The First First Lady

by Laura Klotz

It’s well understood that the First Lady of the United States is, at least usually, the wife of the President. The role is a little undefined, but she’s the social center of the White House and a great supporter of the President. The origins of the title, however, are less well known. It’s said that it was first attributed to Dolley Madison, widow of President James Madison, in a speech at her funeral. Martha Washington was known as “Lady Washington,” and is technically the original First Lady, but neither she nor her successor Abigail Adams were ever called that in their lifetimes.

The full term is actually “first lady in the land,” and it became an official title because of one very unique person.

Harriet Lane was born on May 9, 1830, in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania. Not much is known about her parents, merchant Elliot Tole Lane and the former Jane Buchanan. Harriet was the sixth of their seven children, and by the time she was eleven, she had lost both of her parents to consumption. At Harriet’s request, her mother’s brother James then became her guardian.

James Buchanan is not exactly America’s favorite President, largely due to the role he played in the events leading up to the Civil War. But whatever can be said about him politically, he was a loving uncle to the children of his brothers and sisters. He was particularly attached to Harriet and also to one of his nephews, James Buchanan Henry (affectionately known as “Buck”), of whom he also became guardian. When he purchased Wheatland, an estate on the outskirts of Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Buchanan brought both of his wards to live there with him and his housekeeper, Esther Parker, and fondly called the three of them his “little family.”

The Buchanan estate, Wheatland, in Lancaster; photograph by the author.

Buchanan had great respect for his niece’s intellect, tact, and discernment. Accordingly, he had her extremely well educated; she spoke multiple languages, played the piano, and read extensively. At home, she had unrestricted access to her uncle’s political and legal library, and was often permitted to sit in on his meetings. For her part, Harriet adored “Nunc,” as she called him. She supported his quiet desire to be President; when she visited friends in Pittsburgh in 1851, she used the opportunity to win support for him to be nominated as the Democratic Presidential candidate. He lost the nomination, but it was clear that she was an asset to his aspirations.

Buchanan was instead appointed Minister to Great Britain, and brought Harriet as his companion while he took up the post. Anxious to make her uncle proud, and determined to be a good representative of the United States, she soon became the toast of London society. Among her new friends were the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Dowager Duchess of Somerset, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. Most important, of course, was her presentation at court to Queen Victoria and Prince Albert; Victoria was so impressed with “dear Miss Lane,” as she called her, that she insisted Harriet be given the honors due to an ambassador’s wife rather than a younger relation. Harriet remained a friend of the royal family for the rest of her life, even attending Edward VII’s coronation in 1902.

Piano and music book of Harriet Lane, on display at Wheatland. On the wall are personally signed portraits of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert, given to Harriet by the Prince of Wales. Photograph by the author.

Harriet was a reputed beauty. She was of medium height and had soft, light brown hair that was described as being almost golden in color, though it darkened to auburn as she got older. Her eyes were very blue and contemporaries often called them violet. As an attractive, accomplished lady, she had numerous suitors and offers of marriage, both at home and in Europe; but while she enjoyed the attention, she resisted accepting any proposals out of a sense of duty to her uncle. She felt he needed her more, and she would not consent to an engagement of which he did not approve. Besides, in her own words, she found her suitors to be “pleasant but troublesome.”

After returning to America, James Buchanan once again sought the Presidential nomination. He finally received it in 1856, and often gave speeches from his front porch at Wheatland. Harriet could not publicly campaign on his behalf, as she was in formal mourning for the recent death of her sister Mary. She was, however, with her uncle on election night when he received a group of visitors who came to congratulate him on his victory. She and cousin Buck moved to the White House with him after his inauguration, where Buck served as Buchanan’s personal secretary, fulfilling the duties of what today is the White House Chief of Staff.

Harriet, meanwhile, became the White House hostess for her bachelor uncle. This baffled the press somewhat; since she wasn’t “Mrs. Buchanan,” they weren’t sure what to call her. It was in Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper on March 31, 1860 that the phrase “first lady in the land” was used to describe Harriet Lane, in an article praising her poise and conduct as hostess. Accompanying the article was an engraving, which was a copy of a photograph of Harriet taken by Julius Ulke.

Portrait of Harriet Lane by Julius Ulke. This copy is on display at the
Lancaster County Visitor Center.

As First Lady, Harriet was the center of social life in the capital city and the model for women across the country. Her hairstyles were copied minutely, and when she lowered her gowns’ necklines by two inches, so did everyone else. She was regarded as charming, intellectual, and extremely fashionable. She welcomed all White House guests, including the Prince of Wales, who stayed there during his tour of the United States and visited George Washington’s tomb with Harriet and her uncle. In order for any visitor to meet with the President, they first had to get past Harriet, because she ran Buchanan’s social calendar for him.

Another important task which fell to Harriet was to arrange her uncle’s numerous dinner parties; but as his term continued, this became more difficult. She had to seat guests so that political opponents were not sitting together, but also so that no one felt slighted by their placement at the table. By the time Buchanan’s term ended in 1861, this had become all but impossible, not least because seven states had seceded from the union. Buchanan was relieved to leave the White House and return to Wheatland; maybe Harriet was too.

At the age of 36, Harriet finally married; her husband was wealthy banker Henry Elliott Johnston, a longtime friend. Buchanan approved the match, and the wedding was held in the family parlor at Wheatland, officiated by another uncle, Rev. Edward Young Buchanan. Harriet afterward relocated to her husband’s home in Baltimore, Maryland, but remained devoted to Buchanan with frequent letters and occasional visits; her eldest son, born eleven months after the wedding, was named after him. Buchanan died in 1868 and bequeathed Wheatland to Harriet, who used it as a summer home for the next several years with her husband, young James, and second son Henry Jr.

ctual luggage belonging to Harriet Lane and Henry Elliott Johnston, including her Louis Vuitton trunks (left), on display at Wheatland. Photograph by the author.

Tragedy struck Harriet yet again when her sons both became deathly ill with rheumatic fever, and James died in 1881. His grieving parents took Henry Jr. to France, hoping that a change of air would help; it sadly did not, and he died there in 1882. In their sons’ memory, Harriet and Henry established what is today the Harriet Lane Clinic for pediatric care at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. But before the dedication was complete, Henry died unexpectedly in 1884. Harriet was devastated; she had buried her parents, her favorite uncle, her sister, all five of her brothers, both of her children, and now her husband. She sold both Wheatland and her Baltimore home and moved to Washington, D.C., reclaiming her place in society there. She endured for almost two more decades, dying while on a trip to Rhode Island in 1903. 

Harriet’s legacy is vast and ongoing; in addition to the Harriet Lane Clinic, she contributed to the establishment of what are today St. Alban’s School for Boys and the National Cathedral School for Girls. Her extensive art collection was donated to the Smithsonian and formed the beginnings of the National Gallery of Art. Both her childhood home in Mercersburg and Wheatland in Lancaster have been declared historic landmarks; Wheatland is open as a public museum and contains many items which belonged to Harriet, including her prayer kneeler, her piano, and a doll dressed in a replica of her wedding gown. And her official title of First Lady has been used by the White House hostess ever since she held the role.

Portrait of Harriet Lane Johnston late in life, painted by Ted Morrow, on display at Wheatland. Photograph by the author.

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About the Author

Laura Klotz is an amateur historian whose primary focus is local apocrypha in Pennsylvania, where her family has lived for more than 200 years. Through her blog, MarkerQuest, she explores and shares the state’s history as presented on markers erected by the Pennsylvania Historic and Museum Commission, with their permission. In her spare time she makes great soup, plays a lot of video games, and travels as much as her health will allow. A published author and dilettante photographer, she delights in answering questions nobody actually asked her. She lives in Pennsylvania’s beautiful Lehigh Valley with her husband, sister, and three spoiled cats.

Visit MarkerQuest at https://pamarkers.blogspot.com

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