30 Jan HARRIET LANE, SURROGATE FIRST LADY #9. THE BACHELOR PRESIDENT’S NIECE AND COMPANION
James Buchanan (1857-1861) was the fifteenth United States president and its only lifetime bachelor. Moreover, it was often suggested, but never documented, that he also was America’s only homosexual president. (1) Bereft of a wife and daughters, Buchanan selected as his White House “first lady” Harriet Lane, his beloved niece and long time ward. Harriet fulfilled the traditional responsibilities of the presidential wife so well that the National First Ladies Library lists her, and only her, as First Lady, who was not a president’s wife.
Miss Lane was orphaned at age eleven. Her uncle, James Buchanan, a successful politician, was the natural choice to become her guardian. Except for a few brief periods, Harriet resided with Buchanan until his death. In 1853 President Franklin Pierce nominated Buchanan to be the American ambassador to Great Britain. Lane lived with her uncle for eighteen months during his three years at his post in London. While in London, she served as her uncle’s official hostess. Although just twenty two, “Harriet blossomed and became a fixture in the prominent social circles which included the royal family.” (2) She so impressed Queen Victoria that the queen granted Harriet the status of a diplomat’s spouse and gave her the title “Honorary Ambassadress.”
After Buchanan’s 1857 presidential inauguration, his 26 year old niece was the inevitable choice to become his official White House hostess. Beautiful, graceful, and intelligent, Lane became extremely popular and was called by the press the “Democratic Queen.” In addition she was designated in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, “the lady of the White House, and by courtesy, the first lady of the land.” (3)
The White House’s social calendar was both moribund and almost barren during the four year tenure of her predecessor, the despondent First Lady Jane Pierce. In contrast Harriet sparkled during its frequent social gatherings and elegant dinners. Her entertainment of traveling Japanese royalty during a state visit was especially successful.
Lane took a firm grasp of managing the White House. After her arrival, she fired the extant staff, who were slaves whose efforts brought compensation only to their owners. She hired workers mainly of Irish or German descent to take their place.
In 1861 Buchanan retired to Wheatland, his estate in Lancaster PA. Harriet accompanied her uncle, and attended to him until his death in 1868 at age 77.
Milton Stern, Harriet Lane. America’s First Lady (Milton Stern, 2005)
1. pp. 13-20
2. page 30
3. page 53