American First Ladies
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe
Born: July 30, 1768 - New York, New York
Died: September 23, 1830 - Oak Hill, Virginia
President: James Monroe, 1817 1825
Although probably one of the most well known public figures of her time, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, wife of James Monroe, is almost unknown today. She received both harsh criticism and high praise during her time in the White House, and the changes she made in the role of the First Lady drastically revised public expectations for future generations of presidents' wives. Her beauty and manners were widely discussed in Washington, D.C., and European circles, as was her courage in Paris during the French Revolution. The Parisians called her la belle Americaine.
Elizabeth was born in New York on July 30, 1768, the second of five children of Hannah Aspinwall Kortright and Captain Lawrence Kortright. The Lawrence Kortrights were part of an old, socially prominent New York family, descended from ancestors who emigrated from Holland to the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam in 1633. The family's wealth was based on farming and real estate.
Lawrence Kortright made his own fortune as a merchant and a privateer in the British army during the French and Indian War (1754 1763). As part owner of several vessels authorized by the Crown to wage legal piracy against French ships, he accumulated considerable wealth and property in New York City. However, he lost most of this fortune during the American Revolution when he sided with the Loyalists.
Elizabeth and her brother, John, and her sisters Hester, Maria, and Sarah were raised in New York City. Hannah Aspinwall Kortright died when Elizabeth was nine, and Hester Kortright, her paternal grandmother, raised the young girl. Hester had a reputation of being a strong and independent woman and seems to have played a significant role in forming Elizabeth's character.
Little is known about Elizabeth's early years and education. During that time, generally three events were marked in a woman's life: birth, marriage, and death. Elizabeth was probably educated at home, in the domestic skills required for marriage. Growing up with wealth and social position enabled her to become a self confident, cultured, and sophisticated young woman. She was attractive and slender, five feet in height, with dark hair and blue eyes. She retained her youthful beauty throughout her life.
Marriage and Family
Elizabeth met James Monroe, a man of modest means, in 1785 when he was attending the Continental Congress as part of the Virginia delegation. They married the next year, on February 16, 1786, and honeymooned on Long Island, New York. She was seventeen and he was twenty seven.
Despite the differences in their ages and backgrounds, Elizabeth and James had a very successful marriage. They were devoted to each other, and in spite of financial concerns that plagued them throughout James's public service, they traveled together whenever they could. They lived in the major cities of the northeastern United States and in Paris and London. Elizabeth's beauty and manners were assets to James's career.
They had three children: Eliza Kortright Monroe, born in 1786; James Spence Monroe, born in 1799; and Maria Hester Monroe, born in 1803. Eliza received a French education, married successful lawyer George Hay in 1808, and became a social hostess for her mother at the White House. James Spence contracted whooping cough and died in 1800 at the age of sixteen months. Maria Hester, educated in Philadelphia, became the first child of a president to be married in the White House when she wed Samuel L. Gouverneur in 1820.
Elizabeth's role as a public figure changed as James's career developed and flourished. In Virginia, their first home together, he was a state legislator, a representative to the constitutional ratifying convention, a senator, and then governor. In Paris, where James had two assignments separated by seven years, Elizabeth was the wife of the United States minister to France, then the wife of the successful negotiator of the Louisiana Purchase. In London, she was the wife of the minister to Great Britain. Back in Washington, D.C., Elizabeth became the wife of the secretary of state, who also, for a short time, held the position of secretary of war.
Paris was a personal success for the Monroes, especially Elizabeth. She became known as a successful hostess, in spite of food and fuel shortages that followed the French Revolution. The entire Monroe family learned to speak French, and Eliza was enrolled in a fashionable school. Elizabeth and James developed a lasting enjoyment of French decorative arts, furniture, and social customs. This appreciation, together with Elizabeth's beauty and grace, won them favor with their host country. The French called Elizabeth la belle Americaine. Their favorable impression of the minister and his wife enabled James to secure the release of several Americans who were in prison as suspected enemies of the French Revolution. The successful conclusion of the Louisiana Purchase agreement placed James in the national spotlight at home in the United States and would help to secure his position as a candidate for the presidency.
Presidency and First Ladyship
James Monroe became the fifth president of the United States and served two terms, from 1817 to 1825. During this time, the President's House literally became the "White House," as it was painted and restored after the War of 1812. Elizabeth and James brought in fifty four pieces of carved and gilded French Empire furniture made by a Parisian cabinetmaker, and they had the house decorated in French style. Eight of the fifty four pieces remain today.
Not only did the Monroes introduce French decorative arts to Washington society, Elizabeth introduced formal European social customs, which were not well received. Most notably, she broke with her predecessors' custom of making initial calls on all the new congressional wives. Her health may have played a major role in this decision: She had been sickly throughout her life with rheumatism, headaches, and fevers. Some felt that she used her illness as an excuse to refrain from following local custom. Washington wives retaliated by boycotting White House invitations. A cabinet meeting held in 1819 discussed social etiquette in the city, and Elizabeth received approval for her decision.
Additional criticism came to Elizabeth for her refusal to open Maria Hester's wedding to the public. Only family and close friends were invited, and the rest of Washington felt snubbed. In an attempt to reconcile their European tastes with the American public, Elizabeth and James held events that were known as "drawing rooms": Every two weeks while Congress was in session, the White House was open to visitors who wished to meet the first family. Records of those events discuss Elizabeth's youthful looks, her hairstyles, her manners, and her French dresses. She was both admired and envied. When she was unable to attend these gatherings, her daughter Eliza Hay stood in for her.
Elizabeth's health declined throughout James's second term. Her last public appearance was on New Year's Day, 1825. That year the Monroes retired to Virginia and lived quietly for the next five years. Elizabeth died on September 23, 1830; James died the following year, on July 4.
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe dramatically reduced the social obligations of future First Ladies. She zealously guarded her daily schedule and her family's privacy, even at the risk of disappointing the American public. Some social customs she developed remain a part of White House protocol.
Ammon, Harry. James Monroe: The Quest for National Identity. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1990. The definitive biography of James Monroe, with a large amount of material on his life with Elizabeth Monroe.
Boller, Paul F. Presidential Wives: An Anecdotal History. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Contains a short chapter on Elizabeth Monroe, including her part in freeing Madame Lafayette from prison.
Gould, Lewis L., ed. American First Ladies: Their Lives and Their Legacy. New York: Garland, 1996. Contains a lengthy chapter on Elizabeth Monroe, which is informative and filled with details.
McCombs, Charles Flowers. Imprisonment of Madame de Lafayette During the Terror. New York: The Library, 1943. Information on Elizabeth Monroe's role in freeing Madame Lafayette.
Watson, Robert P. The Presidents' Wives: Reassessing the Office of First Lady. Boulder, Colo.: Lynne Rienner, 2000. An analysis of the development of the First Lady's role and its influence on presidential politics.
Wooten, James E. Elizabeth Kortright Monroe. Charlottesville, Va.: Ash Lawn Highland, 1987. A slim biography of Elizabeth Monroe.
Pamela T. Brannon
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