Monroe, Elizabeth (1768–1830)
Monroe, Elizabeth (1768–1830)
American first lady (1817–1825) who had enjoyed success as a diplomat's wife but whose years in the White House were marred by ill health and misunderstanding. Born Elizabeth Kortright on June 30, 1768, in New York, New York; died on September 23, 1830, in Oak Hill, Virginia; one of four daughters and one son of Hannah (Aspinwall) Kortright and Captain Laurence Kortright (a merchant and a founder of the New York Chamber of Commerce); married James Monroe (later president of the U.S.), on February 16, 1786, in New York, New York; children: Eliza Hay Monroe (b. 1787); Maria Hester Monroe (1803–1850); and a son who died in infancy.
Elizabeth Monroe was 27 years old and traveling with her husband James Monroe, then ambassador to France, when they arrived in Paris in the midst of the French Revolution. Monroe soon learned that Madame Marie Adrienne de Lafayette , wife of one of the great heroes of the American Revolution, was imprisoned under sentence of death by guillotine. Thinking that a direct appeal would be politically unwise, James dispatched Elizabeth to visit the prison, and she set off with only her servants in the official U.S. carriage. The display of American interest occasioned by the tearful meeting of the two women at the prison gate had the desired effect, and Madame de Lafayette was freed. In a show of admiration and affection, the French dubbed Elizabeth "la belle Americaine." Years later, as first lady in her own country, she would not enjoy such popularity.
Elizabeth, one of five children of Laurence and Hannah Kortright , grew up in New York's privileged mercantile society. Educated at home with her three sisters, and traveling extensively in Europe, she became a fine painter and spoke fluent French. Elizabeth met James Monroe at a social gathering and although, by some accounts, her family did not approve of his social status, they were married in February 1786. James was then serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress, and the couple settled in Philadelphia—then the seat of government—and began a family. They had two daughters, Eliza Hay Monroe (b. 1787) and Maria Hester Monroe (b. 1803). A son died in infancy.
For 17 years, James served as legislator and governor of Virginia and in foreign missions as ambassador to France, England, and Spain. Elizabeth accompanied him on all his foreign posts and gained a reputation as an elegant and charming hostess. However, when the couple returned from Europe so that James might serve as secretary of state under President James Madison, they were virtually unknown in Washington circles.
When James Monroe was elected president in 1817, Elizabeth was showing signs of
rheumatism, forcing her to curtail her social duties and alter some of the established rules of Washington entertaining. In a complete departure from the warm and expansive style of her predecessor Dolley Madison , Elizabeth set her own schedule of receptions and greeted guests with European formality, sitting on a raised platform. Somewhat shy and protective of her privacy as well as of her health, she was thought to be haughty and aloof. She further rankled wives of the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries by refusing to travel long distances on Washington's unpaved streets to make calls. The duty of receiving visitors was often delegated to her eldest daughter Eliza, a stickler for protocol who was once characterized as "an obstinate little firebrand." When Eliza announced that the wedding of her younger sister Maria, the first daughter of a president to be married in the White House, would include only family and close friends, Washington society was further alienated.
Although she cultivated few friendships, Elizabeth was credited with restoring the executive mansion with the addition of exquisite French imports, providing an elegant backdrop for state occasions. It was also under the Monroe administration that the building, left marred and sooty from the British torches that had set Washington in flames during the War of 1812, was painted a gleaming white. Elizabeth, a beauty into old age, was as regal and elegant as the settings she created. In many pictures, she appears in black velvet with an ermine wrap.
After two terms, the Monroes retired to their home in Oak Hill, Virginia, where Elizabeth's rheumatism grew steadily worse. She died of the disease on September 23, 1830, at age 62, and was buried at Oak Hill. The president died a year later. In 1903, Elizabeth Monroe was reinterred in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, next to her husband.
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Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts