Harriet Lane

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For ships named Harriet Lane, see USCGC Harriet Lane. For the murder victim, see Henry Wainwright.
Harriet Lane
Harriet Lane.jpg
First Lady of the United States
In office
March 4, 1857 – March 4, 1861
Preceded by Jane Pierce
Succeeded by Mary Todd Lincoln
Personal details
Born (1830-05-09)May 9, 1830
Franklin County, Pennsylvania, USA
Died July 3, 1903(1903-07-03) (aged 73)
Narragansett, Rhode Island, USA
Spouse(s) Henry Elliott Johnston
Relations James Buchanan (uncle)
Children James Buchanan Johnston
Henry Elliott Johnston
Religion Episcopalian
Signature

Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston (May 9, 1830 – July 3, 1903), acted as First Lady of the United States during the presidency of her uncle, lifelong bachelor James Buchanan, from 1857 to 1861. Among the handful of women who have served as first lady while not being married to the president, she is by far the best known. (Most of the other women were relatives of widowed presidents.)

Early life[edit]

Harriet Lane's family was from Franklin County, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest child of Elliott Tole Lane, a merchant, and Jane Ann Buchanan Lane. She lost her mother when she was 9; when her father's death 2 years later made her an orphan, she requested that her favorite uncle, James Buchanan, be appointed her legal guardian. Buchanan, an unmarried Democratic senator from Pennsylvania, indulged his niece and her sister, enrolling them in boarding schools in Charles Town, Virginia (later for two years at the Academy of the Visitation Convent in the Georgetown section of Washington, D.C.) By this time, Buchanan was Secretary of State, and he introduced her to fashionable circles as he had promised.

In 1854, she joined him in London, where he was minister to the Court of St. James's. Queen Victoria gave "dear Miss Lane" the rank of ambassador's wife; admiring suitors gave her the fame of a beauty. In appearance "Hal" Lane was of medium height, with masses of light, almost golden-colored hair.

First Lady of the United States[edit]

The capital welcomed its new "Democratic Queen" to the White House in 1857. Harriet was a popular hostess during the four years of the Buchanan presidency. Women copied her hair and clothing styles (especially when she lowered the neckline on her inaugural gown by 2.5 inches), parents named their daughters for her, and a popular song ("Listen to the Mockingbird") was dedicated to her. While in the White House, she used her position to promote social causes, such as improving the living conditions of Native Americans in reservations. She also made a point of inviting artists and musicians to White House functions. For both her popularity and her advocacy work, she has been described as the first of the modern first ladies, and her popularity at the time is compared to that of Jacqueline Kennedy in the 1960s.[1] The presidential yacht was named for her—the first of several ships to be named for her, one of which is still in service today.

Harriet Lane

As sectional tensions increased, she worked out seating arrangements for her weekly formal dinner parties with special care, to give dignitaries their proper precedence and still keep political foes apart. Her tact did not falter, but her task became impossible—as did her uncle's. Seven states had seceded by the time Buchanan retired from office and returned with his niece to his spacious country home, Wheatland, near Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Romance and marriage[edit]

From her teenage years, the popular Miss Lane flirted happily with numerous men, calling them "pleasant but dreadfully troublesome". Buchanan often warned her against "rushing precipitately into matrimonial connections", and she waited until she was almost 36 to marry. She chose, with her uncle's approval, Henry Elliott Johnston, a Baltimore banker. Within the next 18 years she lost her uncle, both her young sons, and her husband.[2]

Later life and death[edit]

Thereafter she decided to live in Washington. She had acquired a sizable art collection, largely of European works, which she bequeathed to the government. Accepted after her death in 1903, it inspired an official of the Smithsonian Institution to call her "First Lady of the National Collection of Fine Arts".[3]

In addition, she dedicated a generous sum to endow a home for invalid children at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore. It became a renowned pediatric facility; the Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics serve thousands of children today, and the widely used manual for pediatric house officers, The Harriet Lane Handbook, bears her name.

Harriet wrote her will in 1895 and lived another eight years, during which the country's general prosperity greatly increased the value of her estate. She added a codicil in 1899 directing that a school building be constructed on the grounds of the Washington National Cathedral property and asked that it be called the Lane-Johnston Building "to the end that the family names of my husband and myself may be associated with the bequest made in loving memory of our sons." A codicil of 1903 increased her gift by one third but said that only half the total was to be spent on the building. The remainder was "specially to provide for the free maintenance, education and training of choirboys, primarily those in service of the Cathedral." This bequest founded the prestigious boys' school that today is called St. Albans School, which opened in October 1909.[4]

Lane-Johnston Building, St. Albans School

At Harriet Lane Johnston's funeral, services were conducted by Bishop Satterlee and Canon DeVries of the Washington National Cathedral. She was buried in Green Mount Cemetery, Baltimore, Maryland, her grave marked with a Celtic cross like the Peace Cross on the cathedral close. In 1905, guests were summoned to see the cornerstone of the first St. Albans School building, laid for what the invitation referred to as "The Lane Johnston Choir School for Boys of the Washington Cathedral".

Legacy[edit]

The United States Coast Guard has had three cutters named in her honor. The first was the USRC Harriet Lane, commissioned into the United States Revenue Cutter Service (predecessor of the USCG) in 1857. This cutter was transferred to the United States Navy in 1861 because of the American Civil War and Lieutenant W. D. Thompson fired the first naval shot of the Civil War from her decks, she was captured by the Confederate Navy in 1863, recaptured by the US Navy but was declared to be in too poor a shape to be of any further use to the Navy. She was sold to a private party.

The second cutter named for Harriet Lane was the 125-foot USCGC Harriet Lane (WSC-141), commissioned in 1926 and decommissioned in 1946.

The third cutter named for Harriet Lane is the USCGC Harriet Lane (WMEC-903). The cutter was commissioned in May 1984, and as of 2014, is still in active service.

The Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics continue to operate in countries throughout the world.

The pediatric medicine Harriet Lane Handbook series continues in print and online, with multiple titles. The original title (subtitled "A Manual for Pediatric House Officers") is in its 19th edition. Published by Mosby.

Her birthplace, the Lane House, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1972.[5]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Stern, Milton (2005). Harriet Lane: America's First Lady. Self-published. ISBN 978-1-4116-2608-9
  2. ^ Original text based on White House biography
  3. ^ Klapthor, Margaret Brown (1995). The First Ladies. White House Historical Association. ISBN 0-912308-58-3
  4. ^ Bergheim, Laura (1992). The Washington Historical Atlas: Who Did What When and Where in the Nation's Capital. Woodbine House. ISBN 0-933149-42-5.
  5. ^ "National Register Information System". National Register of Historic Places. National Park Service. 2010-07-09. 
  • John Updike, Buchanan Dying, 1974, a play. (Ms. Johnston is a character in this play about President Buchanan).

External links[edit]

Honorary titles
Preceded by
Jane Means Appleton Pierce
First Lady of the United States
1857–1861
Succeeded by
Mary Todd Lincoln