Harriet R. Lane - Before she was known as “The First Niece”


Sergeant Major
Aug 6, 2016

President James Buchanan Jr. - Harriet Rebecca Lane Johnston
(April 23, 1791 – June 1, 1868) - (May 9, 1830 – July 3, 1903)
(United States Public Domain)

For a young lady in the mid-1800’s she held the most prestigious job. From 1857 to 1861 Harriet Rebecca Lane served as the “hostess of the White House” as her Uncle James Buchanan served as President. It was an amazing achievement for this twenty-six years old as was her training. She learned life through experiences that would take her to tragic losses - her parents before she was a teenager and unimaginable highs - a curtsy to Queen Victoria at twenty-four and winning her respect along the way.

Harriett was born in Virginia the daughter of a merchant Elliot Tole Lane and his wife Jane Buchanan of Cove Gap, Pennsylvania. Jane was the younger sister to future president James Buchanan. She died when Harriet was nine years old leaving behind her husband and four surviving siblings. After the death of her mother she was placed in the care of her maternal uncle Edward Y. Buchanan. Sadly Harriet’s father died the following year leaving the five remaining Lane children aged twenty-six years old to the youngest Harriet at ten. She also had a sister Mary Elizabeth that was fourteen.

She was placed in a local school in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where she boarded with two unmarried elderly sisters. It’s not known exactly the curriculum she studied under but Harriet excelled in classical literature and even at a young age had an interest for current events and international affairs. It was an education that would be handy to have when she arrived in Washington City.

After the death of her father Harriet and her sister Mary desired to live with their Uncle James a bachelor living in Washington and serving in the United States Senate representing Pennsylvania. Harriet (the intelligent lady she was) knew that her Uncle James was a much more “exciting person to live with". He assumed guardianship of his two nieces and enrolled the girls at the Merritt Boarding School in Charleston, Virginia (now West Virginia). It was around this time that he realized how valuable Harriet was in her knowledge of current events to the point where he would withdraw her from school so she could attend functions in the political city. Eventually he transferred her to the Academy of the Visitation Convent School in Washington, D.C. At this point Buchanan was President Polk’s Secretary of State.

Harriet was soon a popular addition to her Uncle’s position. She was described as a tall young lady with reddish-blond hair and beautiful violet colored eyes and the more she accompanied her uncle the more she was welcomed at the social events in Washington. Harriet was a mature and intelligent young lady. As she continued to live in Washington her relationship with her uncle grew stronger and she was eventually one of his closest confidantes. She was politically astute and he relied on her. As Sally Pryor wrote in her memoirs:

“In her affection [he] found the only solace of his lonely life...She was his confidante in all matter political and personal." Soon after he became Secretary of State, for example, she wrote him, concerned about the pressure his new responsibilities might cause him ‘My labors are great, but they do not 'way me down, as you write the word,’ he responded with both assurances of his well-being and a correction of her spelling.” {1}

Although she was still a teenager, Buchanan was always willing to include her in political discussions that took place at their home. First in Washington, and then after his term as Secretary of State, to the estate “Wheatland” Uncle James had built in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.


(Public Domain)

The Realization of a Beautiful Dream

At the age of twenty-four Harriet accompanied her uncle to Great Britain where he began his tenure as Minister of that country under the administration of Franklin Pierce. It was here she declared this move was “the realization of a beautiful dream”. {1} She believed that in her position as the niece to the Minister of Great Britain she was therefore a representative of the United States and was not in the country as a private citizen.

Therefore she took the position extremely serious and studied to understand and excel in British society. Her dedication to her position would be tested in the grandest court of the British Empire - when she met Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. She gave great care on how to make her first impression with the Royal Family. She watched carefully the diplomatic corps and wrote back to a friend on May 4, 1854:

“My court-dress is now absorbing most of my attention, this is rather intense as I must act entirely for myself.
I go to decide upon it today.”

Her diligence paid off for when she was presented to the court for she made a life-lasting impression. She had practiced the “royal curtsy” to perfection, despite the long train attached to her gown. Her studies in English literature impressed the royal court that led to Queen Victoria’s decree:

“Harriet Lane be given the protocol status of spousal ministerial consort instead of the lower one usually accorded the young women relatives of diplomats.” {1}

Queen Victoria referred to Harriet as “dear Miss Lane” and by winning over the Queen, the British people followed. She made such an impression on Sir Fitzroy Kelly serving as Prime Minister Palmerston’s attorney general, he desired to marry her. They briefly dated until Uncle James stepped in. For you see, Sir Kelly although a widowed multi-millionaire was also forty years older than the “dear Miss Lane” and there would be no marriage.

Her time in England was well spent. With her rising popularity Harriet was given many opportunities forming a basis of her future life and her work. She was able to meet many influential Brits and she learned and she watched. Sir Henry Holland was a favorite of Harriet with his work studying the health connections between the mental and the physical conditions of his patients; and she observed housing projects the Duchess of Somerset had worked on, projects she would never forget in her lifetime.

In 1855 her last year abroad she traveled to several European cities. The people in France fell in love with this twenty-five year old American lady with her “healthy vigor yet poised maturity”.

All of this was her training for her next job in her life. Upon her return she was thrust into the political arena as her Uncle James was elected the 15th President of the United States. Harriet is prepared to face her next challenge. With her education, political astuteness, grace and charm this twenty-six year old enters the highest position a woman in her time reaches; she is the President’s closest friend and advisor; she is the hostess at the grandest house in the United States; she enters on the cusp of the most challenging times this nation will face; she is Harriet Lane and she is “The First Niece.”

Inauguration ball in the immense building erected for the purpose in Judiciary Square, Washington City, March 4th, 1857
(Public Domain)

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1. http://www.firstladies.org/biographies/firstladies.aspx?biography=16
2. https://www.whitehouse.gov/about-the-white-house/first-ladies/harriet-lane/