The First First Lady

By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2016-2017, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the September 2016 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.


September 14, 2016 was the date of the first meeting in the presidency of the second woman president in the history of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable. In recognition of that milestone, this history brief is about the first first lady of the United States. The obvious person to have the distinction of being the first first lady is Martha Washington, the wife of the first president of the United States. However, Martha Washington was never called first lady while her husband served as president. In fact, Martha Washington was typically called Lady Washington, a name that she reputedly expressed a preference for. More than 40 years after Martha Washington’s death, an article by a poet named Lydia Howard Huntley Sigourney complimented Martha Washington for never taking on an air of pretentiousness despite her husband’s lofty stature. The compliment read, “The first lady of the nation still preserved the habits of early life.” Although the title of first lady was applied to Martha Washington in this article, this was done decades after her death, and there is no evidence that this title was ever used for Martha Washington while her husband was president. Dolley Madison was another presidential wife in our nation’s early history to whom the title first lady may have been applied. This may have occurred when President Zachary Taylor reputedly eulogized Dolley Madison in 1849 by calling her “the first lady of the land for half a century.” However, no written documentation exists for this statement, and even if the statement is factual, the comment was made many years after Dolley Madison’s husband was president. During James Madison’s presidency, his wife was called Presidentess or Presidentress, not first lady.

Harriett Lane

Based on available evidence, the first person to whom the title first lady was applied while she was living in the White House was Harriet Lane. Harriet was not the wife of a president, but the niece of President James Buchanan, the president who preceded Abraham Lincoln. Harriet filled the role of first lady for her uncle during his presidency, because Buchanan was a bachelor his whole life. Due to Harriet Lane’s widespread popularity during her uncle’s presidency, Harper’s Weekly published a picture of her on May 8, 1858 and referred to her as “Our Lady of the White House,” which sounds like a title that would be given to Mary, the mother of Jesus, if her husband, Joseph, had ever been president of the United States. On March 31, 1860, during the last year of Buchanan’s presidency, a full-page engraving of Harriet appeared in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. The article accompanying the engraving praised Harriet by stating, “The subject of our illustration, from the semi-official position which she has long sustained with so much honor to herself and her country, may justly be termed the first lady of the land.” This was, as far as is known, the first time that the title first lady was applied to a woman during the time that she lived in the White House. After the Civil War, the title grew in popularity and came to be the exclusive term used for the wife of the president. However, Harriet Lane, who was not the president’s wife, but filled the role of White House hostess during her uncle’s presidency, was the first woman to whom this title was applied while she lived in the White House.

The engraving of Harriett Lane
in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper
James Buchanan

Harriet Lane came to be the White House hostess because of the deaths of her parents when she was a child. She was born on May 9, 1830 in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania, which is about 35 miles due west of Gettysburg. When Harriet was nine, her mother, who was the younger sister of James Buchanan, died. Two years later Harriet’s father died, and she requested that her uncle, James Buchanan, be appointed her legal guardian. Buchanan diligently oversaw his niece’s education by sending her to excellent schools, where she excelled in her studies of history, astronomy, writing, French, arithmetic, and chemistry. When Buchanan became secretary of state under James Polk, Harriet Lane, at the age of 15, lived in Washington. During this time she was introduced to Washington society and politics, and at this young age she began to become educated in them.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is image-102.png
A photograph taken around 1845 with James Buchanan (left), Harriett Lane (second from left), and Dolley Madison (right)

The first known photograph of Harriet was taken while she lived in Washington. The date of the photograph is not known with certainty, but it was around 1845, and it is of a group of people that includes Harriet Lane, James Buchanan, President and Mrs. Polk, and Dolley Madison. After the conclusion of her formal education, Harriet continued to grow in knowledge about matters of national importance, in part by sitting in on meetings that her uncle conducted at their residence. When Buchanan served as minister to the United Kingdom during the presidency of Franklin Pierce, Harriet, at the age of 24, went to live with her uncle in London, where she not only learned the particulars of European society and culture and the nuances of social functions, but also befriended Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, both of whom found the young woman to be intelligent, knowledgeable, and engaging. Harriet Lane so endeared herself to Queen Victoria that she routinely referred to Harriet as “dear Miss Lane.” Throughout the years prior to Buchanan’s campaign for the presidency, he often discussed current issues with his niece and sought her opinion, so much so that Harriet became Buchanan’s primary confidante.

At the inauguration ball following her uncle’s election as president, Harriet Lane caused a stir by wearing a gown that was in the European style with a much lower neckline than was worn in the U.S. This choice of gown was, in a sense, a signal that the White House would no longer be under the pall of the perpetually mournful Jane Pierce, the wife of the previous president, whose three sons all died in childhood prior to Franklin Pierce taking office as president. During the Buchanan presidency dinner parties again took place in the White House, and Harriet was responsible for their planning. Using what she had learned in London as a guide, she oversaw gatherings that played a large role in changing the gloomy mood in Washington society that had prevailed during the Pierce presidency. Harriet also deftly set up seating arrangements for dinner parties that gave appropriate and expected seating precedence to each guest while maintaining distance between political adversaries, which was a very difficult task during this time of extreme sectional tension.

A sketch of Harriett Lane playing tenpins with the Prince of Wales

Harriet Lane’s cheerfulness and poise led to her popularity throughout the U.S., with women copying her clothing and her unelaborate hair style. In physical appearance she has been described as having hair that was “bright, reddish-brown, full and shiny,” “a robust physicality,” “healthy, flushed skin,” and “a more muscularly developed neck, back, and arms which were visibly displayed by the clothing style she invariably wore at formal public occasions.” Harriet also displayed traits that were progressive for her time. For example, during an 1860 visit to Washington by the Prince of Wales, who had befriended Harriet while she was living in London, Harriet and the prince competed against each other in a game of tenpins, which breached the socially accepted norm of that time that women should not publicly display physical prowess, particularly in competing against a man. Moreover, Harriet was victorious over the prince in their game of bowling. Harriet Lane’s popularity led to the misconception that a popular song of that time, “Listen to the Mockingbird,” was written for her. This misconception came about because the woman in the song is referred to as Hal, which was Harriet’s nickname. Although the song had not been written for Harriet, a bandleader at one White House party dedicated the song to her. (As an aside, a comical rendition of “Listen to the Mockingbird,” played at a rapid pace and with chirping birds in the background, was used as the opening music for some Three Stooges episodes.)

Harriett Lane Johnston, later in life

Planning dinner parties at the White House was not Harriet Lane’s only activity during her uncle’s presidency. There is evidence that she lent public support to several social welfare efforts, such as improving living conditions on Native American reservations, establishment of a hospital for the indigent, and prison reform. After her time in the White House, Harriet gave abundant financial support to some important civic endeavors. In 1866, at the age of 36, which was significantly older than usual for women of her time, Harriet Lane married Henry Elliott Johnston, who was a banker, and the couple went on to have two sons. Two years after Harriet’s wedding, James Buchanan died, and then from 1881 to 1884 Harriet lost both of her sons and her husband to death, which left her a widow without any of her immediate family. Undeterred by these personal losses, Harriet Lane Johnston used both her inheritance from her uncle and her family wealth to contribute to several projects. She donated funds for the establishment of the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children, which was affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine and which was the first hospital in the country devoted exclusively to pediatric medicine. This facility still operates as the Harriet Lane Clinic. Since 1950 Johns Hopkins Hospital has published the Harriet Lane Handbook, which is a highly regarded manual for pediatric care and is now in its 20th edition. In her will Harriet bequeathed funds for the establishment and construction of a school on the grounds of the National Cathedral in Washington, which became St. Albans School. She also willed that her art collection be made available for public use, and her collection was given to the Smithsonian Institution.

One of Harriet Lane Johnston’s donations was met less than enthusiastically, specifically her bequest for a monument in Washington to her uncle, James Buchanan. In spite of the widespread negative opinion about Buchanan, Harriet remained loyal to her uncle and bequeathed funds for construction of a monument to him. Harriet died in 1903 on the day before our nation’s 127th birthday, and she attached a 15-year deadline to her bequest for the monument to James Buchanan. For many years Congress failed to act on it, and at one point Senator Henry Cabot Lodge railed against building the monument by claiming that it would honor someone “upon whom rests the shadow of disloyalty in the great office to which he was elected.” Congress finally passed legislation authorizing construction of the monument six days prior to the deadline, and the legislation was signed by Woodrow Wilson. The monument to James Buchanan, which was unveiled in 1930, is in Meridian Hill Park. The lofty inscription on the monument reads, “The incorruptible statesman whose walk was upon the mountain ranges of the law.” There can be and certainly was much disagreement about the building of a monument to James Buchanan. But Buchanan nurtured his niece intellectually and socially, he played an important role in her precocious and consummate maturity and in her enlightened attitudes, and he inculcated in her a sincere and deep-seated magnanimity and an active and empathetic concern for the less fortunate. As such, Buchanan contributed significantly to Harriet becoming the great woman that she was. Hence, the James Buchanan Memorial can be viewed as a monument to Harriet Lane Johnston as much as a monument to her uncle.

The James Buchanan Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Standing in the shadow of someone who was great can obscure a person’s own greatness, but so too can standing in the shadow of someone who was inept. This was the familial burden that befell Harriet Lane Johnston. It certainly was not her fault that she was the niece of one of the worst presidents in U.S. history. Buchanan’s incompetence as president should in no way prejudice his niece’s exemplary legacy, which deserves to stand on its own. Because James Buchanan was a woefully ineffective president, Harriet Lane Johnston’s legacy is often overlooked due to our and history’s tendency to shine a spotlight on the exceptional rather than on the inadequate. But Harriet Lane Johnston was exceptional, and she merits not just our and history’s attention, but our and history’s admiration for all of her superb accomplishments. Although Harriet is widely considered to be the first person to bear the title of first lady, she was not a first lady in the typical sense of being the wife of a U.S. president. Nevertheless, Harriet Lane Johnston’s remarkable legacy of graciousness, industriousness, intellectuality, and philanthropy are not only a record that makes her truly deserving of the title first lady, but also a model that every first lady should seek to emulate.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.