Romance glints from what little is known of Elizabeth Kortright's early life. She was born in New York City in 1768 to an old New York family. Because of ties to the Crown, her father had taken no active part in the War of Independence; and James Monroe wrote to his friend Thomas Jefferson 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. His political career kept the young couple on the move as the family increased by two daughters and a son who died in infancy.
In 1794, Elizabeth accompanied her husband to France when President Washington appointed him United States minister. Arriving in the midst of the French Revolution, she took a dramatic part in saving Lafayette's wife, imprisoned and expecting death on the guillotine. The American minister's wife went to the prison and asked to see Madame Lafayette. After this hint of American interest, the prisoner was set free. Elizabeth was very popular in France, and received the affectionate name of "la belle Americaine."
For 17 years the Monroes alternated between foreign missions and service in Virginia. They made the plantation of Oak Hill their home, and appeared on the Washington scene in 1811 when James became President Madison's secretary of state.
Elizabeth Monroe was an accomplished hostess after her husband took the presidential oath in 1817. She and her daughter 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.
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. Subsequent first ladies certainly benefited by Elizabeth Monroes breaking from this tradition.
In retirement at Oak Hill, Elizabeth died on September 23, 1830; and family tradition says that her husband burned the letters of their life together.
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