Sunday, April 28, 2013

Harriet Lane

            Not long ago, my husband and I wrote our will. Although we just did the standard will where our children divide our assets when we are gone, the possibilities are endless about what instructions we could have included. Harriet Lane, niece of James Buchanan, the fifteenth president, filled her will to the brim with instructions to follow after her death, not just for her executors and her family members, but even to the United States itself!

            James Buchanan is the only president to have never married. He had been engaged, the engagement had been broken off, and the ex-fiancee committed suicide several months after the break up. That did James in. He vowed never to marry. There is possibility that James Buchanan had a homosexual relationship with William Rufus Devane King, but that depends on who you ask if there is evidence beyond a deep friendship.

            Harriet Lane’s mother was James Buchanan’s sister. Harriet was orphaned and then adopted by James Buchanan when she was eleven. They were very close and had a great relationship. He brought her with him to England when he was the ambassador to the court of St. James. Queen Victoria was impressed with Harriet and they spent much time together being of similar age.

Harriet Lane in her scandalously low-cut ball gown for the Inaugural Ball.

             When James Buchanan entered the White House, Harriet Lane came along as the official hostess. She was a fashion trend setter from the beginning starting with her shockingly low cut gown for the inauguration ball. Milton Stern in Harriet Lane, America’s First Lady, calls Harriet the first First Lady who was a fashion leader. I found that hard to believe at first because so many of the previous first ladies were so elegant and well-dressed. However, Harriet had the advantage of the widespread use of photography in the media which no other first lady had previously. Before, you would have had to have been in Harriet’s presence to see what she wore or read a description in the newspaper or in a friend’s letter. But now that the women in the whole nation had access to see for themselves what the First Lady wore, women could accurately copy what she wore.

            My family and I visited Wheatfield, Buchanan’s home in Lancaster, PA, and I asked the tour guide if she thought Harriet truly was more fashionable than previous first ladies or was it merely advances in photography that made her fashionable to the public? The tour guide thought it was both and she pointed me to a picture of Harriet that showed her wearing a belt around the waist of her dress as opposed to the pointed waistline. According to the tour guide, Harriet was the first one to wear a belt like that.

Harriet Lane and her fashionable belt

            Harriet only spent one term in the white house and she was single that whole time. She married at the age of 36 to Henry Elliot Johnston, Jr, a wealthy banker from Maryland. They had two sons. Shortly after her marriage, James Buchanan, her beloved “Nunc” died. Then both her sons died of rheumatic fever, one at aged 14 and one at age 12. Finally her husband died leaving her completely alone in life at the age of 54.

            She moved back to Washington and hardly a week went by from then until the year before her death that she was not mentioned in the newspapers as participating in the social life of Washington. This reminded me much of Dolley Madison who moved back to Washington after she was widowed. Dolley was also socially active especially with First ladies and even guided them at how to hostess at the White House. I don’t know what role Harriet had in First Ladies after her time, but I will be looking to see if her name appears in any future biography I read!

            At the time of her death in 1903 at the age of 73, she left an extensive will which she had amended several times stating which family members should get what candlesticks, china, jewelry and what amounts of money different cousins and nephews should receive. Her estate at the time of her death was worth $11,500,000 (in 2005 dollars).  Her major bequest was in memory of her late sons: the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children in Baltimore. This hospital is still going strong today including a partnership with John Hopkins and also publishes a medical handbook each year. She also set aside $300,000 to establish the St. Alban's School for Washington Cathedral Choir Boys which is still one of the premiere educational institutions in D.C. She also left her art that she had collected to the Smithsonian which renewed the Smithsonian's interest in collecting and preserving pieces of art. Lastly, to the United States, she left $100,000 to erect a monument in D.C. of her uncle within 15 years after her death. Congress finally picked a spot after heated debate 6 days shy of the 15 year deadline. It took them so long to honor her request because although Harriet was well-loved in Washington, James Buchanan was not. The Statue was completed in 1930.

James Buchanan Memorial in Meridian Hill Park, Washington D.C.

            Harriet Lane was intentional about her legacy. It is obvious that she spent a long time pondering and planning how her estate would be used to remember her sons and Uncle and her based on the number of times she amended her will which was printed in full in Milton Stern’s book.

            Harriet Lane is inspirational to me to be intentional about my legacy. Although she had access to millions of dollars to shape her legacy, she also left a legacy through her generosity and her character. I did not marry a millionaire, but I can purposefully craft how I will be remembered by the next generations through my own character and actions.


 My sister recently discovered she had a First Ladies Cookbook!! So we prepared a Harriet Lane feast. The author did not leave any notes telling us why they had selected these recipes for James Buchanan, but it is presumed that this meal would include his favorite foods.

Favorite Recipes of All the Presidents of the United States (well, all the presidents through Nixon...)

Pennsylvania Dutch Stuffed Shoulder of Pork

Piling on some more sauerkraut

boiling the cinnamon apples in sugar, water, and cinnamon until tender

The finished cinnamon apples

There are no fresh gooseberries anywhere near to be used in the gooseberry tart, but we did find this gooseberry preserves import from England at Wegmans. Maybe James Buchanan ate this tart while a minister to the court of St. James?

Here is our presidential feast! Notice the mashed potato rosettes as garnish.

My husband, kids, sister and niece ready for our Harriet Lane feast!

My daughter, Molly, 3, in front of the Harriet Lane presidential china on display at Wheatfield. This is what James Buchanan would have eaten his feast on.

My silly kids in front of Wheatfield after our tour

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