Germaine Greer suggested the United States abolish it and Jackie Kennedy said it made her sound like a saddle horse, but as a recently discovered 19th century magazine article proves, the title of “First Lady” has been part of the American Culture for over 150 years.
Today the expression is what the incumbent U.S. President’s wife is called, but ironically the first female counterpart of a President to be called “First Lady” never married him.
When the American Presidency began in 1789, the man unanimously chosen by members of Congress to lead the nation as the first head of the executive branch of government, George Washington, had no official title. Great debate ensued, with wordy and pretentious suggestions, including those smacking of the monarchy the new nation had just finished fighting a revolution to free itself from. George Washington rejected titles like “His Excellency,” and “Your Highness.” The simple but majestic “President’ was chosen and stuck.
How to respectfully address his wife, however, was even more unclear. During the American Revolution, joining her husband as General of the Continental Army from post to post, Martha Washington became a beloved figure to the soldiers for her generosity and care of them as individuals. In referencing the predominant British-American culture, they called her “Lady Washington” as a sign of respect, as if she were some Yankee form of British royalty. The affectionate title struck many Americans, however, as the very antithesis of democracy and it wasn’t the most politically helpful title.
At least one other title was in popular circulation. In an August 14, 1790 letter to her parents, Judith Sargent Murray reported how impressed she was after meeting Martha Washington. “[F]opperies of ceremony seem to make no part of this Lady’s Character, inborn benevolence, beams upon her countenance, points her address, and dictates the most pleasing expressions to her lips…and thus adorned with social virtues is our Lady Presidentess…”
However redundant, Lady Presidentess was logical as the female version of President, but it was a mouthful to say. It was dropped, although it appeared on occasion over the years, used especially by the more formal and pretentious guests. Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison, the wives of the second and fourth Presidents (the third, Jefferson, was a widower), were both called “Lady” by the public. In 1799, when Abigail Adams agreed to review a New Jersey militia parade through the streets, the group honored her by calling themselves “The Lady Adams Rangers.” In 1810, one shipbuilder named a new vessel in his line “The Lady Madison,” after Dolley Madison.
Living in Washington as a widow for many years after the end of her tenure as presidential wife, Mrs. Madison became a popular symbol of the early days of the Republic and was integrated into all White House events under Jackson, Van Buren, Harrison, Tyler, Polk and Taylor. When she died in 1849, her funeral was a semi-public event. Although there is no documented version of President Zachary Taylor’s eulogy of her, the legend is that he was the one to first use the expression in reference to her as, “truly the first lady.” Perhaps, but no proof.
One of the young women that old Dolley Madison came to know in 1845 was the niece of the Secretary of State under Polk, James Buchanan. The girl’s name was Harriet Lane and as an orphan her bachelor uncle essentially adopted and raised her as his own daughter. Harriet was a student at the Catholic Visitation Academy and Dolley Madison made frequent visits to the classrooms of the all-girl’s school, being a strong supporter in equal education for women. In 1853, when Buchanan was sent to England to serve as U.S. Ambassador to the Court of St. James, he took the highly-educated and stylish niece along with him. Harriet Lane became immediately popular in aristocratic circles, especially with Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and other members of the royal family. She also took an interest in the art and culture of native peoples under colonial English rule, especially India as well as reforms to improve the lives of the impoverished in England.
Elected President, Buchanan moved into the White House on March 4, 1857. Then 26 years old, Harriet Lane moved in with him and served as his hostess over all presidential events. Her interest in the culture, welfare and fair treatment of Native Americans, led her to intercede on behalf of the Chippewa, who thanked her with the title of “Great White Mother.”
As her uncle’s primary companion, she had also become well-versed in politics and joined easily in debates on issues, a pretty startling display in public for women then. Buchanan taught Harriet to be wary of men and hold off on pledging herself to any of the many men who pursued her. With her uncle’s wealth and none of the traditional duties usually given to women, Harriet Lane became an avid follower of fashion worn by the royal families and elite classes of Europe.
Along with her rosy complexion, copper-colored hair, and sparkling blue eyes, she also had a full and ample bosom – and she didn’t mind showing it off in gowns cut shockingly low, sometimes wearing a strip of lace across it to calm down both her female critics and male admirers.
Harriet Lane liked posing for photographs, a relatively new art.
Capitalizing on her popularity, she became the first woman in the White House to permit the widespread sale of her picture and sent copies to the public, the form being a small stiff paper card with the paper image pasted on it known as the carte-de-visit.
On some occasions, she even autographed the picture by request.
She proved so popular with officials of the navy Department that they named a revenue cutter after her – although when she used it as a pleasure vessel with some friends, there was some justified criticism of her in the press.
She also popularized the low-neck lace bertha, which gave a sort of peekaboo quality to her the top part of her ample bosom. One wag called her a “milkmaid” type, a reference as much to her flesh as its healthiness, and the more prudish described her as half-naked. Harriet didn’t mind – she kept wearing her low-cut bosom dresses well into old ago.
One demographic which found her to be only virtuous were the Chippewa tribe, which considered her a “great white mother.” Anecdotal evidence suggests she took an interest in stopping liquor trade among Native Americans out of concern for their well-being.
One of the first First Ladies whose fame seemed to pervade the entire nation, she also had one of the era’s most popular songs dedicated to her, encoded with use of her nickname, a popular one for the name Harriet, which was Hallie.
Listen to the Mockingbird.
Here is a video clip of the song as it might have been played in the 1850s:
Ineffective in seeking a solution to avoid civil war as sectional strife grew over the matter of slavery; James Buchanan’s popularity sank while Harriet Lane’s only soared. Reporters in Washington took note, and one finally profiled Harriet for the popular weekly magazine owned and edited by Frank Leslie which carried sketches of personalities and events in the news.
The problem was what to call this “lady representative of the President.” In referencing the early title of “Lady,” she couldn’t be called “Lady Buchanan,” since she wasn’t the wife of the President, nor could she be called “Lady Lane” since that last name had no relevance to the public readership. The role she played might have been official but her position was not.
The enterprising reporter, whose name is lost to history, avoided the issue by simply inventing the entirely new title, “first lady in the land.”
Along with the paper’s engraving of a copy of Harriet’s popular picture, here it is, in its original format printed 151 years ago today:
Harriet Lane liked the title, but then again she never lost the slightly affected touch she first picked up overseas. In later years, as the widow of Baltimore attorney Elliott Johnston (she married when she was 36 years old, practically an old maid in that era), she spent much of her time in Europe, socializing with the Royal Family of England and other minor royals on the Continent. As one of her letters to Madame De Westenberg, wife of a Dutch diplomat, showed, she also used an elaborate crest.
Not all of her predecessors liked being called “First Lady of the Land,” or even just “First Lady,” but the public and press liked using it.
Lucy Hayes was the first presidential wife to be introduced in a public speech as First Lady and the title is incorrectly attributed to being first used in reference to her. In 1912, a Broadway comedy called “First Lady of the Land” about Dolley Madison more firmly established it. Efforts by editorialists and academics through the decades to expunge it from the common vernacular as antiquated or chauvinistic have all failed.
After 151 years, as Michelle Obama knows all too well, it is still today, First Lady.
Here, by the way, is the unexpected delight of a newly composed song tribute to Harriet, sounding a bit like the Beatles’ Penny Lane: