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Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston (May
9, 1830 – July 3, 1903), niece of lifelong bachelor United States President James
Buchanan, acted as First
Lady of the United States from
1857 to 1861.
Harriet Lane's family was from Franklin
County, Pennsylvania. She was the youngest child of Elliott Tole Lane, a
merchant, and Jane Buchanan Lane. An orphan after the death of her father when
she was 11 years old (her mother had died two years earlier), she requested
that her favourite uncle, James Buchanan, be appointed her legal guardian.
Buchanan, an unmarried Democratic senator fromPennsylvania,
indulged his niece and her sister, enrolling them in boarding schools in Charleston, Virginia (later West
Virginia), and then for two years at the Academy of the Visitation Convent
in the Georgetown section
D.C. By this time, Buchanan was
Secretary of State, and he introduced her to fashionable circles as he had
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 hair
Lady of the United States
After the sadness of the Pierce administration,
the capital eagerly 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. The
Presidential Yacht was named for her and pressed into service during the Civil
War—the first of three ships to be named for her, one of which is still in
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,
From her teenage years, the popular Miss Lane flirted happily with numerous
beaux, calling them "pleasant but dreadfully troublesome." Buchanan often
warned her against "rushing precipitately into matrimonial connexions," 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 two young sons, and her husband.
Life and Death
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".
In addition, she had 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 pediatrichouse
officers, The Harriet Lane
Handbook, bears her name.
Also, 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. Several Episcopal clergymen were friends. On that account, perhaps,
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.
Why choirboys? Perhaps just an association with her angelic-looking sons.
Perhaps a love of the Anglican style, engendered by those high-stepping days
of the 1850s. Perhaps because her church in Baltimore, St. Paul’s, had a
famous vested choir of men and boys, in the English fashion, instituted at
Easter services in 1873, by the Rector, J.S.B. (for John Sebastian Bach)
Hodges, son of the organist at Bristol Cathedral, a doctor of music from
Cambridge. At first, the Johnstons were displeased by the shift from a choir
of men and women in street clothes and left St. Paul’s. But they returned and
became such enthusiasts of the vested choir that, according to a St. Paul’s
parish history, they expressed regret that their sons had not lived to sing in
it. (Mr. Hurlbut’s 1934 School history says the Johnston boys were choirboys
at St. Paul’s. [Mr. Stephen Hurlbut was a master of classics at St. Albans
School from 1921 until 1947.])
At Harriet Lane Johnston’s funeral, services were conducted by Bishop
Satterlee and Canon DeVries of the Washington National Cathedral. She was
buried in Baltimore at Green Mount Cemetery, her grave marked with a Celtic
Cross like the Peace Cross on the 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
Harriet Lane Johnston was mentioned on the society pages of the Washington
Star (now the Washington Post) almost weekly from 1884-1902.
She is buried at Green
Mount Cemetery, Baltimore,
States Coast Guard has had
three Cutters named
in her honor. The first was the USS
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
Civil War and was captured by
Navy in 1863.
The second cutter named for Harriet Lane was the 125 foot USCGC
Harriet Lane (WSC-141). The Cutter was 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 2008, is still in active service.
The Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics continue to operate in countries
throughout the world.
Albans School, Washington, DC
Miss Lane is the subject of the book, Harriet
Lane, America's First Lady by
Milton Stern (ISBN
978-1411626089), the only extensive biography of Miss Lane, which features
the only picture of her in her inaugural gown known to exist on the cover.