Harriet Lane Johnston: The Unknown “First Lady”

photo posted on post-gazette.com

Harriet Lane, the belle of Washington during the Buchanan administration.

    Harriet Lane (1830-1903) was technically a Presidential “hostess.”  Nevertheless, she was “hostess” for four full years.

Harriet Lane:  A Basic Overview


President James Buchanan was a bachelor, and invited his niece Harriet Lane to serve as his official hostess.

Harriet Lane (1830-1903) was orphaned at nine years old, and her bachelor Uncle James Buchanan, already a well-to-do Pennsylvania attorney and congressman, became her legal guardian.  He raised and educated her befitting his advancing status in national politics.  She had the best of everything, including an excellent-for-the-time education and his deep devotion..


Harriet Lane’s modesty and decorum charmed everyone in England – including Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Harriet grew up to be accomplished, brighter than most, and considered very attractive – certainly fit to be the perfect political escort for her Uncle, who had groomed her for that position.  By eighteen, Harriet Lane had already mixed and mingled with Washington’s elite.  At twenty-one, she was the charming young lady on Buchanan’s arm while he served in London as Minister Plentipolentiary to the Court of St. James.

By 1856, when Buchanan was elected President, Harriet had become an acknowledged leader of whatever society she entered; ergo, a fitting de facto First Lady for the President.

While the four years of the Buchanan Administration were unpopular and often counter-productive, Harriet’s governance of the social scene of Washington was glittering.  Her fashions were copied, her invitations were sought, and her company welcomed.  Her name was a household word; ships and songs were dedicated to her.

Then Buchanan “retired,” and Harriet was out of the public eye.

Harriet Lane Johnston:  The Later Years

Harriet waited until she was thirty-five before she married.  She had enjoyed the attentions of numerous suitors, and if she waited, it was her choice.

Henry Johnston (1831-1884) was a wealthy and respected businessman from Baltimore.  By this time, James Buchanan was well past seventy and in failing health.  He was thrilled with the match, all the more so since his favorite niece would be well taken care of.  Uncle Buck died a year later; Harriet was his major heir.

Cutter Harriet Lane

A Coast Guard cutter was christened “Harriet Lane.” The name still exists on a current ship.

Mr. and Mrs. Johnston had two sons, James and Henry, in quick succession, but her years as a happy matron would not last long.  Both her sons died in their early teens from complications of rheumatic fever.  Not long afterwards, her husband died.

Mrs. Johnston: The Wealthy and Generous Widow

There have been wealthy widows among our First Families, but Harriet Lane Johnston stands uniquely.  As a widow in her mid-fifties, she had no immediate heirs.  Her uncle was gone.  Her sons had died.  Her husband had died.  She was the last survivor among her siblings.  She was alone.  Her personal needs were minimal, and she could live very comfortably (which she did) without making a dent in all that she had inherited.

What should she do?  What would be her legacy?

During her years as “escort” to Ambassador Buchanan in England, Harriet had developed a sincere love of art, and had begun collecting classical paintings.  As Presidential “Hostess,” she indulged her artistic side by extending the prestige and hospitality of the White House to American artists, and facilitating introductions between painters and would-be patrons.

Whether her tastes in art were exceptional is subject to opinion, but the essence is very clear:  she was a patroness.  Her interest was sincere.  While her choices may have been somewhat pedestrian, she definitely “put her money where her mouth was,” so to speak.  She encouraged, she purchased, she enabled and she enjoyed.

Harriet Lane had always been a generous person.  As her life drew closer to its end with no direct heirs for her large estate, she had a great deal of money to disburse.

Harriet Lane Johnstons Bequests:

First and foremost, she bequeathed more than $400,000 (in 1903 money) to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore to endow a free pediatric medical center.  It would be a lasting legacy to the memory of her two young sons who had died prematurely.  It was the first medical center in the country dedicated specifically to the treatment of children.

harriet lane johnston

Harriet Lane Johnston as she appeared in later life.

Her art collection eventually found a home at the Smithsonian Institution, where it became the nucleus for what today is the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.

At the time of her marriage, Harriet Lane had joined the Episcopal church.  When the Washington Cathedral was chartered in the 1890s, Mrs. Johnston took an active interest.  Partly inspired by a concert by the Vienna Boys Choir in Austria, she envisioned its counterpart in America.  The St. Albans School for training and supporting a boys choir would require sizeable funds; Mrs. J. was happy to underwrite the project.  It still exists today.

Finally, Harriet Lane was deeply devoted to “Nunc” as she called James Buchanan, and it must have been painful for her to see his reputation falter so badly after his lifetime of high achievement.  Therefore, she left more than $100,000 to erect a statue in Washington, DC, commemorating the fifteenth President.  It is the only one in the country.

Harriet Lane’s Legacy Today:

Harriet Lane Johnston took great pains in making her will, which had many extensive and complex provisions.  The interesting part, however, is that more than a hundred years after her death, every major bequest still exists:  the pediatric medical center at Johns Hopkins (expanded exponentially over the century), the National Gallery, which houses her collection among its world-famous treasures, the St. Albans School for boys, and the monument to James Buchanan.

Her influence as a quasi-First Lady, merely niece-of rather than wife-of President, may have consigned Harriet Lane to a minor role in history, but her generosity and the substance of her bequests do her great, great honor.


Anthony, Carl Sferrazza  – First Ladies 1789-1961, William Morrow,1990

Caroli, Betty Boyd –  First Ladies – Oxford University Press, 1995


About Feather Schwartz Foster

Feather Schwartz Foster is an author-historian who has made more than 500 appearances discussing presidential history. She teaches adult education at the Christopher Wren Association (affiliated with William and; Mary College), and adult Education programs at Christopher Newport University. She has been a guest on the C-SPAN "First Ladies" program. She has written five books.
This entry was posted in A POTUS-FLOTUS Blog, James Buchanan, Nifty History People and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to Harriet Lane Johnston: The Unknown “First Lady”

  1. energywriter says:

    I didn’t know that. Thank you. sd

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