Elizabeth Kortright was born in New York on September 30, 1768, daughter of an old New York family. Her father, Lawrence, served the Crown privateering during the French and Indian War and made a fortune. He took no active part in the War of Independence; and James Monroe wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson in Paris in 1786 that he had married the daughter of a gentleman "injured in his fortunes" by the Revolution. They were married on February 16, 1786, when the bride was 17.
The young couple planned to live in Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Monroe began his practice of law. His political career, however, kept them on the move as the family increased by two daughters and a son who died in infancy.
In 1794, Elizabeth Monroe accompanied her husband to France when President George Washington appointed him United States minister. Arriving in Paris in the midst of the French Revolution, she took a dramatic part in saving Marquis de Lafayette’s wife, imprisoned and expecting death on the guillotine. With only her servants in her carriage, the American minister’s wife went to the prison and asked to see Madame Lafayette. Soon after this hint of American interest, the prisoner was set free. The Monroes became very popular in France, where Elizabeth received the affectionate name of la belle Américaine.
For 17 years Monroe, his wife at his side, alternated between foreign missions and service as governor and legislator of Virginia. They made the plantation of Oak Hill their home after he inherited it from an uncle, managing the plantation and enslaved people who provided the labor to sustain the family and the comforts they enjoyed.
The Monroes appeared on the Washington scene in 1811 when he became Madison's secretary of state. Elizabeth Monroe was an accomplished hostess when her husband took the presidential oath in 1817. Through much of the administration, however, she was in poor health and curtailed her activities. Wives of the diplomatic corps and other dignitaries took it amiss when she decided to pay no calls — an arduous social duty in a city of widely scattered dwellings and unpaved streets. Moreover, she and her daughter Eliza changed White House customs to create the formal atmosphere of European courts. Even the White House wedding of her daughter Maria was private.
In retirement at Oak Hill, Elizabeth Monroe died on September 23, 1830; and family tradition says that her husband burned the letters of their life together.
Click here to learn more about the enslaved households of the Monroe family.
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