Harriet Lane
First Lady to a Bachelor President
By Anne Adams


Despite their many individual differences, all of the American presidents have something in common – except one of them.  For though all presidents entered the White House with their wife or as a widower, only one, James Buchanan (1857-1861) was a lifelong bachelor. However, he did not lack a  “First Lady” and though she was not a wife but a niece, she fulfilled the traditional responsibilities with charm and skill. And as she did so she endeared herself to not just her uncle but also the entire nation.

Harriet Rebecca Lane, born in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania in January, 1830, was orphaned ten years later when her parents died. The gawky tomboy then came to live with her mother’s brother, James Buchanan, whom she called “Nunc.” Preferring to climb trees than apply herself to her studies to become a proper lady, “Hal”, as the future president called her, was certainly a challenge to a bachelor. Still, he was determined to provide her the proper education and cultural opportunities and as she grew up in his Lancaster, Pennsylvania home, Harriet and her uncle became very close.

Even at a young age, Harriet demonstrated at a life long sensitivity to the needs of others. According to Mrs. John A. Young in her 1901 book Thirty Years in Washington when Harriet was eleven, one day Buchanan looked out his window one winter day and saw her trying to push a wheelbarrow filled with wood down the street. When he rushed out to question her about what she was doing, she told him that she was taking the wood to a local elderly local because it was so cold.

Harriet received her education at local schools, as well as a Charlestown, West Virginia boarding school. Then when President James K. Polk appointed Buchanan Secretary of State, Harriet enrolled in a prestigious convent school in Georgetown in the Washington area. She completed her schooling in 1848.

A happy, generous and fun loving young woman with numerous friends, Harriet proved a charming hostess for Buchanan as he continued in public service. Though she was in love with a young man named Henry Elliot Johnston, and they would later wed, she put off marriage so she could assist her uncle in his public life.  Then while she was still in her early 20s she did just that when President Franklin Pierce appointed Buchanan American Minister to Great Britain. Beginning in 1854, Harriet accompanied her uncle to London, and then was presented at court to Queen Victoria and the royal family. She so impressed the young monarch with her charm and perfect manners that the Queen decreed her a distinct honor. As Mrs. Young described it: “Queen Victoria, upon whom her surpassing brightness and loveliness seemed to make a deep impression, decided that her rank should be the same as that of wife of a United States Minister. Thus the youthful American girl became one of the leading ladies of the Diplomatic Corps of Saint James.”

Then when her uncle and poet Alfred Lord Tennyson received honors at the University of Oxford, the student body greeted Harriet with a standing ovation. Also, during her time in Britain, Harriet developed a life long interest in collecting art. Then when Buchanan returned to the U.S. he was elected President and Harriet joined him in the White House.

Though there had previously been White House hostesses who were not the wife of a President, they were usually family members filling in for a deceased or incapacitated Presidential spouse. Yet when Buchanan entered the Executive Mansion in March, 1857, it was the first time a Chief Executive had never married and so by serving as “First Lady” Harriet occupied a unique position.  However, as they entered the White House they briefly postponed social events because of the death from fever of Elliot, Harriet’s brother, who was Buchanan’s secretary. When entertaining resumed and Harriet began her duties as “First Lady,” her beauty and charm assured her popularity.  Frequently in attendance at events with her uncle, she was often the center of attention at White House receptions and dinners. “At White House receptions,” said Mrs. Young, “and on all state occasions, the sight of this stately beauty, standing beside her distinguished grey-haired uncle, made a unique and delightful contrast which thousands flocked to see.” Admirers copied her hair and clothing styles, and innumerable little girls were named for her. She was particularly flattered when the popular song “Listen to the Mockingbird” was dedicated to her.  Harriet also began the tradition for First Ladies to promote a special cause and with Miss Lane it was improving the living conditions of American Indians on reservations. She also was intentional in inviting promising and talented artists and musicians to the White House.

Mrs. Young was effusive in her praise of the young woman.  “Her eyes, of deep violet, shed a constant, steady light, yet they could flash with rebuke, kindle with humor, or soften in tenderness. Her mouth was her most peculiarly-beautiful features, capable of expressing infinite humor or absolute sweetness, while her classic head was crowned with masses of golden hair.” Another honor she received was when a warship was named for her but when she entertained a group of friends on the ship at a private party, her uncle was not so happy. The president as well as the press chided her because of her inappropriate use of government property.

Since the sectional differences that would culminate in the Civil War meant opposing political factions, these were reflected in the White House guests. It meant Harriet had to be particularly careful in her planning to assure proper diplomats precedence and also to keep political foes separated. Eventually as emotions about the current issues became more intense she often could not please everyone.

In 1860 the year before her uncle left office, Harriet welcomed the Prince of Wales (Later King Edward VII) to the White House as he toured America. Though dancing was not a part of the entertainment at that time, there was abundant music and an elegant atmosphere suitable for visiting royalty. According to Mrs. Young, the Prince “presented his portrait to Mr. Buchanan and a set of engravings to Miss Lane, as ‘a slight mark of his grateful recollection of the hospitable reception and agreeable visit at the White House.’ “ The bedroom occupied by the future king was known for many years as the Prince of Wales room, though the chamber attained another place in history when Willie Lincoln died there in 1862.

When Buchanan left office in 1861, Harriet resumed her private life. Her engagement to Henry Johnston was announced in October, 1864, and to her uncle’s great happiness, they were married at Buchanan’s Pennsylvania home in January, 1866. She and Johnston would have two sons who died while still young.

Harriet continued to collect art and at her death her collection was willed to the Smithsonian and formed the basis of the National Gallery of Art. Her husband died in 1882 and Harriet herself lived till January, 1903.

She also left a generous bequest to establish a home for invalid children, a facility that would become a major pediatric care center. The Harriet Lane Outpatient Clinics today serve many youngsters.

Eventually there were three Coast Guard cutters named for Harriet. The first was in 1857, a vessel that became part of the American Navy in the Civil War and that was later captured by the Confederate Navy in 1863. (This was probably the setting of her “inappropriate” party.)  The second cutter was commissioned in 1926, and taken out of service twenty years later, and the third was commissioned in 1984 and is still in service.


Anne Adams, a freelance writer living in Houston, Texas, is the author of a new e-book “First of All, a Wife: Sketches of American First Ladies,” available from pcpublications.org. She has published in Christian and secular publications, taught history on the junior college level, and spoken at national and local writers’ conferences.