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  Harriet Lane Johnston

by John T. Marck

Lady of the Presidents House: 1857 to 1861

Niece of President James Buchanan

Born: May 9, 1830 Died: July 3, 1903

Harriet Lane was James Buchanan's niece, the daughter of his sister Jane. She was born in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, and lost both her parents when she was nine years old. Harriet lived and was raised by her uncle, James Buchanan. After spending a few years with her uncle, she then was sent to a boarding school in Virginia. At sixteen, she was brought to Washington, where her uncle was then Secretary of State. James put Harriet in the Convent of the Visitation, where she attained high grades. So pleased was James with her progress that he introduced her to Washington society. In 1853, Buchanan went to England as American Minister and took Harriet with him, as his hostess. She acquired poise and experience in England, and in 1857, when Buchanan was elected President, Harriet again became his official hostess.

As hostess in the White House, new furnishings were purchased and many old ones disposed off, including unfortunately some old pieces owned by James Monroe. Many formal dinners and receptions were once again held. In the last days before the Civil War, Americans were at least being entertained by the parties at the President's house. Harriet was setting fashions in dress, babies were named after her, and the song "Listen to the Mockingbird" was dedicated to her.

After the Civil War, Harriet finally married a Baltimore Banker by the name of Henry Elliott Johnston. They had two children, James Buchanan, who died at age fifteen, and Henry Elliott who also died in boyhood. Many years prior, President Buchanan had purchased a home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania called "Wheatland." Upon his death, Buchanan bequeathed Wheatland to Harriet, where she and her family lived. Upon Harriet's husband's death, she decided to live in Washington, and sold Wheatland and her home in Baltimore. Harriet had a great interest in collecting paintings, which she left to the National Museum of Arts, and she helped establish the pediatrics center at Johns Hopkins University, to which she left money upon her death on July 3, 1903.

Copyright 1990-2022 by John T. Marck. All Rights Reserved. This article and their accompanying pictures, photographs, and line art, may not be resold, reprinted, or redistributed for compensation of any kind without prior written permission from the author. From The First Ladies of the United States.