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The Surrogate Harriet Lane did plenty and accomplished much. Initially she cared and supported her bachelor uncle, ex-president James Buchanan, at his Wheatland estate, nearby Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Buchanan died in 1868; his will generously acknowledged his niece. His estate, worth $2,000,000 in 2005 US dollars;
“In a codicil to his will, he left Wheatland to his favorite niece and hostess.”

On January11/1866, Harriet, age 36, married Baltimore banker, Henry Elliot Johnston. The wedding ceremony underscored the bride’s bond with her uncle. The ceremony was celebrated at Wheatland. James Buchanan gave away the bride and the marriage was performed by the Reverend E.Y. Buchanan, the former president’s brother.

The mature couple honeymooned in Cuba, and subsequently lived in Baltimore. Wheatland, after Buchanan’s death, served as the Johnston’s summer home for sixteen years. 72-3

Harriet’s first child, James Buchanan Johnson, proudly named after his mother’s guardian, was born on November 1866. A second son, Henry Elliot Johnston, followed in 1870. The mother was forty years old, an advanced age for pregnancy at the time.

The early 1880s were dismal years for Harriet. Their oldest son died from rheumatic fever at age 14; the second son died shortly thereafter at age 12, probably from rheumatic fever as well. Her husband died on May 5, 1884, leaving her a widow at age 54. Subsequently, Mrs. Johnston sold both Wheatland and their family home in Baltimore to resettle in Washington, near the White House.

From the clouds of her personal tragedies, flowed the magnanimous deeds that enhanced Harriet Lane’s stature in American history. After the death of her husband, she sold both her homes along with many of her possessions. She donated many of her valuable European works of art to the Smithsonian Institute. As a result, the widow was called the “First Lady of the Collection of Fine Arts.” Her gift set a precedent for other US collectors to donate their artwork to US museums.

After the death of their second son, the Johnstons discussed how to remember their children’s lives. They became the principal benefactors of the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children in Baltimore. Subsequently the Home became the Pediatric Training Center or the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the first American pediatrics institution.
(The Harriet Land Home will be featured in a future blog post).

Harriet Lane returned to the White House for Frances Cleveland’s first reception as First Lady. The former Surrogate became a frequent guest at the president’s mansion, and she quickly established herself as the “Grand Dame of Washington Society.” For the rest of her life, there was no important society event in the District in which Harriet was left off the guest list.

Harriet Lane died at her summer home in Narragansett Rhode Island on July 3, 1903.

Milton Stern, Harriet Lane. America’s First Lady (Milton Stern, 2003)

Lud Historian
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