A Woman to Know: Harriet Lane Johnston

She was his confidante in all matter political and personal. — Sarah Pryor

She was his confidante in all matter political and personal. — Sarah Pryor

(image via The Library of Congress)

When James Buchanan became President of the United States in 1857, he entered an Oval Office roiling in turmoil — Southern states threatened succession, the Dred Scott decision loomed on the horizon and to top it all off, the White House staff was in disarray.

He needed one person, his staff assured him, who could fix it all — he needed a First Lady.

But the confirmed bachelor had never married, and historians today now wonder if he perhaps hid his identity as a closeted gay man for fear of discrimination and isolation.

But luckily for James, he had Harriet.

The decade before, when Harriet found herself suddenly orphaned and living penniless in Pennsylvania, she called on her favorite uncle to save her from poverty. James did so enthusiastically, declaring Harriet his ward and bringing her with him on his travels as ambassador to England. While in London, as James prepared for a presidential run, Harriet fought off several suitors, telling her uncle she found them “pleasant enough but dreadfully troublesome.” James encouraged her to wait on marriage and come with him to DC. She wouldn’t marry until age 36, after her favorite uncle was already declining in health.

In 1857, per his staff’s pleading, the bachelor president summoned his charming, vivacious niece to the White House, where she immediately assumed the hostess duties befitting the wife of a president. Harriet’s popularity saved James’s social reputation in the midst of pre-Civil War chaos, and historians today say the young niece set the model for what would later become codified First Ladyship. Some criticized her politeness, saying she strove to maintain a veneer of niceness at White House functions, even as the country threatened to divide. But she also used her position as defacto First Lady to advocate for Native Americans living on reservations, and she begged her uncle to address the issue of slavery before he left office in 1861. But Harriet’s charm and grace couldn’t save his legacy — Buchanan would later go down as one of the worst presidents in U.S. History.

Years after the White House, Harriet again battled personal tragedy. Her husband, children and uncle all died within a decade of each other, and upon retirement, Harriet through herself back into social causes. Before she died at the age of 73, she left her massive art collection to the Smithsonian Institutions, forming the foundation of what is now the National Gallery of Art.

In 1893, just 10 years before her death, she donated what would now be millions of dollars to establish the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children in Baltimore. Even though local segregation laws still separated hospitals into “white” and “colored” wings, Harriet stipulated specifically that her Home for Children was to be integrated. Today, it’s known as the Harriet Lane Clinic, functioning as part of the John Hopkins University Hospital System.

And despite his reputation as a cowardly president, she fought for her beloved uncle’s formal recognition. She established a fund to build a monument in DC’s Meridian Hill Park, and when she died in 1903, she was fighting for his birthplace to be honored in the Register of Historic Places.

“In her affection, he found the only solace of his lonely life,” one friend remembered.

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