The World of Harriet Lane in Her First Nine Years

By Joan C. McCulloh


          When Harriet Rebecca Lane, the next to the youngest of the seven children, four of whom lived to maturity, of Elliott T. and Jane Buchanan Lane, was born on May 9, 1830, Andrew Jackson was the seventh President of the twenty-four states in the United States.  Having been elected in 1829, he served two terms lasting until 1837 when he was followed by Martin Van Buren.  Jackson was a new kind of President totally unlike his predecessors, the cultured Virginians, Washington, Jefferson, Monroe and Madison; and the learned New Englanders, John Adams and John Quincy Adams, his son.  Jackson, an orphan at fourteen, who was born in a settlement on the border of North Carolina and South Carolina, was tough, self-taught to be a lawyer, and pugnacious.  All of his life he carried a scar imposed upon him by a British officer’s saber because the young Jackson would not shine the officer’s boots.  He fought in the War of 1812 winning the Battle of New Orleans in January 1815 after the war had ended.  A successful lawyer in Tennessee, he was Tennessee’s first Senator. 


          When elected as President as a candidate of what was now called the Democratic party, he brought new ways to the Presidency in an era of territorial expansion.  He believed in the people but used his veto power frequently and was not adverse to placing family members and friends in political offices.  Scandal came with him to Washington as his political enemies made much of the fact that his wife Rachel had been married to another man when Jackson and she married although his wife did not know that fact at that time.  Jackson believed that the scandal had killed his wife, who died fewer than three months before he was inaugurated.  About national events he also was angry. Feeling that the Second Bank of the United States had too much power and had been unjust to people in the western states such as Tennessee, he was determined, as he said, to kill the bank and did. Instead he put federal money into selected banks, called by many pet banks.  Also, determined to put down Indian uprisings, he forced their removal across the Mississippi River, an act that has repercussions to this day.  Those hostile to him called him King Andrew.  In addition, during his Presidency scandal erupted surrounding the wife of the Secretary of War, Peggy Eaton, who was accused of having had an affair with Eaton while she was married to another man.  This scandal got out of hand as politicians and their wives took sides and divided political Washington.


          This era also was a time of increased tensions between the North and the South.  The Compromise of 1820, which had been an attempt to balance sectional interests, had solved nothing but had added to the confusion.  The year that Harriet was born, 1830, was the year of the famous debate between Senator  Robert Hayne of South Carolina and Senator Daniel Webster of Massachusetts over the relationship of the states to the federal government.  Many of the South Carolinians believed in nullification, the principle that a state had the right to abrogate the laws of the federal government, if the state chose to do so.  It was in that debate that Webster thundered his famous words:  “Liberty and Union, now and forever, one and inseparable.”  President Jackson also opposed nullification and hated its principal proponent, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, vice-president of the United States.  Likewise, in the year of Harriet’s birth at the annual Jefferson Day dinner after many Southerners had proposed toasts to nullification and the rights of the states, Jackson responded with “Our Federal Union - It must be preserved.”  Despite his support of the federal union tensions escalated.  Also it was about this time that the flight of slaves to the North assisted by people along the way that came to be known as the Underground Railroad began.  People in the South were increasingly alarmed about slave insurrections especially after the uprising of the slave Nat Turner and his followers in Virginia in 1831. In 1836 a gag rule was passed in Congress to prevent any petition or anti-slavery statements or legislation from being brought to the Congress.


          Since Harriet Lane’s father, Elliott Lane, was an active, prominent citizen, it is likely that her brothers, her sister, and she would have heard some conversations about these topics.  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.  All of Harriet’s early life Buchanan was active in national politics.  


          During this period the entire country seemed to be astir with plans, ideas, and new thoughts.  Interest in the American West grew in this period as adventurers, fur traders, trappers, and  other people seeking  new lives in new lands journeyed westward in pursuit of their dreams and ambitions.  People were going to places such as Oregon, California, and the Mexican state, Texas, which declared its independence from Mexico in 1836.  While some went beyond the Mississippi River, many in the East were interested in internal improvements.  The era of the canals had begun in 1825 with the opening of the Erie Canal followed by the C and O Canal on which work was begun in 1828.  Steamboats were plying the waters, and roads were being built, an important one being the National Road.  In churches the evangelical movement was escalating with increased emphasis upon personal experience in religion.  In fact a new religion was founded in the year of Harriet Lane’s birth as in that year Joseph Smith founded the Church of Latter Day Saints, the headquarters of which moved westward.  In writing, a distinctive American literature different from British literature was being developed by writers such as James Fenimore Cooper.  In spite of these advances fears seem to be advancing also.  Because of the murder of a man in New York State who had written a book that purported to  catalogue the secrets of Freemasonry an anti-Masonic movement was growing sometimes in hand with the anti-slavery movement.  The country seemed to be bursting with energy.


          But not all was well economically.  In 1837, when Harriet was seven years old, what became known as the Panic of 1837 in which banks closed, and people lost their livelihoods and their property, occurred. 


          Pennsylvania was no different from the other states in the East.   Staunchly Democratic, it was pro-Jackson. The governor at the time of Harriet’s birth was the Democrat, George Wolfe from 1829 to 1835, a proponent of free public education, who fought so hard for public education that he achieved in 1834 the passage of the Pennsylvania Free School Act but paid a price for that achievement as he was defeated for a third term.  Opposed by many both within and without the state government, he achieved his goal but with the ruination of his political career.  He was followed in office by Governor Joseph Ritner  from 1835 to 1839.  A member of the Anti-Masonic party, he also supported free public education and the anti-slavery movement that was growing in size and intensity.  With the anti-slavery movement came antagonisms to it.  Significantly, during the last year of his being governor Pennsylvania Hall in Philadelphia that had been built for abolitionist meetings was burned by a mob. But evidences of progress occurred. Pennsylvania, like the rest of the nation, was interested in better transportation. Canals were being built in Pennsylvania, the most famous and the most exciting of which was the one from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh, which was a combination of boats on the canal and a train up one side and down the other of a mountain. But, like the rest of the nation, Pennsylvania’s citizens suffered during the Panic of 1837. During these tumultuous times, though, in 1838 Pennsylvania adopted a new constitution.



           In 1830 when Harriet Lane was born in Mercersburg into 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, Arthur Chambers had a  dry goods store where the M and T Bank is located, J.O. Carson had a store across the street from the Lane home, Thomas Carson and Grubb had a store - Thomas Carson made hats -  and Potter and Bard had a store.  There were five physicians in town - P. W. Little, James P. Scott,  E. McGovern, Alexander Speer, and John McDowell.   The town 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.  As in the 1840s the town had one grocery, two druggists, three confectionaries, four tailor shops, six shoemakers, two hatters, two wagon makers, one coach maker, one plow maker, two weavers, two silversmiths, three butchers, two livery stables, two oyster cellars, four tanyards, one distillery, one pottery, 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, two brickyards, it can be assumed that in the 1830s the town was equally self-reliant with all of these skilled people.  Like those in the rest of the country, people here must have been fascinated with the West as they called one street California Street and another Oregon Street. 


          Life in Mercersburg must have been interesting to a child.  Much of the main street would have looked much as it does today.  When Harriet, her brothers and her sister looked out of the front windows of their home, they would see the large house that had had a store on the first floor that their grandfather, James Buchanan, the father of the President and their mother, had built and surely would have heard of the fact that  before they were born their grandfather had been killed in the alley next to his house when the horse leading his carriage bolted and threw him out of it.  The Lane children knew both church and school. Four churches in town were the centers of the people’s spiritual lives. The oldest was the Presbyterian Church  of the Upper West Conococheague that had moved from Church Hill in 1794, the second was the combined Lutheran and German Reformed Church on North Fayette Street, the third was a small brick Methodist Church on the Great Road, now North Park Street, and the newest a Seceder Church. Since the Buchanans were Scots-Irish, Harriet’s family was Presbyterian, and she was baptized in that church.  The minister of the local Presbyterian church, Dr. David Elliott, had been the officiating minister at the marriage of her parents on May 10, 1813.  Although the legislative act passing the Free Public School Act of Pennsylvania had occurred in 1834 when Harriet was small, there was no public school in Mercersburg.  Harriet to our knowledge attended Mrs. Sarah Young’s Female Seminary in a house called Locust Grove on North Main Street.  But in the midst of her family, church, and school life as a child in an era in which the death of children was a common occurrence she faced realities.  She probably heard about her brother who had been born and died at age two before her own birth.  When she was about three years old, another brother, William, was born and then died a year later.  When she was five years old, her eighteen year old brother, Thomas, died. And then there was fire, always a possibility.  This possibility occurred in August 1833 when the small Methodist church and several other structures in what is now North Park Street burned. This fire occurred quite near the Lanes’ back yard - perhaps too close for comfort.  Whether three or not three year old Harriet remembered this event is unknown. 


          The leading citizens of the town were what we term entrepreneurs.  In 1834 William McKinstry saw an advertisement in a newspaper indicating that the high school and seminary at York wished to move and was looking for a community that would provide financial backing and land for the school.   One of the five men signing a circular letter to all of the German Reformed congregations in the area was Elliott T. Lane.  As local men provided the money, $10,000,  in 1835 what became Marshall College, named for Chief Justice John Marshall who had died in 1834, came to town with two faculty members, fourteen students in two coaches, followed later by four additional students. Harriet’s father was one of the original trustees of this college chartered in 1836 and was the chair of the committee charged with construction of the first college building. Surely the arrival of this college must have been exciting to many, including the Lane family. 


          What must have been much more exciting, however, was the Fourth of July picnic on July 4, 1836, marking the sixtieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence.  On that day the citizens “repaired to the Methodist Church,” now on East Seminary Street, where they head “an interesting discourse” by the minister there.  Then beginning at the Square 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, and “a large concourse of citizens escorted by Capt Bowles’ Light Infantry” processed to “a pleasant grove on the farm of William McKinstry Esq.”  The group first heard the reading of the Declaration of Independence and then an address given by James McKinstry, a young law student, who spoke about government and citizenship.  After the speech everyone sat down to what was termed “a sumptuous repast.“  After the meal the ladies retired. Then the men proposed forty-five toasts, thirteen regular toasts and thirty-two impromptu toasts.  Each of the first thirteen was followed by an appropriate musical selection.  The first toast, one to the day itself, was followed by “Hail Columbia,” one toast was to the new republic of Texas, and the last regular toast was to the ladies.  The impromptu toasts included one to James Buchanan, “one of Pennsylvania’s brightest sons,” and one given a man quite in favor the new Free Public School Act passed two years earlier was a long one:  “General education by public schools; a measure devised in wisdom, legislators and others who gave it their sanction will be honored by millions yet unborn  while those who {being influenced by pecuniary consideration, dishonorably opposed it, thereby preferring ignorance, error, and superstition to light and knowledge} will be held the most detestation by posterity.”  Elliott 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.”  Whether or not the Lane children heard these toasts is unknown, but surely they were among the celebrants.



          But not all was festive and convivial in this time in the Mercersburg and the surrounding area.  This was a time of tensions over slavery not just elsewhere but here.  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 new 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 Elliott 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 not friendly to abolition and utterly 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. 


          It is interesting to note that James O. Carson, who had a store across the street from the Lane home, was one who defended Blanchard both at the time of the riot and in a later letter to the Whig, a Franklin County newspaper.  Blanchard himself thanked Carson in a letter to the Emancipator, a national abolitionist newspaper, and added that Carson had said at the time of the riot, “Every man is in favor of a mob who does not endeavor to put it down.”  This division of opinion between Lane and Carson was typical of that of the times.  Both men were prominent businessmen of culture, but both had strong opinions and feelings about the burning issue of the times.  Unfortunately what the Lane children knew and felt is unknown, but these tensions between citizens and neighbors were endemic to their world and would certainly affect them.


          What Harriet Lane as a little girl growing up in Mercersburg thought is unknown; what she heard from her parents, brothers, and sister is unknown; what she talked about with her young friends is unknown; what she heard on the streets is unknown.  Which, if any, of the events that occurred during her childhood helped to mold her into who she became is unknown.  However, it is reasonable to believe that her world in her growing up years influenced her later life. What is known is that on February 10, 1839, when she was nine  years old, her mother passed away and that two years later in 1841 her father passed away.  Their deaths marked the end of one era in the life of Harriet Lane and the beginning of another, as Harriet as well as her sister, came under the care of their uncle, James Buchanan.




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Dunaway, Wayland, A History of Pennsylvania, New York:  Prentice-Hall, 1944


Emancipator the, Vol. II, number 15, August 10, 1837:  Gilder/Lehrman Institute of American History, New York


Finafrock, John L.  “The Underground Railroad,” Franklin County School Annual, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, 1927


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


Garraty, John R., The American Nation A History of the United States to 1877,  New York:  Longman, 1998


History of Franklin County, Pennsylvania, Chicago:  Warner Beers and Company Publishers, 1887


Klein, H. M. J., A Century of Education at Mercersburg, Lancaster:  Lancaster Press, 1936


Lorenz, Anthony, Pastor, Presbyterian Church of the Upper West Conococheague, Mercersburg


Wallace, Paul A. W., Pennsylvania Seed of a Nation, New York:  Harper and Rowe, 1962


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


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