Little Orphan Harriet
James Buchanan was a brother among many sisters. Having received a solid education, he became a successful Pennsylvania attorney, elected to Congress at a young age, and rose in Democratic political circles. Since he never married, he became guardian or semi-guardian to several nieces and nephews, all of whom he treated generously and affectionately.
But when his niece Harriet Lane (1830-1903) became completely orphaned at nine, she became not only his ward, but as near a daughter as he would ever have. He adored her, and she was devoted to “Nunc,” as she called him, for the rest of her life.
In her early teens, Harriet came to live with him in Washington, and attended the finest schools. She was a superb student, with a keen interest in the political scene. By her mid-teens, she had become a pretty, impeccably dressed and mannered young lady, accustomed to meeting and greeting politicians at the highest level.
Whether she was aware of it or not, she was being groomed for the role she would eventually play: consort/escort for a prominent figure.
The Years Abroad
In 1852, James Buchanan was on the short list for the top spot, as he had been for the past three elections. Nevertheless, Franklin Pierce was elected President – a complete surprise to the country; Most people had never heard of him. A high-level position was definitely in the offing for Buchanan, a Pennsylvanian. He was definitely a Northerner, but many of his closest friends were Southerners.
Minister to the Court of Saint James was practically made for him. Independently comfortable, his appearance and manners were impeccable. His tact and political skills made him popular in England. When he brought Harriet Lane with him, she was around 23, attractive, educated and the perfect “escort” for her bachelor Uncle.
So popular was she, that both Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, were very much taken with her – and Her Majesty was sparing with compliments.
The White House Years
The 1850s was an extremely turbulent time, with slavery literally tearing the US apart. Finding an “available” (i.e. electable) Democratic candidate in 1856 was a challenge.
Buchanan, well-known to officialdom, was a) from Pennsylvania, an anti-slavery Northern state; b) well-liked and regarded by most of his fellow Democrats, who also knew of his close ties with many Southern counterparts (i.e. he could be reasoned with.) But perhaps most importantly, he had been out of the country for four years – far from the fray and the fracturing.
The Democrats could nominate the aging politician (he was 65) with a sigh of relief. Despite a surprisingly strong showing by John C. Fremont, the Republican first-time-ever nominee, Old Buck, as he was nicknamed, won easily.
Harriet Lane came to live with him in the White House, assuming the house management and social responsibilities traditional to the First Lady. It was not difficult for her; she had been trained for it.
Prior to taking office, the President-elect discussed Harriet’s role with her. She would have complete charge of the place and the social scene. All her wants and needs would be provided – by him. He gave her a generous personal allowance, and indicated she could come to him for anything extra that she needed.
One caveat: “Other than the nominal bouquets or chocolates, do not accept any gifts, Miss Harriet. It would reflect badly on me.”
Harriet duly promised, and expensive gifts – and even inexpensive trinkets – were declined graciously.
But Harriet was 26 in 1856, with an attractive appearance. Her wardrobe was stylish, and every new fashion innovation she espoused was immediately popularized. She was also considered a pleasant young woman, with many friends. Being the highly eligible niece of the President assured her of numerous suitors.
One old story (repeated numerous times, by the way) tells of Augustus Schell, a wealthy young beau who came to the White House numerous times to court her.
One spring afternoon, he suggested a picnic along the banks of the Potomac……
It was a beautiful day, and they had a fine time. After their luncheon, they went for a stroll along the river bank, and Harriet spied a pretty colored pebble, and picked it up. Some yards later, she saw another colored pebble, and began a small collection. By the end of their picnic, she had a half dozen or so pebbles in her hand.
When they returned to the White House, her smitten suitor begged Harriet to let him have the pebbles – as a souvenir of their lovely afternoon. She agreed, and handed over the little colored stones.
A Few Weeks Later
Schell brought the stones to Tiffany’s, suggesting they might be made into a bracelet. The jeweler fashioned a suitable design: a slim gold chain, containing a half-dozen or so little colored pebbles – with a discreet diamond in between.
Some time later, her admirer returned to the White House with his “gift,” and begged Miss Lane to accept it. Harriet definitely liked the bracelet, but she had promised to decline gifts, and insisted she had to ask permission from her Uncle.
She explained to “Nunc” that the bracelet was merely pebbles found on the riverbank, and obviously of no real value. Buchanan acquiesced. So Harriet got to keep her bracelet.
She conveniently had omitted the part about the little diamonds included – and years later was said to remark that “diamonds are pebbles, too.”
Caroli, Betty Boyd – First Ladies: An Intimate Look at How 38 Women Handled what may be the most Demanding, Unpaid, Unelected Job in America – Oxford University Press, 1995
Henneman, John Bell (ed.) The Sewanee Review Quarterly – Longmans, Green & Co. 1905
Pryor, Sara Agnes Rice – Reminiscences of Peace and War – The Macmillan Co. – 1905