Born in New York City on June 30, 1768, Elizabeth Kortright married James Monroe in 1786. Political duties took the couple to Paris, where Elizabeth was popular for her charm, beauty and flair for fashion. While there, she also arranged for the release of the wife of war hero Lafayette. However, Monroe's seemingly aloof manner did not impress Washington society during her years as first lady.
Very little primary-source material exists on the life of Elizabeth Monroe, wife of U.S. president James Monroe. Most of what is known comes from the letters and writings of other people. She was born Elizabeth Kortright on June 30, 1768, in New York City, to an established New York family. Her father, Lawrence Kortright, was a British officer who had made a fortune as a privateer during the French and Indian War. Though a Loyalist, he took no part in the Revolutionary War and lost much of his wealth soon after.
Elizabeth acquired her education and social graces through the tutelage of her grandmother, a wealthy property owner in New York. At a petite five feet, Elizabeth was a beautiful 16-year-old with raven hair who caught the eye of young Congressman James Monroe in 1784. He was smitten, and they married a year later. The couple moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia, where Monroe practiced law. By December 1786, their first daughter, Eliza, was born.
Embassy Life in Europe
In 1794, President George Washington appointed Monroe ambassador to France. The couple arrived in Paris amid the French Revolution and faced the delicate task of positioning the United States to be taken seriously as a world power while at the same time not offending revolutionary France. To this end, Elizabeth immersed herself in French culture, enrolled her daughter in a French school and educated herself in the intricacies of European etiquette. She was highly praised in French society for her efforts. Using her position as the wife of an American diplomat, Elizabeth Monroe was instrumental in saving the Marquis de Lafayette's wife from prison.
In 1797, President Washington recalled James Monroe from France due to his opposition to the Jay Treaty with Great Britain. The family returned to Virginia, where Monroe served as governor. During this time, Elizabeth developed serious health problems, now believed to be epilepsy. In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Monroe minister to Spain and Britain, and Elizabeth accompanied her husband to Europe, where their second daughter, Maria, was born. The time in Britain was difficult for Elizabeth, as the United States was viewed as a non-entity, and thus its representatives were not accorded the respect of other European diplomats. The couple was relieved when Monroe was recalled in 1807. In 1811, the family moved to Washington City (Washington, D.C.), where Monroe served as secretary of state and then secretary of war in the James Madison administration. During this time, Elizabeth infrequently participated in the city's social traditions due to her deteriorating health.
An Influential First Lady
In 1817, James Monroe was elected president, and Elizabeth showed herself to be an accomplished first lady. Drawing upon their time in Europe, the Monroes introduced a more formal style to White House social events. However, during much of this time, Elizabeth's poor health forced her to decline many social invitations. This, and her reserved personality, often led to the erroneous conclusion that she was neglecting her social duties or was aloof. Though there is little direct record of her influence in the Monroe administration, she was a constant partner to her husband and shared his passion for public service in the best interests of the country. Her elevating the social customs at the White House set the standard for first ladies who followed.
At the end of Monroe's two terms, Elizabeth was in such poor health that she and her husband had to remain in the White House three weeks after his administration expired. In 1825, they retired to their plantation estate in Virginia, where she concentrated exclusively on her family. A year later, she suffered a seizure and collapsed near an open fireplace and was severely burned. She lived only three years after and died on September 23, 1830, at her home.
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