CHAMBERSBURG – Franklin County Commissioners have proclaimed May 2022 to be Harriet Lane Month in recognition of former first lady and Franklin County native Harriet Lane Johnston.
“Franklin County has such a great history. Harriet Lane Johnston’s story is an important part of it, and it’s good that we remind ourselves about it on the occasion of her birthday,” said Commissioner Dave Keller.
Johnston was born in Mercersburg on May 9, 1830. Orphaned at a young age, she became the ward of her maternal uncle, James Buchanan. Buchanan supervised his “adopted daughter’s” formal education, which later proved to be critical in shaping Johnston’s ability to step into and navigate the political world during a contentious time in American history.
As a young woman, Johnston accompanied her uncle to London where he served as Minister to the United Kingdom during the Pierce administration. There she acted as Buchanan’s hostess and as an American representative abroad and became her uncle’s trusted confidante and consultant.
Those roles prepared Johnston for an even more prominent position when Buchanan was elected president in 1856 and she became first lady of the White House. Despite the tensions of the American political climate at the time, Johnston adeptly handled her duties with special care and tact.
Following his presidency, Buchanan and Johnston returned to Pennsylvania where they remained close until Buchanan’s death in 1868. She married Baltimore banker Henry Elliott Johnston in 1866 and had two sons. Both boys died in their teens and were followed shortly thereafter by their father, all within a four-year span.
Later in life, Johnston showed great philanthropy. She bequeathed a generous endowment to Johns Hopkins University for the establishment of the Harriet Lane Home for Invalid Children. Since 1953, the facility, known today as the Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, has published the definitive physicians’ pediatric guidebook, The Harriet Lane Handbook.
Johnston also honored the memory of her sons with a large donation to establish and maintain an Episcopal school for boys – St. Albans School – in Washington, D.C. Additionally, she provided funds to establish memorials to her late uncle. That money was ultimately used to purchase Buchanan’s birthplace and erect a pyramid-shaped memorial in his honor on what is today James Buchanan Birthplace State Park near Cove Gap. A second monument was completed in Washington, D.C.
The former first lady laid the groundwork for a national art gallery by bequeathing her 30-piece art collection to the federal government. The Smithsonian accepted the donation, which inspired other collectors to contribute art and establish the Smithsonian American Art Museum.
Johnston returned to Mercersburg one final time in 1901 for the dedication of a Buchanan portrait. She died on July 3, 1903, and is buried in Baltimore.
By recognizing May as Harriet Lane Month, the Franklin County Commissioners honor the legacy and many contributions of “the first lady of Franklin County.”