Harriet and her sister were sent to boarding school, but he was involved in their education and upbringing, nonetheless. Indeed, Harriet visited D.C to attend functions with her uncle, and they kept up a spirited—and educational—correspondence.


“My labors are great,” he wrote his concerned niece on one occasion, “but they do not ‘way’ me down, as you write the word. Now I would say ‘weigh,’ but doctors may differ on this point.”


By 1853, Buchanan had been appointed Minister to the United Kingdom. Harriet’s sister would marry and move to California, but Harriet went with her uncle to London. She made quite an impression there, and Queen Victoria took to calling her “dear Miss Lane.”


The Queen treated her as if she were an ambassador’s wife, an unusual compliment. In the meantime, others were also impressed. They considered Harriet a great beauty, with her stunning violet-colored eyes.


Buchanan’s service in London came to an end, and he was elected to follow President Franklin Pierce into office. The Pierce family had unfortunately suffered many personal tragedies while in the White House: The administration had been marked by sadness. When Buchanan arrived in town with his lovely and lively niece, the new White House hostess was an instant hit.


American women loved her sense of style, and they mimicked her clothes and her hair. She lowered the neckline on her inaugural dress by about 2 inches—a bold move, but it was met with approval.


“Lane became a celebrity,” the White House Historical Association concludes, “as Americans consumed news and gossip about the first lady like she was a star of the stage. She signed autographs for charity, christened boats, and acquired free samples of the latest fashions of the day. . . . [She] oversaw a refurbishment of the Blue Room and presided over several important foreign visits.”


Some have credited her as the inspiration for the label “First Lady” because Harper’s Weekly referred to her as “Our Lady of the White House” in 1858. Later, another publication called her “the first lady in the land.”


Either way, Buchanan left office before the Civil War began, and Harriet ultimately married a Baltimore banker, Henry Elliot Johnston. They had two sons who died of rheumatic fever in the early 1880s: One son was 15 and one was 12. The Johnstons funded a pediatric medical facility in their grief, but Harriet’s troubles weren’t over yet. Her husband passed away in 1884.


She’d lost her entire family in less than four years.  She grieved for a period . . . but she regained her balance.  She kept giving to her country.


Harriet devoted herself to philanthropic causes after her family died, including funding for the first U.S. children’s clinic associated with a medical school. Johns Hopkins, for example, owes much to Harriet’s generosity.


In the end, she didn’t pass away until 1903, nearly 20 years after her husband and more than 30 years after her uncle.


Yet another AMERICAN story of perseverance. Such stories surely deserve to be remembered.

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