Harriet Lane Johnston (1830 - 1903), Niece of President James Buchanan, Hostess in the White House 1857 - 1861

By Joan C. McCulloh


(Photo Courtesy of St. Albans School)

          Harriet Lane’s education, both formal and informal, prepared her well for the responsibilities that lay ahead of her. 


          Harriet Lane, later Harriet Lane Johnston, niece of President James Buchanan, was hostess in the White House during her uncle’s Presidency from 1857 to 1861.  The daughter of Elliot T. Lane, whose family was from the area of Charlestown, Virginia, now West Virginia, and Jane Buchanan Lane, she was born in Mercersburg on May 9, 1830, in a large brick house, now 14 North Main Street, built by her uncle, Thomas Lane, and across the street from what had been her Grandfather Buchanan’s store and home. She was baptized on June 13 in the year of her birth in the local Presbyterian Church of the Upper West Conococheague, whose minister, the Reverend David Elliott, had officiated at the marriage of her parents in 1813.  Next to the youngest of seven children, four of whom lived to maturity, she spent her early girlhood in Mercersburg and, it is believed, attended Mrs. Sarah Young’s Female Seminary on Main Street, operated by Mrs. Young, widow of one of the professors in the local  theological seminary of the German Reformed Church who from time to time was assisted by two other ladies with connections to the seminary and at times seminary students.


           In 1830 when Harriet Lane was born in Mercersburg in what was probably the most elegant house in town and into a prominent family, the town with its six or seven hundred residents was busy.  In addition to her father who had a dry goods store but seems to have left that business about the time of her birth, several other merchants had stores in town.  Five physicians served the town that had skilled craftsmen such as James Wilkins, a silversmith who lived south of the square, Hugh Cowan, Joseph Bowman, and Robert King, cabinetmakers, Hugh McConnell, a potter,  and Leonard Leidy who manufactured plows, and one grocery, two druggists, three confectionaries, four tailor shops, six shoemakers, two hatters, two wagon makers, one coach maker, two weavers, two silversmiths, three butchers, two livery stables, two oyster cellars, four tanyards, one distillery, three hotels, four rough carpenters, six house joiners, four cabinet makers, five chair makers, four saddlers, four coopers, four blacksmiths, one female seminary, one flouring mill, and two brickyards, it can be assumed that in the 1830s the town was self-reliant with all of these skilled people.


          Her father, Elliot Lane, was important in the affairs of the town.  When the German Reformed Church placed an advertisement in area newspapers in search of a place to move its high school and seminary then located in York, Elliot Lane was one of the  local men who signed a letter indicating that men in Mercersburg would offer $10,000 to the church if it moved its school here.  The church accepted the prospectus of the local men so that what became Marshall College was moved here in 1835.  Mr. Lane became one of the trustees and was the chair of the committee to build the first building.


          We know almost nothing about Harriet’s first nine years, the years she spent in Mercersburg.  But we do know some of the experiences she must have had.  When Harriet was born,  her uncle, James Buchanan, a Democrat and supporter of Jackson, was serving in the House of Representatives.  Since in 1831 Jackson had appointed Buchanan to become minister to Russia, to which appointment he was confirmed in 1832, the family also had a further personal tie and interest in current events that would continue as Buchanan was appointed to the Senate in 1834 and elected to the Senate in 1837.  Since during all of Harriet’s early life Buchanan was active in national politics, she surely would have seen at times or heard of her Uncle James.  


          She would known about death.  Certainly when she looked out the windows in the front rooms of her house, she would have known that her Grandfather Buchanan had been killed in the alley adjacent to what had been his house and store across the street when his horse bolted and threw him out of his carriage.  She would have known about other deaths as one brother had died at age two before her own birth, another brother, William, died when she was about four years old, and a third brother, eighteen year old Thomas, died when Harriet  was aged five leaving two brothers and one sister, James Buchanan Lane, Elliot Eskridge Lane and Mary Elizabeth Speer Lane. 


          She also would have experienced some local events.  One of the most exciting, it seems, was the fourth of July celebration in 1836, the sixtieth anniversary of the reading of the Declaration of Independence.  On that day the citizens first went to the local new Methodist Church, heard a sermon, and then formed a parade consisting of the president of the day, the vice-presidents, one of whom was Elliot Lane, the secretaries, orator and reader, committee of arrangements, faculty of Marshall College, ladies, students, citizens, and Captain Bowles’ Light Infantry and went to a picnic.  After the meal the men proposed forty-five toasts, thirteen regular toasts and thirty-two impromptu toasts, one of which was to “James Buchanan, one of Pennsylvania’s brightest sons,” then a United State Senator. Elliot Lane’s toast was to “Marshall College, the intelligence and urbanity of the professors; the moral deportment and assiduity of the students give high promise of its future usefulness as a nursery of science in our country.” This seems to have been a most exciting day.


           But not all was festive and convivial in this time in the Mercersburg and the surrounding area as this was a time of tensions over slavery.  Many slaves were attempting to flee north of the Mason-Dixon line; therefore, many slave catchers were also busy.  In 1837 three slaves who had run away from their masters in Virginia arrived in Mercersburg.  After they had been taken to what they thought was a friendly house, the owner called the local constable.  When the constable arrived, one of the slaves with a scythe killed the constable.  In another incident those sympathetic to runaway slaves had a young man pose as a runaway slave and let himself be decoyed into the presence of a slave-catcher who always required slaves to walk behind him. The young man, assuming the life of a slave, followed the slave-catcher and struck him with a rifle.


          Also in 1837 when at the end of July Jonathan Blanchard, a young worker in the American Anti-slavery Society, which had been founded in 1833, came to town, a riot occurred in front of the Methodist church after an evening service there. Young Blanchard, who could not obtain a room in the local hotel or a room in which to lecture, was able to rent a room from Daniel Kroh, a Marshall College student, and his sister who ran a boardinghouse for students.  Although most of the rioters seem to have been students at Marshall College, Kroh was helpful to Blanchard and offered him protection from the mob.  A few days after the incident Elliot Lane brought charges in a faculty meeting at Marshall College against Daniel Kroh as follows:  “of having disturbed the peace of the Town by entertaining a Mr. Blanchard at his house, a lecturer on Abolition, secondly of having permitted him to lecture in his house, and thirdly of having violated a law of the college which forbids students carrying firearms.  Mr. Kroh having been seen carrying a gun up the street into his house.”  Lane’s actions at the time of this event imply that he was  unfriendly to abolition and  opposed to the work of  abolitionists.  Again what the Lane children knew of these occurrences is unknown, but these local events were a part of their world.



          But all of this changed as when she was nine years old, her mother, aged 46, died ; when she was eleven, her father, aged 56,  died.  Sometime after the death of her father, James Buchanan, exactly when is unknown, took her into his care as he at various times cared for several other nieces and nephews including James Buchanan Henry, his sister Harriet’s son, whom he took when the boy was seven and raised him to adulthood when he became Buchanan’s secretary, his niece, Jessie Magaw, the daughter of his sister Maria, whose care he undertook, and Elizabeth, the daughter of his sister Sarah for whom he made living arrangements and was responsible.  He was always concerned about his family.  It is believed that Harriet first lived with some of her Lane relatives for a brief time. When she came to Lancaster, perhaps he first sent her to a day school in Lancaster.  By this time she had become a fun-loving, mischievous, independent minded girl, probably a bit much for her bachelor uncle, a Senator from Pennsylvania.  The account is that when one day Buchanan was coming home to his home on East King Street in Lancaster he saw eleven year old Harriet pushing a wheelbarrow filled with wood.  When asked what she was doing, she replied that he she was taking the wood to a black servant, old Aunt Tabitha.  She seems to have been spirited in school also. It has been asserted that Buchanan warned her that if her deportment in school became faulty, he would send her to another school in Lancaster, operated by two unmarried sisters, the Misses Crawford.  At any rate he did send her to the school in which the strict discipline of the Misses Crawford interfered with her mischievous, fun-loving spirit, so that she was less than happy there  and complained about the brown sugar in the tea and “stiff necks and cold hearts,”  restrictions in dress and general strictness.  Exactly how long she attended the school is unknown. 


          It was during this time at the school run by the Misses Crawford that James Buchanan and Harriet began their long correspondence that lasted until his death in 1868.  Since she later destroyed much of  her correspondence, more of Buchanan’s letters to Harriet are extant than those she wrote to him.  On his side the letters were characterized by deep concern for her education, her deportment, her growth as a young lady, her written sentence structure and punctuation and are alternately affectionate, didactic, sometimes a bit humorous, sometimes censorious, sometimes severe.  All, though, show a deep commitment to her upbringing and reveal not only his commitment to her growth but also his love and concern for their other family members. As she grew older, she became his confidante as he shared  both political news and thoughts and his deeper thoughts with her.  When Buchanan and she were absent from each other, they maintained a continuous correspondence centered upon both their activities, letters  characterized by mutual respect.       


          On February 16, 1842, during the time she attended the Miss Crawfords’ school  Buchanan wrote to her from Washington:  “My Dear Harriet,  Your letter afforded me very great pleasure.  There is no wish nearer my heart than you should become an amiable and intelligent woman:  and I am rejoiced to learn that you still continue at the head of your class.  You can render yourself very dear to me by your conduct; and I anticipate with pleasure the months which I trust in Heaven we may pass together after the adjournment of Congress.  I expect to be in Lancaster for a week or ten days about the first of April when I hope to see you in good health and receive the most favorable reports of your behavior”  with a postscript “Remember me affectionately to your brother James, Miss Hetty, and the Miss Crawfords and believe me to be your ever affectionate uncle.  May Heaven bless you.  James Buchanan.”


          What she learned in this school or the next school she attended is unknown, but two essays attributed to her, one about George Washington and another about Eskimos, obviously the work of a young student, are impressive in their knowledge and in their expression.


            Buchanan next sent her, aged about thirteen, and her older sister Mary to a school in Charlestown, Virginia, now West Virginia, a school, it is believed run by one of her Lane relatives, a school  much more to her liking.  In a letter written to her in March 1843 from Lancaster he wrote:  “My dear Harriet :  It affords me sincere pleasure to receive your letter.  It is one of the first desires of my heart that you should become an amiable and a good girl.  Education and accomplishments are very important, but they sink into insignificance when compared with the proper government of the heart and temper. 

          How all your relatives and friends would love you--how proud and happy I should be to acknowledge and cherish you as an object of deep affection, could I say, she is kind in heart, amiable in temper, and behaves in such a manner as to secure the affection and esteem of all around.  I now  cherish the hope that ere long this may be the case.  Endeavor to realize this ardent hope. 

          What a long list of studies you are engaged upon.  The number would too great for any common intellect, but it would seem that you manage.  As mythology and history seem to be your favorites, I shall expect when we meet that you will have all the gods and heroes of Greece and Rome at your fingers ends,  At a dinner table at Washington during the last Session a wager was made that no person at the table could name all  the muses; and the wager was won.  Had you been one of the company, the result doubtless would have been different.  I presume that the Muses and the Graces are great favorites with you.  Attend diligently your  studies; but above all govern your heart and conduct.

          Your friends, the Misses Crawford, are about to move to a much more comfortable house so that should you return to school in Lancaster, you may be better accommodated.   I presume your partiality still continues for these good ladies; but to be serious you must acknowledge that you did not treat them as they deserve.”


          Little is known about the female seminary in Charlestown, its  location, or its exact program of studies. but it is believed that she spent about three years there.  Buchanan was faithful in his correspondence to her.  In October 1845 he wrote:  “My Dear Harriet:  I had intended to write to you ere this, but the pressure of business upon me always prevented me from writing at such length as I desired.  I regret to say that I was sorry I had given you permission to go to Bedford.  You are now at the age when the seed of future responsibility and usefulness must be sown by diligence and attention to study:  and when at the same time the allurements of pleasure are the most powerful.  ‘Lead us not into temptation’ is a prayer worthy of our blessed Savior; and I felt from my observation at Bedford that your keen relish for enjoyments there would for a season unsettle your mind and render it unfit for serious application….”  He wrote more and ended “from your sincerely affectionate uncle.”


          In the same month in which Buchanan wrote that letter another letter was in the mail.  It seems that Harriet had run afoul of the rules of that school. A Mary E. Merritt, a teacher or headmistress of the school, wrote a very long letter to Harriet’s brother James in which she noted with disapproval Harriet’s independence and high spirits.  A portion of the letter is as follows:


          “I wish to consult you with regard to your Sister Harriet.  She has just recovered from the usual dissipation of thought caused by the last vacation, and after much serious admonition is once more interested in her studies….You are perfectly acquainted with Harriet’s peculiarity of temper and must know that indulgence is subversive of all discipline where she is concerned, one gratification excites a wish for a second until the exactions become totally unreasonable….“  Miss Merritt then noted that Harriet had made a male friend when she last visited Bedford Springs, that Harriet had answered his first letter, and that she, Miss Merritt, had intercepted the young man’s second letter.  Miss Merritt went on to say, “I must in justice to H.(arriet)  say that her conduct to me is always affectionate and she seems easily influenced by my advice, but she needs a guiding hand and a watchful eye.”   Miss Merritt typically noted that Harriet’s brother should not tell that he had received this letter.


          Guiding hands and watchful eyes were not missing from Harriet’s young life.


          Later, although he was busy as Secretary of State in the administration of President James Polk, Buchanan still took charge of the education of both girls and in 1846 or 1847 sent them to a convent school run by the Sisters of the Visitation in Georgetown.  This was a prestigious school attended by the daughters of many prominent people.  Although the  Buchanans were Presbyterian, Buchanan chose this Roman Catholic school because of its high academic reputation.  It has been recorded that when he was thinking about sending the girls there, he asked Harriet if she thought she would become a Catholic.  She replied, “I can’t promise; I don’t know enough about their faith.”  Buchanan, it is written, replied that he would be satisfied if she were a good Catholic.  How long Mary was a student there is unknown, but Harriet seems to have been there for about two years.


          In the extant records of that school it is recorded that in1848 Harriet received prizes in the following areas:  sacred and profane history, ancient and modern geography, chemistry, philosophy, astronomy, botany, grammar, rhetoric, prose composition, classical languages and mythology, ornamental writing, French, harp, piano, ornamental work, and domestic economy, although her award in the latter was less.


          When she attended the convent school in Georgetown, she spent about a weekend a month with her uncle in Washington who also made arrangements for her to spend time at the beach.  This was a period of education for her as she learned to know people in both the government and the society in Washington. 


          By the time she left the school for good, she had become an accomplished young lady who now became more of a companion and  confidante of her uncle.  Her sister Mary with whom she had always been close married and moved to California  For approximately the next six years she lived in her uncle’s home, which in 1849 became Wheatland west of Lancaster with his housekeeper, Miss Hetty (Elizabeth Parker). However, during these years she spent much time away from home with visiting various people and at times traveling to the beach.   About this time one of her friends described in the following manner:  “Miss Lane was a blonde, …Miss Lane’s proportions were of the most perfect womanliness.  Tall enough to be commanding, yet not high enough to attract observation - light enough to be graceful but so full as to indicate the perfect health with which she was blessed” and mentioned her deep violet eyes. 


          Sometime after James Buchanan  had moved to Wheatland, Harriet and Blanche Nevin, who became a sculptress, became friends.  Buchanan’s land and the property of the John Williamson Nevins joined each other so that the friendship had the benefit of proximity.   These two young people also had the benefit of a shared past as both had been born in Mercersburg and had Mercersburg connections.  Blanche was the daughter of John Williamson Nevin, who with Philip Schaff developed the Mercersburg Theology.  Although Blanche Nevin is known was a sculptress, she painted a a portrait of Harriet Lane.


          The correspondence with her Uncle James continued. She confided in him about her likes and dislikes; for instance, one summer she was unhappy at Rockaway Beach and wanted him to take her to see various sights in New York and New England and ended her letter with “Write very soon.”  Buchanan still showed his deep concern for her future.  In a letter written in 1849 when she was almost nineteen Buchanan wrote:  “I wish now to give you a caution.  Never allow your affections to become interested or engage yourself to any person without my previous advice.  You ought never to marry any man to whom you are not attached, but you ought never to marry any person who is not able to afford you a decent and immediate support.  In my experience I have witnessed the long years of patient misery and dependence which fine women have endured from rushing precipitously into matrimonial connections without sufficient reflection.  Look ahead and consider the future and act wisely in this particular.”


          Almost two years later, when she was visiting friends in Washington, he wrote to her from Wheatland:   “Keep your eyes about you in the gay scenes through which you are destined to pass. And take care to do nothing and say nothing of which you may have cause to repent.  Above all be on guard against flattery; and should you receive it ‘let it pass into one ear gracefully and out the other.’”  In the autumn of that year he wrote to her:  “I should like nothing better than to see you settled in life.”


          However, when she was at home at Wheatland, she was the hostess.  Since Buchanan now had a larger home, he could more easily entertain his political associates and friends.  These visits became a large part of her education.  When there were no visitors, it is said that she read the newspapers to him, and they discussed the articles. As this sharing of news and ideas became a tutorial in government and politics for her, this was a  period of growth for her.



          In this period she did a lot of visiting friends in other cities and corresponded with many friends.  These letters reveal her liveliness, her sense of humor, and her sense of the ridiculous.  For instance, in a letter to a friend named Lily she recalled with delight that a man walking down Chestnut Street in Philadelphia had paid a compliment to her about  the appearance of a young lady he did not recognize and then realized that he had complimented Miss Lane herself.  Harriet added “how flattering” and then, referring to herself in the third person,  added that the man “went down the steps, took off his hat, and shook hands with her.”


          However, the lives of Harriet and her uncle were to be disrupted as in April 1853 President Pierce appointed Buchanan as the ambassador to the Court of Saint James.  In the preceding month Buchanan wrote a letter to Harriet in which he spoke of the rumors of his appointment:  “Personally I have not the least desire to go abroad as a foreign minister.  But ‘sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.’  I really would not know where to leave you were I to accept a foreign mission and this would be one serious objection.”  Harriet naturally wanted to accompany him, but the decision was made that she could go to England in the following year.  During that year she visited friends and relatives and attracted admirers.  One young man, signing his Valentine Abelard sent this valentine of nine stanzas. 



          Just before he left for England on August 6, 1853,  Buchanan wrote her a letter and upon his arrival in Liverpool on August 26 wrote another as he had promised.  Her uncle continued to write to her and in a letter written in October had the following to say:  “I am sorry, truly sorry that you look upon your trip to England as ‘the future realization of a beautiful dream.’  Like all other dreams you will be disappointed in the reality.  I have never yet met an American, gentleman or lady, who whatever they may profess, was pleased with London.  They all hurry off to Paris as speedily as possible unless they have business to detain them here.  A proud American who feels himself equal at home to the best does not like to be shut out by an impassable barrier from the best or rather the highest society in this country.  My official position will enable me to surmount this barrier, but I feel that it will only be officially….”  He continued to confide in her about his reaction to this society and his unwillingness to appear in Court in an elaborate court clothing and his intention instead to wear a plain black suit as the present Secretary of State had advised.  The discussion about his wearing a plain black suit to Court functions continued.  Buchanan said that he did not mind the criticism for himself but “it would mortify me very much to see you treated differently from other ladies in your situation.”


          In April 1854 Harriet Lane took ship from New York to Liverpool, England.  This was an unforgettable and formative experience for her.  Here she along with her uncle met and dined with the Royal family, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert and their children.   After one occasion in March 1855 she wrote to her sister Mary: “We have dined with the Queen.  The Queen was most gracious and talked a great deal to me.  Uncle sat on her right hand, and Prince Albert was talkative, and altogether we passed a charming evening.  The Princess Royal {the oldest daughter, Victoria, known in the family as Vicky} came in after dinner and is simple, unaffected, and very childlike - her perfect simplicity and sweet manners are charming.  Everything, of course, was magnificent at the table - gold in profusion, twelve candelabra with four candles each…with mirrors and candles all around the room, a band of delicious music playing all the time, it was a little like fairyland in its magnificence.”


          In May of that same year she wrote again to her sister Mary:  “London is looking up in the way of gaiety, though the war 0{the Crimean War} is still a sad weight upon many hearts.  Yesterday I attended the second drawing room of the season…..It was a very full and brilliant one.  I wore a pink silk petticoat, over-skirts of pink tulle, puffed and trimmed with wreaths of apple blossoms, train of pink silk, trimmed with blonde and apple blossoms, and so was the body….Her Majesty was very gracious to me yesterday, as was also the prince.  On Wednesday there is to be a ball at Buckingham Palace which we shall of course attend….”    Queen Victoria was impressed with her and even named her a ministerial consort.  The result of that was that many doors were opened to her.   Buchanan, ever watchful of her deportment, remarked to her after that occasion, “Well, a person would have supposed you were a great beauty, to have heard the way you were talked of today.  I was asked if we had many such handsome ladies in America;  I answered yes and many much handsomer.  She would scarcely be remarked there for her beauty.”      


          Despite her uncle’s deprecating statement to her he was proud of her and concerned for her happiness.  A young man from Philadelphia, Job Tyson, had been  persistent in his attentions to her.  Buchanan in a letter to her younger brother wrote about Tyson’s attentions:  “I have repeatedly told Harriet I shall neither influence her one way nor the other but shall be quite satisfied with her determination whatever that shall be.”  After her return to the United States in October 1855 in his letters to her on several occasions he told her that various people including Queen Victoria herself had asked about her. 


           She also met the Emperor and Empress of France, Napoleon III and the Empress Eugenie, and dined with them in an event at Windsor Castle.  When her uncle was awarded a doctorate of civil law from Oxford University, she also attended the ceremony and received cheers from the student body.  She seems to have made some conquests in England as she wrote to her sister,  “I have made another conquest, who comes in true American style every day.  He is rich and keeps a yacht, which costs him two thousand pounds a year.  Beaux are pleasant, but dreadfully troublesome.” On persistent suitor was Sir Fitz Roy Kelly, who was very wealthy but more than double her age.  Buchanan was dubious about the disparity in their ages, but Harriet made her own decision.


          But her time there was not just a social time but a learning experience.  In  mid-nineteenth century England  ideas of reform were everywhere - reform in government, reform in economics, reform in and recognition of social problems.  The revolutions of 1848 that had disrupted several nations on the Continent had not reached England, but reform-minded British people were well aware of the dangers of revolution.   Harriet in addition to associating with royalty associated with free-thinking and liberal minded people. She associated with and corresponded upon her return home with Margaret, the Dowager Duchess of Somerset, who worked  for the good of rural people, Henry Holland, the royal physician who was interested in that new science, psychosomatic medicine, and Sir Edwin Twiss, an expert on international law.  The Crystal Palace that showcased new inventions and methods had opened in 1851, and it was a stimulating time for a young, independent-minded American girl with both means and connections to be in England.  Also it was in this time that people began to become interested in other ethnic groups. Harriet developed an interest in the art of the American Indian, collected it, and promoted it, her interest in art stimulated partly by her friend Blanche Nevin.   Buchanan and she gave a series of Friday evening receptions and many dinners. She, accompanied by people of importance and culture, traveled into Scotland and throughout the Continent.  Upon her arrival back in London after a European tour in 1854, in which she attended a meeting of American ministers in Ostend, Belgium, she  wrote to a friend in the Philadelphia area a long letter which she ended by stating:  “In spite of all my enjoyments I was glad to be again in London-- people are free to think and act and speak here which is not always the case in some of these continental governments. People are so free here as with us and it is a glorious privilege, which we must travel and see others deprived of before we can appreciate the blessing it is to us.”  She was learning.  In this time she developed a cosmopolitan outlook that never left her.


          When she came home in 1855 after Buchanan was satisfied that she would not be on board ship during a stormy winter season and having  reminded  her “not to put on foreign airs,” she came home not just with her suitcases but with acquired knowledge, new and varied experiences, social skills, and wisdom which she would be called upon to use very soon.  But a deep sorrow  soon entered her life as her dear sister Mary, who lived in California, died soon after Harriet’s return.


          When the  nation in 1856 elected Buchanan as its fifteenth President, Harriet at age almost twenty-seven became the hostess in the White House.  To the Inaugural Ball the new young hostess wore a white dress with artificial flowers and a necklace of many strands of pearls.  During her four years in the White House she filled her role with aplomb and graciousness.   After the somber tone of the White House during the Pierce administration the White House became alive.  It seems that Buchanan permitted her to choose items for the White House and, being frugal, warned her not to spend too much.  He wrote to her in May 1858:  “My dear Harriet, Learning that you were about to purchase furniture in New York {for the White House}, I requested Dr. Blake {commissioner of public buildings} to furnish me a statement of the balance of the appropriations unexpended.  The balance is $8, 369.92.  In making your purchases, therefore, I wish you to consider that this sum must answer our purpose until the end of my term.  I wish you, therefore, not to expend the whole of it, but to leave enough to meet all contingencies up till 4 March, 1861.  Any sum which may be expended above the appropriations I shall most certainly pay out of my own pocket.  I shall never ask Congress for the Deficiency.” During this time of tension she was adept at seating arrangements at dinners that would not offend either a person from the South or one from the North.   Leslie’s magazine called her “the First Lady,” a term in use ever since. She christened the battleship Lancaster with a bottle of wine made from grapes grown in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, the site of her uncle’s home, Wheatland.   In 1857 the United States Revenue Marine, now called the Coast Guard, launched a cutter, a ship that can sail in either shallow water or on the high seas, and named it the Harriet Lane, a ship that served both before and during the Civil War.


          Even at this time she was under the watchful eyes of Buchanan.  In 1859 he scolded her in a letter because she had taken the cutter, Harriet Lane, on a trip to West Point.  He wrote:  “I am sorry to find that your excursion to West Point on the Harriet Lane has been made the subject of newspaper criticism on yourself...the practice, however, of employing national vessels on pleasure excursions…is a fair subject of public criticism.”


           When the Prince of Wales, later King Edward VII, visited Washington for five days in 1860 for the first visit to the United States of an heir to the British Crown, she was the hostess.  Buchanan had invited him to come to the United States at the conclusion of Edward’s visit to Canada.  These five days were filled with  festivities including a trip to Mt. Vernon where they danced.  Buchanan did not permit dancing in the White House. After the visit Harriet wrote to one of her cousins:  “He is a charming little fellow, full of  fun and jokes, and wonderful in the admirable manner of conducting himself upon all occasions and seemed happy as possible here.” About the visit the Prince of Wales wrote to his mother, Queen Victoria, “I thought Miss Lane a particularly nice person and very pretty.”  These comments in a sense reveal the disparity of their ages -- at the time she was thirty and he was eighteen.  As their friendship remained, she was invited to and attended his coronation as Edward VII in 1902.


           However, not all of her activities were ceremonial.   People, both strangers and family friends and acquaintances, wanted her to intercede with her uncle for favors.  The governor of  Virginia wrote to her to ask that she recommend a young lady for a government position.  A lady in Reading, Pennsylvania, asked for a permanent position for her husband either as a purser in the navy or a paymaster in the army.  A wife of a naval officer asked that her husband once he came from  Europe be stationed in the United States.   In addition, she took great interest in the plight of the Native Americans; for instance a member of the Chipppewas complained to her that a government agent was selling liquor to his people.  She intervened to end abuses by unscrupulous government agents, and pleaded for better medical treatment and educational opportunities for them and, therefore, was known as the “Mother of the Indians” by the Chippewas.  She also in 1857 supported a move to found a national gallery of art.


          Since she did not write an autobiography or her memoirs, did not, it seems, keep a diary containing her deepest thoughts, and destroyed much of her correspondence, what she thought or felt about political issues of the day is hard to discern.


          In March 1861 just before the end of Buchanan’s troubled presidency  Buchanan and she held a reception in the White House which four thousand people attended.  In those perilous times Harriet  tactfully had the band play alternately “Yankee Doodle” and “Dixie.”


          In 1861 at the end of Buchanan’s term as President Harriet went with him to his home, Wheatland, on the edge of Lancaster just as she had ridden with him in his carriage from Wheatland into Lancaster and then on the train to Washington in March 1857 to his inauguration.  During the Civil War she served as a volunteer nurse for four years in the Division of Unknown Heroines, a home front organization. In 1863 she became a member of the Episcopal Church, being confirmed in that denomination by the President’s youngest brother, the Reverend Edward Buchanan, a rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in the Philadelphia area.  Many years later in an interview Buchanan said that her choice of denomination had been the only difference in their thinking.


          While visiting at Bedford Springs, a resort south of Bedford, Pennsylvania, that her uncle favored, she met Henry Elliott Johnston, a lawyer and banker from Baltimore, Maryland. When Buchanan learned that they planned to marry, he, who through the years had given her much advice about marriage, wrote with approval of her desire to marry Johnston.  He wrote:  “I believe you say truly that nothing would have induced you to leave me, in good or evil fortune, had I wished you to remain with me.  Such a wish on my part would be very selfish” and added “I wish for you a happy marriage.”    In January1866 they were married at Wheatland with the Reverend Edward Buchanan, as the officiating minister.   James Buchanan issued the invitations:  “Miss Lane requests me to invite you in her name to her wedding on Thursday, the 11th inst.  The ceremony will be between 12 and 1 o’clock.  It is to be a private affair.  No cards or invitations have been issued.  I hope you will not fail to countenance us with your presence.  Your friend, very respectfully, James Buchanan.”  On that same day in writing to Henry Elliot Johnston he said that Johnston had “my entire approbation of the marriage“ and later in writing to her when she and her new husband were in Havana, Cuba, on their wedding trip said, “May a kind Providence protect and bless you and may you return in health to settle down contented and happy in domestic life.” After the wedding trip to Havana they settled in Baltimore with summers at Wheatland.  They had two sons, James Buchanan Johnston and Henry Elliott Johnston II, but sadly both died as a result of rheumatic fever as young boys, James at fourteen (1866 - 1881)and one year later Henry at thirteen (1868 - 1882) while the family was vacationing in Nice, France.


          After the death of James Buchanan in1868 she did much to defend him and to perpetuate his memory. With his brother, the Reverend Edward Buchanan, she preserved many of his papers. When confusion and controversy over the ownership and disposition of these papers occurred, she took the lead in determining who should control them and what should be done with them.  In a letter written on the last day of December in 1869 to one of the trustees of Buchanan’s estate she stated:  “In my opinion  it is of the utmost importance that you properly accept this offer - I consider it essential for you to do so in order to carry out my dear Uncle’s cherished wish to place before the public a truthful statement of the events connected with his administration of the government.  It is the most sacred obligation upon me and having been so near and dear to him as he was to me and his fame is now a cherished object of my life.”  She then added:  “Suppose they were to fall into the hands of the Republicans who would pervert truth to falsehood and try to condemn the pure and upright statement by perversion of the evidence that show his lofty patriotism.”   She also commissioned  the historian, George Ticknor Curtis, to write a two-volume biography of James Buchanan, which was published in 1883. In addition, she attempted to purchase the site of James Buchanan’s birthplace at Stony Batter, now Cove Gap, two miles west of Mercersburg, but the owner, a local  Mercersburg merchant, D. M. B. Shannon, refused to sell it to her.  Importantly, she responded to baseless charges brought against him and his administration and refuted them.


          In 1884 after the death of her husband she moved to Washington, D.C.  At that time she had inscribed upon a brass plate upon the wall by the memorial window she and her husband had placed in St. James Episcopal Church in Lancaster after the death of their first son, a window that has as its theme the Christ Child in the Temple, the words, “Give them eternal rest, O God, and let light perpetual shine upon them.” It is said that the face of the Christ Child is the face of her older son.  During this time she was actively socially in Washington.  Her diary of social engagements  is impressive.  She also continued her interest in collecting works of art.  However,  she became ill and frequently consulted physicians in Europe and especially seems to have liked those in Germany.


          Her last visit to Mercersburg occurred on Tuesday, June 4, 1901, the day on which a portrait of James Buchanan by the American artist, William Merritt Chase, that she had commissioned was unveiled and formally presented to the Mercersburg Academy in a ceremony in Keil Hall in which it now hangs.  For this festive occasion, in which the Harrisburg Orchestra played and the Mercersburg Academy Glee Club and the Mercersburg Choral Society sang, a special train brought relatives, including first cousins, friends, and other guests from the Philadelphia area to Mercersburg. The ceremony itself was held on the morning of the day of the Academy’s commencement exercises before the commencement itself.  In the ceremony after the unveiling of the portrait by young James Buchanan Ewing, a great-nephew of the President, the Honorable Rush Gillan, Judge in Franklin County, noted the high character of Buchanan, and Dr. William Mann Irvine, headmaster of Mercersburg Academy, noted that Mrs. Johnston had “all the graces, charms, and attributes of highest order of American womanhood.” Mrs. Johnston was so impressed with this portrait that she commissioned another by William Merritt Chase.  This second portrait in in the White House collection.  Later that afternoon Dr. and Mrs. Irvine held on the campus in front of North Cottage a garden party that eight or nine hundred people, including many local residents, attended.  Mrs. Johnston was fully involved in both the planning of this portrait and in choosing the speaker for the day of the unveiling.  In a letter to Dr. Irvine in April 1900 a secretary writing for Mrs. Johnston told Dr. Irvine that Mr. Chase had not yet begun the portrait as it was necessary for him to visit Washington to see “the portrait and other material” in Mrs. Johnston’s possession that she could not give up.  In another letter to Dr. Irvine Mrs. Johnston noted that she had chosen the frame.  She consulted with Dr. Irvine about the choice of a speaker and after the inability of her choice to be in Mercersburg on that day she readily accepted the Honorable Rush Gillan as speaker and in a letter in May 1901 said that “I am sure that Mr. Gillan will do justice to the interesting occasion.”  In writing to Mrs. Irvine Mrs. Johnston noted that she would be in New York before she came to Mercersburg and that she had written to Mr. Chase to request that she see the portrait before it was brought to Mercersburg.  In this same gracious letter she thanked Mrs. Irvine for the latter’s hospitality and said, “It would give me great pleasure to be at your garden party from 4 to 6 Tuesday to meet the people of the valley.”


          After her death attributable to cancer on July 3, 1903, her will with its several codicils indicated her generous spirit.  An important provision of her will was her direction that money be given for the clinic in Baltimore that she and her husband had incorporated in 1883 for children that would care for children regardless of race, creed, or the ability of the parents to pay to be called the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, the first hospital in the nation for children, that is now the pediatric section of the Johns Hopkins Hospital.  Also because while she was in England she had enjoyed the singing of boy choirs, she set aside money to be given to the National Cathedral Foundation of Washington, D.C., for the founding of St. Albans School, a boys’ choir school, adjacent to the Washington National Cathedral.  She also stipulated that money be placed into a James Buchanan Monument Fund for the purpose of constructing two monuments in memory of her uncle, one in Washington, D.C., and one at Stony Batter, the birthplace of James Buchanan and his siblings, with the proviso that the people should enjoy the grounds around the monument marking the President’s birthplace.   After the death of D. M. B. Shannon his heirs sold the land at Stony Batter to the trustees of her estate.  The latter monument, surrounded by eighteen acres, came to fruition in the winter of 1907-1908, and in 1911 the  Commonwealth of Pennsylvania accepted Harriet Lane Johnston’s gift as indicated in her will of what is now the James Buchanan State Park.  After various delays the James Buchanan Monument at Meridian Park in Washington, D.C., was unveiled in June 1930. She also provided money for the education of nieces and nephews and for scholarships for students at Johns Hopkins University.  She also gave money to the Presbyterian Church of the Upper West Conococheague to be used for care of the graves of her parents in the Buchanan plot in Spring Grove Cemetery between the villages of Markes and Lemasters near Mercersburg  She also stated in her will that her art collection, which was large, should be given to the trustees of the  Corcoran Gallery of Art until the establishment of a national art gallery.  In 1906 the Supreme Court named the Smithsonian as a national art gallery and determined that the Harriet Lane Johnston collection should be placed there.


           It is fitting that we pay tribute to this remarkable lady who by her graciousness, her dignity, and her generosity was an exemplar in her time and deserves to be an exemplar in our time and whose name lives on.  Since 1953 the Johns Hopkins Hospital in honor of the Harriet Lane Clinic has published every three years the Harriet Lane Handbook, which gives diagnosis, treatment, and medications for children. It is also fitting Mercersburg remembers her many contributions.  It is appropriate that the Women’s Club of Mercersburg has named the award it gives each year to a local graduating high school senior who is outstanding in the study of English the Harriet Lane English Award and that the Borough of Mercersburg grants each year.




Buchanan, James. Letters.  Lancaster County Historical Society


Finafrock John L.  History of the Cumberland Valley. Vol. II, Donehoo, George, ed. Harrisburg:  Susquehanna History Association, 1930


Hostetter, Ida L.K. “Harriet Lane.” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society. Vol. XXXIII No. 6, 1929


Klein, H.M.J. A Century of Education at Mercersburg. Lancaster:  Lancaster Press


Klein, Philip Shriver. James Buchanan. Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962


Johnston, Harriet Lane. Letters. Archives of Mercersburg Academy


Johnston, Harriet Lane. Letters. Lancaster County Historical Society


Meinhardt, Molly.  “Harriet Lane Johnston’s Other Bequest:  A National Art Museum,” the Bulletin.  Washington, D.C.:  St. Albans School. Spring, 2006


Mercersburg Journal. May and June 1903 and 1906


Presbyterian Church of the Upper West Conococheague, Mercersburg, Marriage and Baptismal Records


Rathman, Richard. The National Gallery of Art. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 1916 Digitized by Google Books


Renninger. Marion. “Harriet Lane.” Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society. Vol. 67, zno.3, 1963


Ridley, Jane. The Heir Apparent. New York:  Random House, 2013,


Rose, James G., Pastor of the Presbyterian Church of the Upper West Conococheague. Letter, April 23, 1933


Rosenberger, Homer T. “Education and Training of Harriet Lane.” Journal of Kittochtinny Historical Society. Vol. XV 1963-1970


_______________ “Harriet Lane Johnston and the Formation of a National Gallery of Art.”  Records of the Columbia Historical Society of Washington, D.C. Vol.69/70


_______________“Harriet Lane, First Lady.”  Records of the Columbia Historical Society of Washington, D.C. 1966-1968, Rosenberger, Francis Coleman, ed. 1969


_______________“Harriet Lane Johnston:  Founder of St. Albans School for Boys”  Journal of the Kittochtinny Historical Society Vol. 76, No.3, 1972


_______________“Two Monuments for the Fifteenth President of the United States.”  Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society Vol. 78, No. 1974


Presbyterian Church of the Upper West Conococheague, Mercersburg. Baptismal Records.

Woman’s Club of Mercersburg. Old Mercersburg.  Williamsport: Grit Publishing Company, 1949.


Additional Bibliography

Nineteenth Century British and American Women of Note - A Partial List

Anthony, Katharine. Dolley Madison, Her Life and Times. Garden City:  Doubleday, 1949.

Allgor, Catherine.  Parlor Politics in Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government.  Charlottesville: University of
Virginia Press, 2000.

Baker, Jean.  Mary Todd Lincoln:  A Biography.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 2008.

Barker, Juliet. The Brontes.  New York:  St. Martin’s Griffin, 1994.

__________.  The Brontes:  A Life in Letters.  New York:  The Overlook Press, 2002.

Barry, Kathleen. Susan B. Anthony:  A Biography of a Singular Feminist. New York:  New York University Press, 1988.

Blanchard, Paula.  Sarah Orne Jewett:  Her World and Her Work.  New York:  DeCapo, 1995.

Block, Adrienne. Amy Beach: A Passionate Victorian:  The Life and Work of an American Composer, 1867 - 1944.  New York:  Oxford University Press, 1998.

Cheever, Susan.  Louisa May Alcott. New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Coolidge, Ellen Wayles.  Thomas Jefferson’s Granddaughter in Queen Victoria’s England 1838 - 1839. Birle, Ann and Francavilla, Lisa, ed. Charlottesville:  University of Virginia Press, 2011.

Brown, Thomas.  Dorothea Dix:  New England Reformer. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Elshtain, Jean.  Jane Addams and the Dream of American Democracy.  New York:  Bain Books, 20002.

Faulkner, Carol.  Lucretia Mott’s Heresy:  Abolition and Women’s Rights in America. Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011.

Grace, Fran. Carry A. Nation:  Retelling the Life.  Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.

Habegger, Alfred.  The Life of Emily Dickinson:  My Wars Are Laid Away in Books.  New York:  Random House, 2001.

Hays, Eleanor.  Morning Star:  A Biography of Lucy Stone 1818 - 1893.  New York:  Octagon, 1978.

Hedrick, Joan.  Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York:  Oxford University Press, 1994.

Hodes, Martha.  The Sea Captain’s Wife.  New York:  W.W. Norton,  2006.

Karl, Frederick L.  George Eliot: Voice of a Century.  New York:  W.W. Norton, 1995.

LaPlante, Eve.  Marmee and Louisa:  The Untold Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Mother.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2013.

Lerner, Gerda.  The Grimke Sisters from South Carolina:  Pioneers for Women’s Rights and Abolition.  New York:  Houghton Mifflin, 1967.

Markus, Julia. Dared and DoneThe Marriage of Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning.  New York:  Knopf, 1995.

Marshall, Megan.  The Peabody Sisters:  Three Women Who Ignited American Romanticism.   Boston:  Houghton, Mifflin, 2005.

Marshall, Megan.  Margaret Fuller:  A New American Life.  Boston: Marine Books, 2014.

Mathews, Nancy. Mary Cassatt:  A Life.  New York:  Villard Books, 1994.

Oates, Stephen B.  Woman of Valor: Clara Barton and the Civil War. New York: Free Press, 1994.

Pollard, Arthur.  Mrs. Gaskell:  Novelist and Biographer.  Manchester:  Manchester University Press, 1965.

Roberts, Cokie.  Capital Dames:  The Civil War and Women of Washington 1848 - 1868.  New York:  HarperCollins, 2015.

Sewall, Richard. The Life of Emily Dickinson. Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1994.

Sherr, Lynn. Failure Is Impossible: Susan B. Anthony in Her Own Words. New York:  Random House, 1995.

Sigerman, Harriet.  Elizabeth Cady Stanton: The Right Is Ours. New York:  Oxford University Press, 2001.

Sterling, Dorothy.  We Are Your Sisters:  Black Women in the Nineteenth Century.  New York:  Norton, 1984.

Nightingale, Florence.  Ever Yours, Florence Nightingale:  Selected Letters.  Vicinus, Martha and Nergaard, Bea, ed.  Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1990.

People Whom Harriet Lane Johnston Knew or Were a Part of Her World

Auchampaugh, Philip.  James Buchanan and His Cabinet on the Eve of Secession.  Boston:  J. S. Canner, 1965.

Barkeley, Richard.  The Empress Frederick, Daughter of Queen Victoria. London:  Macmillan; New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1956.

Birkner, Michael.  James Buchanan and the Political Crises of the 1850s.  Selinsgrove:  Susquehanna University Press, 1996.

Buchanan, James.  James Buchanan 1791 - 1868 Chronology, Documents, Bibliographical Aids. Sloan, Irving, ed. Dobbs Ferry:  Oceana Publications, 1968.

Borneman, Walter.  Polk:  The Man Who Transformed the Presidency and America. New York:  Random House, 2008.

Klein, Philip S.  James Buchanan.  Pennsylvania State University Press, 1962.

Klein, Philip S.  James Buchanan:  Bachelor Father and Family Man.  Lancaster:  The James Buchanan Foundation, 1991.

Meacham, Jon.  American Lion.  New York:  Random House, 2008.

Packard, Jerrold.  Victoria’s Daughters.  New York:  St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Ridley, Jane. The Heir Apparent. New York:  Random House, 2013.

Ridley, Jasper.  Napoleon III and Eugenie. New York:  Viking Press, 1980.

St. Aubyn, Giles. Edward VII Prince & King. New York:  Athenaeum, 1979.

Wilson, A.N.  Victoria:  A Life.  New York:  Penguin Press, 2014.

                    Other Women from the Mercersburg Area

Jane Irwin Harrison (1804 - 1848), Daughter of Archibald Irwin II and Wife of William Henry Harrison Jr.  - Hostess in the White House During Term of President William Henry Harrison in March 1840

Elizabeth Irwin Harrison (1810 - 1850), Daughter of Archibald Irwin II and Wife of John Scott Harrison - Mother of President Benjamin Harrison

Bowers, Dorothy.  The Irwins and the Harrisons. Mercersburg:  Irwinton Publishers, 1973.




Back to Persons of Interest