Harriet Lane, Mrs. Henry Elliott Johnston

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Harriet Lane
Harriet Lane
(Mrs. Henry Elliott Johnston)
From photograph by Julius Ulke

Of the men who have filled the Presidential chair of the United States, about none as about James Buchanan has romance hung that halo which in his case tends but to throw into bolder relief the substantial side of his character. Men of more dash, of more picturesque individuality have filled that high office than was he who rose to it through the gradations of a long legislative career.

When he entered Congress, though he was but twenty-nine years old, the chapter of sentiment had already closed for him, and it was never reopened during a long life, the greater part of which was passed in the gaze of a scrutinizing public. This fact alone is sufficient to render him unique in the estimation of a people who have a primitive love for the story where all ends happily.

There was nothing in Buchanan’s appearance nor in his attitude towards life in general that suggested the tragic episode of his youth. It is only in retrospect that we realize the glamour it cast over his subsequent years. Nature reacts through various channels, and in him she sought her outlet in an unabating mental activity. He was a student all his life.

To the world he was a man of somewhat grave appearance, a typical Anglo-Saxon, immaculate in his dress, conservative in his speech, and yet with a grace and dignity of manner that added much to the distinction with which he represented his country at the court of Russia in 1832, and again twenty-one years later at the court of St. James.

His attitude towards women was that of chivalric regard, and the close relationship he bore to one of the most beautiful women of her period, being both her uncle and guardian, displays one of the most interesting sides of his character. Much of the charm that attaches to the history of the more conspicuous years of his public career emanates from Harriet Lane. No woman has ever presided in the White House who roused so universal an interest, unless it was Mrs. Cleveland, as did Buchanan’s niece.

Her countrymen honored her in every conceivable way, and her name was a household word. Vessels of war and of peace bore it to foreign shores. Clubs, streets, houses, and even articles of dress were named after her.

There was a majestic isolation about both Harriet Lane and James Buchanan. Death had stripped them both, Buchanan in his youth of the woman who might have rounded out his life, and Harriet Lane, one by one, of mother, father, sister, and brothers. She came into the White House bearing the burden of personal loss in the recent death of her only sister. As she came out of it the travail of coming war had already cast its shadow upon the nation.

Yet, socially, the White House was never so brilliant as it was during the administration of Buchanan. “The White House,” said Jefferson Davis, referring later to his last days in Washington, “under the administration of Buchanan approached more nearly to my idea of a republican court than the President’s house had ever done before, or since the days of Washington.”

A picture that the people seemed never to tire of looking upon was of the grave bachelor-President with his beautiful niece beside him doing the honors of the nation. She was at the climax of her glorious womanhood during the period she passed in the White House. Contact with the world, together with her recent touch of sorrow, had worn away the angles of her youthful exuberance. She had attained a golden maturity, and with a perfection of physical development she united a dignity and a confidence in herself restful to behold. “Every motion,” Mary Clemmer wrote of her at that time, “was instinct with life, health, and intelligence. Her head and features were cast in noble mould, and her form, which at rest had something of the massive majesty of a marble pillar, in motion was instinct alike with power and grace.”

She had a warmth of coloring that further bore out the idea of abundant health. Her hair was of a golden-brown hue, and worn always with that absolute simplicity which best became her well shaped head. Her eyes were of a deep violet and her mouth was faultlessly beautiful, with its full red lips and upward curve.

She was as discreet, said one of her admiring critics, as she was beautiful, and her uncle’s confidence in her was without bounds. Even as a little child, when falling far short in many respects of his somewhat austere ideals of propriety, she had inspired in him a reverence for her absolute truthfulness. “She never told a lie,” he once said, in speaking of her childhood; “she had a soul above deceit or fraud. She was too proud for it.”

She came into Buchanan’s life like a breath of wind from the mountain-side, fresh, sweet, and wild. Buchanan was distraught. His bachelor habitat was in confusion. He was a man of theories and ideals. This bit of youthful life that had elected to invade the quiet of his days was a being of impulse, however generous, of exuberant health and spirits. A sense of his superiority, however, penetrating her youthful intelligence, gave him that influence over her that was productive of such satisfactory results as she grew to womanhood.

Through her father, Elliot Lane, whose family had emigrated to Virginia during the war of the American Revolution, she was of English descent. From the north of Ireland, about the same time, also had come her maternal grandfather, James Buchanan. He married Elizabeth Spear, the daughter of a farmer, and settled in Franklin County, Pennsylvania, then and for some years later central ground and the great highway between the East and the West. James Buchanan, afterwards President of his country, and Jane, the mother of Harriet Lane, were the first two children born of this marriage.

Harriet Lane, the youngest of four children, became an orphan in her tenth year. She attached herself voluntarily to her already distinguished uncle, who was at the time in the United States Senate, having but recently returned from Russia, where he had negotiated our first commercial treaty with that country.

Somewhat abashed though duly touched by the honor conferred upon him by his ardent little kinswoman, he undertook the novel responsibility of her upbringing with such misgivings as he had never been conscious of when accepting the various high honors bestowed upon him by his country. She quitted the home in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, where she was born, and her uncle’s home, Wheatland, became thenceforth hers. It was a roomy old brick house with ample grounds, on East King Street, in Lancaster, one of the old colonial towns of Pennsylvania.

It has been said, in no matter how many places we may live, there is only one that is home to us. Wheatland was that to Harriet Lane, though she was destined to see much of the world and to spend years at a time away from its tranquil seclusion. Its improvement and adornment were ever matters of keen interest to her. There she first attracted an admiration which gradually extended over her own country and England, for the fame of Harriet Lane was international. There she had possession of her uncle, it being their custom to spend their mornings together, usually in reading the newspapers, she incidentally absorbing his statesmanlike view of the political questions of the day.

Buchanan frequently entertained at Wheatland both his political friends and those he had made through his diplomatic relations. His niece was a truly bewitching hostess on these occasions, to which there often attached much that was brilliant.

The first attempt at training after she passed under her uncle’s care was not a happy one in the estimation of his young ward. Being obliged to go to Washington for the session of Congress, he closed his home at Lancaster and transferred his menage to the capital, for Buchanan always set up his household gods wherever he tarried for any length of time, his housekeeper. Miss Hetty Parker, who served him in that capacity for forty years, going with him from place to place. Harriet was left in Lancaster, in the home of some venerable spinsters of her uncle’s acquaintance, who had pronounced ideas on the moral gait to be maintained by the rising generation. From her own accounts, given in letters to her uncle, she seems to have been frequently disciplined by means of her healthy young appetite. There were melodramatic occasions when she went without sugar in her tea, and was compelled to practice various similar mortifications of the flesh for which no small girl has a natural bent. After she was removed from these uncongenial surroundings she lived for some time in dread of an adverse circumstance that might return her to them. Her uncle, on whom neither the pathos nor the humor of the situation was lost, more than once suggested quizzically in his letters to her that she might like to go back to the old ladies.

When they were separated he wrote to her every day, at first from conscientious motives of the duty he owed to her, and later because of the pleasure he derived from this frequent interchange of thought and sympathy. When she was twelve years old he sent her with her sister, Mary, to boarding school at Charlestown, West Virginia.

“Had Mary written to me that you were a good girl and had behaved yourself entirely well, I should have visited you during the Christmas holidays,” he said, in the course of a letter written to her shortly after her initiation into boarding school life.

In 1845 Buchanan became Secretary of State under President Polk. “My labors are great,” he wrote to Harriet, shortly after entering upon the duties of his new office, “but they do not’ way me down, as you write the word. Now I would say ‘weighs’ but doctors may differ on this point.” Further on in the same letter he continues thus: ” Your friends, Mrs. Bancroft [wife of the Secretary of War] and the Pleasantons often inquire for you. They have given you some-what of a name here, and Mrs. Polk and Miss Rucker, her niece, have several times urged me to permit you to come and pass some time with them. I have been as deaf as the adder to their request, knowing, to use a word of your grandmother, that you are too ‘out setting’ already. There is a time for all things under the sun, as the wise man says, and your time will yet come.” Again, he sends love from Miss Hetty, his housekeeper, and a message to the effect that she would be glad to see Harriet in Washington. “I fear she might be twice glad,” added Buchanan, “once on your arrival and still more so on your departure.”

It was Buchanan’s custom to spend his summers or a portion of them at Bedford Springs, taking his nieces with him. To the younger it has ever been a place of happy memories. There, when she was still quite a young girl, she met the man, then also full of all the enthusiasm of youth, to whom, after exacting a prolonged devotion, she finally surrendered herself

In one of her uncle’s letters written to her in the summer of 1846 he tells her he will not be able to go to Bedford before the 10th of August, “when the season will be over and it will be too late for Mary to enact the character of belle; and you,” he continued, “are quite too young to make the attempt.”

He placed her, the autumn of that year, in the Visitation Convent, in Georgetown, whence she was graduated three years later with much distinction. She passed one Sunday in every month during these three years at her uncle’s home on F Street, there catching her first glimpse of that world of which she was later to form a part. Her uncle was still Secretary of State, and his home was frequented by the most illustrious men who made up the public life of that day. There Harriet, looking upon herself as a full-fledged young lady, spent the first winter after her liberation from school duties. The following year, however, she passed quietly among her relatives in Pennsylvania, which was more in accord with her uncle’s wishes, for she was still very young. The decision to do so was entirely voluntary on her part, which pleased Buchanan greatly, for he realized fully what a fascination the gay life of the capital held for a young girl in her high social position. He wrote her a letter full of praise for controlling what he knew to be her inclination and remaining at home. ” This act’ of self-restraint has raised you in my estimation,” he wrote, and then went on to relate frankly how gay the city was, and concluded by assuring her that Mr. John Sullivan, an Irish gentleman famous for his dinners, would be inconsolable when he learned that she was not to be there that winter.

It is supposed that no American woman ever had more offers of marriage than Harriet Lane, and it is evident, from a letter written her by her uncle about this time, that suitors had already begun to present themselves. “I wish now to give you a caution,” he wrote: “never allow your affections to become interested, or engage yourself to any person, without my previous advice. You ought never to marry any person who is not able to afford you a decent and immediate support. In my experience I have witnessed the long years of patient misery and dependence. which fine women have endured from rushing precipitately into matrimonial connections without sufficient reflection. Look ahead and consider the future, and act wisely in this particular.”

With the incoming of Taylor’s administration Buchanan retired to Wheatland, spending the ensuing four years there with occasional sallies to Washington and his summers as usual at Bedford Springs.

Harriet Lane was already a belle of far more than local repute when in 1852, her uncle having been appointed minister to England, she accompanied him thither.

Through the effect she produced in a strange land Buchanan probably for the first time fully realized how unusually beautiful she was. So favorable was the impression she made upon the queen that on state occasions she was assigned to places usually given only to the wives of ambassadors and ministers. She was well known throughout England, and on the day that Oxford University conferred the degree of Doctor of Civil Laws upon her uncle and Alfred Tennyson its ancient walls rang with the cheers that went up from its hundreds of students who rose en masse to greet the entrance of Harriet Lane.

“She was a most distinguished young person,” said one of her countrymen recently, growing enthusiastic over the recollection of the impression she created, “whom more than one Englishman would have given his head to marry.”

Her beauty was not less appreciated by the artistic eye of the French people, and Mr. James Edward MacFarland, who was secretary of the American legation at the time of her visit to the family of Mr. John Y. Mason, then our minister to France, was full of anecdotes of the naiveté with which the people in the streets of Paris were wont to express their admiration.

Shortly after her return to America the loss of her only sister, Mrs. George W. Baker, who died in California, sent Harriet Lane into deep mourning. While the country was filled with stories of her beauty and the impression it had created in foreign capitals she was passing her days in the grateful quiet of Wheatland. Her uncle’s nomination to the Presidency but added to her fame, the campaign, election, and inauguration bringing her gradually into that eminent position she was so admirably fitted to fill. At the ball attending the inaugural ceremonies at Washington she made her first reappearance in public, clad, as best became her noble form, in the simplicity of a white dress, flower trimmed, and with a necklace of pearls.

In those days, before social functions had attained the proportions that now characterize them, they reflected in the White House, as elsewhere, more of the individuality of the host and hostess than is now possible. Many details that are now consigned to secretaries and stewards then appertained to the master and mistress of the house. Harriet Lane and her cousin James Buchanan Henry, who acted as private secretary to his uncle, invariably arranged the seating of the guests at state dinners, an onerous task now performed by an under-secretary of the Executive Mansion, who, besides being familiar with the rules of official precedence, must also know something of the social relationship each guest bears to his possible neighbor. She made no mistakes, for she had been trained to her position as had none of her predecessors, unless we except the wives of the two Adamses.

In 0860, when the Prince of Wales visited England’s North American possessions, on President Buchanan’s suggestion and invitation, he extended his travels so as to include at least a portion of the United States. The memory of his sojoum among us still lives in many of the cities and towns whose territory had once formed part of the kingdom of his ancestors. The five days he spent in Washington were passed in the White House. A guest of the nation at the capital is usually assigned to a suite of rooms in one of the hotels of the city. Between Buchanan and the Prince of Wales, however, owing to the former’s recent residence at the court of St. James, there existed more of a personal feeling than is usual between the President and state guests.

In all the festivities by which the Executive Mansion did honor to his presence the unerring hand and faultless taste of Harriet Lane were evident.

One memorable day of his visit was spent at Mount Vernon. The revenue cutter “Harriet Lane” was selected to take the distinguished little party, consisting of the President, Miss Lane, the Prince, his suite, and the British Minister down the river. The simplicity of George Washington’s home and the picturesque beauty of its situation were themes of interesting study to the Englishmen. At his tomb they reverently bared their heads, and near it the Prince planted a tree in remembrance of the day.

After he left Washington he wrote to the President expressing his appreciation of the hospitality he had received, and sending him his portrait painted by Sir John Watson Gordon, with a set of engravings of the Royal family for Miss Lane, to whom now also belong the portrait and the letter, together with one written by the queen. It echoes the gratification already expressed by her son concerning the kindliness of his reception among the American people, and shows in what high regard she personally held both the President and his niece.

Buchanan’s administration was the last of the old regime, a period in which there had been that unity of purpose that had fostered the nation, that wise forbearance that had preserved it, and withal much of illustrious oratory and brilliant debate. But the parting of the ways had come. A day of action was at hand. Buchanan, oppressed with a sense of his impotency to avert a crisis that was inevitable, retired to Wheatland, and Lincoln, full of high purposes and many misgivings, stepped into the pathway of destiny. Upon the one public life instantly relaxed its hold, while about the other it threw its myriad feverish tendrils, clutching him hourly closer to itself till the long watches of that fatal April night, during which its imperious tenure was loosened by death.

With Buchanan, Harriet Lane also passed from the horizon of public life, spending with him at Wheatland those historic four years that followed her days in the White House. There, in January, 1866, she was married to Henry Elliott Johnston, of Baltimore. The ceremony was performed by her uncle, the Rev. Edward Y. Buchanan, of the Episcopal Church.

Her honeymoon she passed in Cuba and her married life in Baltimore, in whose social doings she took a prominent part. At her uncle’s death, in 1868, she inherited Wheatland, where for a number of years she passed her summers. In 1892 she bought a home in Washington, where she now spends the greater part of her time.

Much has been given her of life’s joys and triumphs, and much, too, of its sorrows. Death has repeatedly crossed the threshold of her home, robbing her, one by one, of her heart’s treasures: in 1881 the elder of her two sons, James Buchanan Johnston, a boy of brilliant promise, then in his fourteenth year; in 1882 her second son, Henry Elliott Johnston; and two years later her husband. Surrounded not only by life’s comforts, but its elegancies, by friends of her own and a succeeding generation, there is yet about Harriet Lane Johnston today much of that same majestic isolation that marked her youth.



MLA Source Citation:

Peacock, Virginia Tatnal. Famous American Belles of the Nineteenth Century. K. B. Lippincott Company. 1901. AccessGenealogy.com. Web. 29 July 2014. http://www.accessgenealogy.com/pennsylvania/harriet-lane-mrs-henry-elliott-johnston.htm - Last updated on Aug 26th, 2013


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