The Ivanka Trump of pre-Civil War America, Harriet Lane dazzled Americans using the technology of her times: mastering the daguerreotype and the telegram rather than the Internet and Instagram. As the glittering, petticoated star of a beleaguered White House, she charmed princes and populists, the press and the public. Yet, ultimately, all her girl power couldn’t save her uncle James Buchanan’s pitiful presidency.
Lane’s style was just risqué enough to enhance her legend without destroying her reputation. Beyond the glitz, this first woman to be called “first lady” in print contributed helpful politicking, wise advice, and a popularity boost to the Buchanan presidency. But, like Ms. Trump, Miss Lane was not married to the man she called “Nunc” and others called “Mr. President.”
Fellow mourners’ anguished solitude reinforced the natural solicitude James Buchanan had for his niece Harriet, born on May 9, 1830. By the time she turned eleven she had lost both her parents. While mourning his sister, Buchanan remained haunted by the great loss of his life, when the great love of his life, Anne C. Coleman, died. This tragedy in 1819, shortly after Buchanan abruptly ended their engagement, triggered speculation that she killed herself. The pain he lived with constantly, occasionally burst through the portly Buchanan’s genial veneer. Although he loved his “adopted daughter,” he could be curt and controlling, monitoring her mail and shaming her for serving a bad meal. Insisting she follow his “advice” before getting engaged, and warning only to marry someone who can “afford you a decent and immediate support,” the brokenhearted Buchanan explained: “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.”
While building his career in Congress and the Cabinet as a Jacksonian Democrat, “Old Buck” enjoyed unconventional domestic arrangements. His friendship with his roommate Senator William King of Alabama was so intimate, tongues still wag today wondering whether this “Bachelor President” was the first gay president. And in 1854, Buchanan wowed London society as Ambassador to the Court of St. James by unleashing his witty, wonderful, elegant 24-year-old niece on the Brits.
Harriet Lane was such a hit that Queen Victoria herself played pushy matchmaker, hoping “dear Miss Lane” would settle in London. But Lane was devoted to her domineering uncle. Her return to the States paid off in 1857 when Buchanan became president.
Buchanan would leave America in tatters. Most historians consider him “The Do-Nothing President,” impotent as the fight over slavery culminated in seven southern states seceding. The historian Jean Baker argues that Buchanan’s failure wasn’t inaction but borderline treasonable action favoring the South.
While advising him regularly, Harriet Lane, the "Democratic Queen," did not let Uncle Jimmy’s woes ruin her good times. Her dress at the Inauguration Ball, with a neckline plunging 2.5 inches below the norm, was accused of showing too much body, not enough bodice. Gossips gossiped—but mimics mimicked, revolutionizing Washington fashions.
While greeting guests properly, especially Edward, the Prince of Wales, an old friend from London, Lane pushed past the usual, suffocating, feminine behavioral guidelines. She drank wine publicly and boosted favored causes, from Native Americans to the arts. Demonstrating how spreading technology spread the cult of celebrity, she became the first first lady to have her printed image mass distributed as a “carte-de-visite,” an early version of the postcard. It became a best seller.
The hoopla around this presidential hostess who was not a presidential spouse ultimately formalized the use of a term bandied about for years. On March 31, 1860, Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper called Lane “the first lady in the land.” The term—which Jackie Kennedy would say made her sound like a “saddle horse”—stuck. Even an increasingly alienated Southerner, the future confederate president Jefferson Davis, would write: “The White House 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.”
While lionized for her hostessing—being “at the climax of her glorious womanhood”—Harriet Lane was prized for her politicking, especially by her chief client James Buchanan. The reputation she gained for never seating abolitionists next to slaveholders required someone meticulous enough to pay attention and diligent enough to follow through. The wife of one Southern Senator praised Lane for keeping “the surface of society in Washington serene and smiling, though the fires of a volcano raged in the under-political world.”
Harriet Lane’s post-presidential career was dramatic—and traumatic. First, she watched her uncle shoulder the blame for the union falling apart. They both died awaiting a vindication that has yet to occur. And after finally marrying in 1866 at the age of 35, within three years and three months, Lane lost the three men in her new life. In March, 1881, her 14-year-old son died. Her 13-year-old son died a year and a half later. Then in May, 1884, her 53-year-old husband Henry Johnston died.
Rebuilding her life, living until 1903, she emerged as a fairy godmother philanthropist. She distributed her banker husband’s eleven million dollar inheritance intelligently and memorably. Today, patients entering the Harriet Lane Clinic at Johns Hopkins Medical Center, should toast this visionary who established the nation’s first pediatric medical facility, insisting in 1883 it serve children “of all races, creeds and nationalities.” Students living and learning at the Lane-Johnston Dormitory at St. Alban’s School in Washington, D.C., should hail this humanitarian who helped other children after losing her own. And art lovers wandering around the Smithsonian’s National Gallery of Art should remember that the founding art collection came from a woman who saw light in a world that turned terribly dark on her.
Harriet Lane’s life teaches many wonderful values. But it drives home one sobering political lesson, that the Trumps—and critics of Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump—should learn. First Ladies can rarely win big. Those who fail, burden the White House. But even those who, like Harriet Lane, succeed magnificently only affect things marginally. Ultimately, the success of a president depends on the success of the president. The outsized expectations burdening the first lady prove that this undefined anachronism is more suited to the highly mannered age of Harriet Lane than the ill-mannered age of Donald Trump.
“Harriet Lane,” National First Ladies Library. A superb, thoughtful, detailed source.
Allida Black, “Harriet Lane,” White House Historical Association. Shorter but rich and substantive.
Jean Baker, James Buchanan (2004). Devastating analysis of Buchanan’s catastrophic “partiality” toward the South.