Romance glints from the little that is known of Elizabeth Kortright’s early life. She was born in New York in 1768, daughter of an old New York family. Her father, Lawrence, had served the Crown by 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.
Strange choice, perhaps, for a patriot veteran with political ambitions and little money of his own; but Elizabeth was beautiful, and love was decisive. They were married in February 1786, when the bride was not yet 18.
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 Washington appointed him United States minister. Arriving in Paris in the midst of the French Revolution, she took a dramatic part in saving 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 the diplomat’s lady 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 or legislator of Virginia. They made the plantation of Oak Hill their home after he inherited it from an uncle, and 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 the “New York style” rather than the expansive Virginia social style made popular by Dolley Madison. A guest of the Monroes’ last levee, on New Year’s Day in 1825, described the ﬁrst lady as “regal-looking” and noted details of interest: “Her dress was superb black velvet; neck and arms bare and beautifully formed; her hair in puffs and dressed high on the head and ornamented with white ostrich plumes; around her neck an elegant pearl necklace. Though no longer young, she is still a very handsome woman.”
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.
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