Elizabeth Kortright Monroe in her youth.

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, wife of fifth U.S. President James Monroe, had the misfortune of following in previous First Lady Dolley Madison’s footsteps. She paled in comparison and perhaps this is the reason she’s an obscure figure from history, and, really, her only claim to fame being her marriage to Monroe. Despite her lack of luster in the White House, she had an interesting, and worldly, life for a woman of her era.

Born in 1768, the same year as her predecessor Dolley Madison, Elizabeth Kortright almost shared a birthday with me, June 30th to my June 29th arrival, alas over two-hundred years apart. A fellow Cancerian. Her family was a part of New York City’s older and elite circle, but her father during the Revolutionary War sided with Loyalists/Tories and, as a result, his fortunes were damaged.

Also like Dolley, Elizabeth met James Monroe in what was then the capital of the U.S., New York City, Elizabeth’s hometown. Despite her father’s Loyalist sympathies, James Monroe, who’d fought in the war alongside Washington, married Elizabeth in 1786. She was 17. They soon relocated to Fredericksburg, Va. where James established a law practice.

More interested in being in the political world than becoming part of the Virginia land gentry, the Monroe’s often lived a peripatetic lifestyle for most of their married lives. While James was a Senator in Philadelphia, Elizabeth spent most of her time in New York, but in 1794 Monroe was named U.S. Minister to France and Elizabeth relocated with him.

Elizabeth took like a cat to milk in Paris. She adopted French clothing and customs. Labeled “La Belle Americane,” she caused a stir when she didn’t make a social call on a visiting American in Paris. Apparently, this was French ritual. Her adoption of old world, European style protocol would be her undoing in later years as the President’s wife.

Aesthetics aside, Elizabeth was admired for her strength and will during this Paris period. She is credited with saving American French-born hero Marquis de Lafayette’s wife,  Adrienne de Noiolles de Lafayette, during the waning days of the French Revolution. Elizabeth visited the Marquis’s wife and made sure that it was known the American contingent was acquainted with Adrienne. Shortly after the prisoner was set free. The French had been American allies and they most likely surmised executing Lafayette’s wife would have been disastrous diplomacy; France was already at war with several other European countries – they didn’t need another enemy.

The Monroe’s stay in France ended in 1796. Back in Virginia, Monroe was elected Governor.

But in 1803 Elizabeth and James set sail again for the Old World. James had been appointed United States Minister to England and Spain. While in Europe James was sent as a special envoy to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. Not surprisingly, James and Elizabeth were part of the official U.S. delegation attending Napoleon’s coronation that December, 1804.

Napoleon crowning Josephine at his coronation, c.1804. The Monroe’s were part of the American Delegation attending.

During the Madison Administration James served as Secretary of a State, arriving in Washington, D.C. The Monroe’s distinctly chose to live outside of the capital in the Virginia countryside curtailing their social activities, and Elizabeth reportedly did not reciprocate social calls paid to her.

Privately, Elizabeth had begun to suffer symptoms of epilepsy. Her husband’s election in 1817 coincided with this health crisis.

From her Firstladies.org entry:

“Elizabeth Monroe provided an extreme contrast to her predecessor Dolley Madison, who had conceived of her role as partially a public one. As a consequence of both her fragile health and reserved social nature, as well as the prestige she hoped to convey by limiting the access of the President’s wife to the spouses of other officials, Elizabeth Monroe established a European-style, less democratic protocol. To the spouses of Judicial and Legislative branch spouses, as well as those of the foreign diplomatic corps, she would neither make nor return the formal ‘call,’ meaning a visit that signified status and recognition from the Executive branch… When the Monroe’s decided to leave Washington for their nearby Virginia home instead of host the annual open house public reception on Independence Day in 1819, even those citizens not among the city’s elite were insulted. Dissatisfaction with Elizabeth Monroe’s protocol led to a boycott of all Administration receptions (not dinners) by officials in Washington.”

Her appearance – when she graced official events and gatherings – was praised for its grace, chic wardrobe, and handsome looks despite Elizabeth being 50ish.(I write this because that was considered elderly back then; not true today. Also, people didn’t have resources like, um, plastic surgery or sophisticated make-up.)

Elizabeth’s run as First Lady ended in 1825 and the couple returned to their estate in Virginia. Never much of a farmer, James’s plantation was badly managed and he was often in debt; selling slaves to raise much-needed funds.

Interesting that many of our Founding Fathers had such money problems in their later years…

Constantly ill 1825 onward, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe died in 1830, age 62. She was survived by her husband and two daughters, Eliza and Maria. James burned all their personal correspondence after Elizabeth’s death and passed away himself a little less than year following her.

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe’s grave.


Dolley Madison


Dolley in her prime

American Experience: Dolley Madison

Born into a  respectable Quaker family, Dolley Madison metamorphosed from a plain Jane girl into a stylish First Lady. A Jane Fondaesque transformation, if you will. Her parents were strict Quakers but they often were at odds with the Friendship society. As a young girl her father was cast out of the society for dishonesty about his debts. His starch making business collapsed and he sank into a deep depression from which he never recovered. Her mother opened a boardinghouse in Philadelphia which attracted many politicians as the City of Brotherly Love was the U.S. capital during this time.

Dolley was first married to John Todd, a young Quaker lawyer, at her father’s insistence probably to get her out of the house and not have to support her. Sadly, it was not a long marriage. John and a newborn baby were struck down during a yellow fever epidemic. A short time later she married James Madison after a brief courtship; four months after they’d first met. It was a marriage of opposites: she was vivacious and outgoing he considerably less so. Madison was a thinker, Dolley a feeler.

The newly christened Mrs. Madison shed her dull Quaker frocks and started clothing herself quite stylishly: showing off her ample bosom in empire waist gowns and wearing turbans. She was liberated. Cast out of Quaker society because of her marriage to an “outsider,” Dolley blossomed aesthetically but Quaker beliefs and morals stayed imbedded within her being.

In 1809, James Madison was elected as President of the United States; the fourth to serve. The Madison’s were a power couple. The opponent Charles Pinckney declared, “I was beaten by Mr. and Missus Madison.” Dolley delighted in her new role. She’d played hostess of the Executive Mansion for Jefferson because he was a widower, but this time the first Inaugural Ball was held there and she established that anyone who could pay the $4 fee was welcome to celebrate her brilliant husband’s victory.

Dolley set about establishing the Executive Mansion or President’s House, it wasn’t yet called the “White House,” as a gathering place for Washingtonians and visitors. She redecorated and became a much admired hostess. Mrs. Madison knew how to work a room.

In 1812 the U.S. declared war on Great Britain, a sort of continuation of the Revolutionary War. Britain had been harassing American ships. This was risky because our country had limited resources compared with the mighty Britain, especially their Navy.

In August of 1814, British troops, 4,000 of them, descended outside the capital. Dolley would be forever immortalized for her bravery during the sacking of Washington, D.C. Many Washingtonians fled the capital  but Dolley stayed put with a few servants, including an African-American butler who later wrote a memoir about his time with the Madison’s.

The servants set about preparing dinner for the evening; Madison was at the front. Dolley surveyed the city with her eyeglass to spot troops and wrote letters to her sisters. At dusk a messenger came on horseback telling Dolley to clear out, the British were descending onto the capital city. Dolley rushed the servants into saving important papers, silver, and nice curtains and refused to leave until she was able to remove a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington from its frame.

She hurriedly fled as the British were entering the city.

The British torched government buildings including the Executive Mansion, but not before sitting down and eating the dinner prepared for President Madison and his guests. The Brits weren’t able to destroy the capital entirely; a thunder-storm hit and wiped out their plans. The Madison’s would never occupy the Executive Mansion again.

After the war ended in 1815, Mrs. Madison fought against relocating the capital back to Philadelphia because of the damage. It was an important symbol. A capital named after the first President. She believed if the captital was relocated they were giving the Brits a victory since the redcoats’ aim was to destroy the capital.

Dolley took up a cause as First Lady, a first. It wasn’t controversial: an orphanage for girls.

In 1817, Madison’s second term ended and the couple returned to his estate in Virginia: Montpelier. The ensuing years were spent caring for James and worrying about her profligate son, Payne. He was the firstborn of Dolley’s children with John Todd. Unfortunately, he caused Dolley and James much heartache. He even spent time in jail for nonpayment of debts; debtors prison.

Twilight years

After James Madison passed away she lived in poverty. Her son continued to squander money and rack up debts. Dolley couldn’t say no to his demands, after all she had very little understanding of money matters. Eventually, the Montpelier plantation was sold and Dolley moved  to Philadelphia and in her last years Washington, D.C.

In D.C. Dolley might have been poor but she was American royalty. A last living member of Revolutionary America. She had known Mr. and Mrs. George Washington. She was a former First Lady. A trendsetter. Celebrity.

In 1844, Dolley was given a lifetime seat on the House floor. She was in her seventies at the time so “lifetime” seems an odd honor at her age, nonetheless, it was a symbol of her stature.

As writer Tom Fleming states: “Here was a woman who had drunk tea with George and Martha Washington, and she could reminisce and remember things that everybody said all the way back to those early days. She mesmerized every party she went to.”

She was in her early eighties when she died in 1849 and what was sad is that she wasn’t able to be buried alongside James for nine years because the burial ground was on private property.

Her legacy survives. After her – until Mary Todd Lincoln – one usually can’t name any First Ladies. I sure as Hell can’t. Mrs. Madison was one of  the earliest so maybe it’s understandable we in the present remember her.


  • Former First Lady and now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton cited Dolley Madison as an inspiration in her bestselling memoir Living History.
  • Dolley was invited to celebrate the laying of the cornerstone of the Washington Monument. She was one of the few people alive at the time who had actually met the Founding Father.
  • When the first telegraph line in the world was erected between Washington and Baltimore, she was asked to be the first private citizen to send a message.
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