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.

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