". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Monday, November 7, 2016

As Yet, Project Untitled

      . . . . Harriet Lane is an interesting historical personage What will initially bring her to the attention of a USian historian is that Harriet Lane Johnston was President. Buchanan's niece and his de facto White House First Lady.

She performed all the duties of a First Lady of her time that are now taken on by a dedicated, permanent member of the White House staff.

In Harriet's earlier years, and for many years, she was considered one of the most beautiful, attractive and interesting belles of the age. Supposedly she received an enormous number of marriage proposals, but remained at her uncle's side until age 35, when she married (1866)  Henry Elliott Johnston (1831-1884), whom she had met many years before, and with whom she always remained in touch, whether in Pennsylvania, D.C., New York, or Europe.
In those decades leading up to 1860, such important matters as creating the seating plans for White House dinners, and even making the place cards, were done by the First Lady and her female relatives, and maybe, a close female friend or two.  She already had a great deal of experience. As a belle of D.C. in her extreme youth her understanding of how things worked in socially, culturally and politically in Washington was deep and broad.  She became even more accomplished, as well as sophisticated in London society, when her uncle was minister to England. She was madly popular in London, a popularity that included an authentic friendship with Queen Victoria (at least, so the U.S. newspapers jubilantly reported, overjoyed that an American was included in the balls, hunting parties and banquets with British nobility).

Harriet Lane's life would have been quite different if her uncle Buck hadn't had such a long, successful political career in D.C.. He filled a seat in the House of Representatives, was elected a Senator, named minister to St. Petersburg (by Old Hickory in his second term), appointed Secretary of State (under Polk). and minister to England (by Pierce), before finally achieving his decades' long goal of becoming President of the United States.

Harriet Lane was educated at the Merritt Boarding School in Charleston in western Virginia (no West Virginia yet).  When Buchanan became Secretary of State he transferred her to the Academy of the Visitation Convent School, Washington, D.C. (1847-1849). He wrote:
 "I think of all the places for you, the nunnery at Georgetown would be the best." 
The convent school was part of what now is Georgetown University. Lane was there only a few years after the Jesuits sold their Maryland plantation slaves down south in 1838, to plug the holes in the college's finances, since their tobacco plantations were no longer producing revenue.

A friend of Harriet's, who has yet hasn't been named, whom she meets at the convent school, a girl who also comes to be friends with Thaddeus Stevens's niece or nieces, will bring this up at some point in a conversation. These girls will remain friends as long as both of them are alive. In their class, friendships formed at school were as important in women's later lives as were the friendships formed by boys and young men at their schools.

Harriet Lane Johnston, Grand Dame. This summer in Lancaster, PA, I took a photo of this portrait that still hangs in the Buchanan mansion, Wheatlands, along with many others. 
Buchanan's character will be played straight -- no scenes of midnight London cruising in the Victorian homosexual haunts of that city, for instance.

Harriet destroyed all of Buchanan's correspondence with "Miss Fancy" (Andrew Jackson dubbed Buchanan and his dear friend, William Rufus DuVane King, Miss Nancy and Miss Fancy), just as King's family did with his correspondence. Thus there are is no smoking gun primary documentation that they had a full-blown homosexual sexual relationship with each other -- or anyone else, for that matter. However, the two men were very close, lived together in D.C. during the months government was in session, went everywhere together, were inseparable.

In a family like Buchanan's and that of his fellow Lancasterian, Thaddeus Stevens, in which female relatives played all the public and social roles that wives would have played, and their housekeepers and their families were treated (unusually for the era!) as part of the family -- even unto receiving substantial legacies, dining with the family, etc. -- Buchanan's family would have taken his deep attachment to King in stride. Perhaps they loved King themselves. And certainly Harriet Lane herself was a sophisticated woman of the world -- she was even a friend of Queen Victoria's. She would have understood how the world might have interpreted her beloved uncle's relationship, and chose to protect his reputation in that area -- he is still vilified in both northern and southern quarters for his actions as POTUS.  The north's point of view is that he aided and abetted the slaveocracy and secession, while the south's is that he didn't help them enough. I feel Harriet would have keenly felt her uncle's grief from King's death, and entered into it with all sympathy.

The families of abolitionist Stevens and pro-southern Buchanan lost so many close members, often within short periods, yet another mirror reflection found so often in the matters of the War of the Rebellion, not excluding the White House in D.C. and the White House in Richmond. Harriet lost her husband and her children and then her uncle, in close succession. Yet, most of her life was still ahead of her, and she lived it fully and filled it with accomplishments that signify into the present.

A Matthew Brady photo of Kate Sprague Chase when she was very young.
Ultimately a sad story.  Kate's end wasn't the prosperous one of Harriet's, though they both ended in Washington, D.C., where ultimately they both were most at home.

    .... I haven't seen any thing about this but do wonder if she and Kate Chase ever met?  (I read this biography about Kate when it came out.)  Kate truly shone during the war years in D.C. and Buchanan, being a persona non grata for the Lincoln administration, rusticated at Wheatlands.  But they may well have met in New York after the war, after Harriet married, while Kate was still married.

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