May 9, 1830, in Mercersburg, Pennsylvania
January 13, 1903, in Narragansett, Rhode Island
James Buchanan is the only president who never married. He had raised his orphaned niece, Harriet Lane, from the age of eleven, and at age 26 she went to the White House with him to act as White House hostess. Harriet therefore served as first lady throughout Buchanan’s term in the years 1857-1861.
Having been adopted by Buchanan as a child, Harriet benefited from accompanying him during his years of travel as a foreign minister and their experiences at court, all of which helped to provide the perfect training for a first lady. Harriet returned home from Europe with a renewed sense of style and fashion which she enthusiastically injected into White House entertaining. Following the years of subdued entertaining initiated by the Polk administration, Harriet’s stylish and energetic spirit were a welcome relief to the Washington social scene. Her lavish entertaining included weekly dinners and frequent receptions that many believed rivaled the parties of former First Lady Dolley Madison. She was extremely popular and earned the nickname “The Democratic Queen.” She also became the first to be called “First Lady,” although it was not until Mary Todd Lincoln became first lady that the title was used officially in newspapers to describe the role of the president’s wife.
Harriet’s later years are marked by philanthropy. She had collected a large amount of fine art, which she donated to the federal government following her death. In fact, her personal art collection served as the foundation of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Collection of Fine Arts. Harriet also endowed an outpatient clinic at the Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore.
Harriet noted about her responsibilities as first lady, “Uncle places so much confidence in me that he gives himself no uneasiness.”
A White House guest commented that Harriet was “silent whenever it was possible to be silent, watchful and careful, she made no enemies, was betrayed in no entangling alliances, and was involved in no contretremps of any kind.”