Detail of a Miniature of Elizabeth Kortright (1768-1830).
The 6 ' tall Monroe, already a famous revolutionary & a practicing lawyer, married not for money, but for love. They were married on Feb. 16, 1786, at New York’s Trinity Episcopal Church. After a brief honeymoon out on Long Island, the newlyweds rode back to New York City to live with her father, until the Continental Congress adjourned. The Monroes returned to Virginia, where he had graduated from the College of William & Mary, & promptly started a family. They settled first in Fredericksburg & then in Albemarle County, Va. There Monroe practiced law & pursued a political career which found him successively United States Senator, minister to France, governor of Virginia, minister to Great Britain, Secretary of State, &, ultimately, president of the United States. In keeping with the custom of the day, Monroe shielded his private life from public view, by the & his wife were devoted to each other, & they were rarely separated. Three children were born to them: Eliza in 1787; a son in 1799 who died in infancy; & Maria Hester, in 1801 or 1802, who was married in the White House in 1820 to Samuel L. Gouverneur.
James Monroe (1758-1831)
Elizabeth & her daughter followed Monroe to Paris, when President George Washington appointed him ambassador to France in 1794. There, he & Elizabeth became enthusiastic Francophiles. Elizabeth, with her sophisticated social graces, adapted easily to European society. The French aristocracy referred to her as "la belle americaine." The violent fallout of the French Revolution marred the Monroes' sojourn in France. They acquired a lasting appreciate of French manners & styles which was later reflected in the furnishing they purchased for the White House. Both spoke French fluently. Members of the aristocracy whom the Monroes befriended were increasingly falling prey to the rebels' guillotine. In 1795, Elizabeth succeeded in obtaining the prison release of the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette. When he learned that the wife of America’s great friend the Marquis de Lafayette, the dashing Frenchman who had served on Washington's staff during the American Revolution, had been imprisoned by Robespierre & was in danger of being executed, Monroe, believing that direct appeals to the Committee of Public Safety would be of no avail, arranged for his wife to visit her. The tearful meeting of the women at the gate of the prison drew a large & sympathetic crowd, & the demonstration was sufficient to secure Madame de Lafayette’s release.
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe (1768-1830) by John Vanderlyn
When Monroe's term as ambassador ended in 1796, he brought his family back to America & settled on the Oak Hill plantation in Virginia. For the next 15 years, he shuttled his family between stints in Virginia political office & the occasional foreign appointment. In 1811, Monroe accepted President James Madison's offer to serve as U.S. secretary of state. Six years later, Monroe himself was elected president from 1817-1825.
After her husband’s appointment as Secretary of State in 1811 & his elevation to the presidency in 1817, Mrs. Monroe was constantly in the public eye. No accounts of her as a person, however, survive, although her regal bearing & distinguished appearance often inspired comment. “Her dress was superb black velvet,” one presidential guest recalled; “neck & arms bare & beautifully formed; her hair in puffs & dressed high on the head & ornamented with white ostrich plumes; around her neck an elegant pearl necklace” (quoted in Daniel Coit Gilman, James Monroe, 1883, pp. 182-83). She seems to have been easy & affable in small groups, but her public manner was marked by a formality & reserve which some labeled haughtiness.
During their 1st year in Washington, the Monroes lived in temporary lodgings until the White House, which had been destroyed by the British during the War of 1812, was repaired. As first lady, Elizabeth, usually very social, deferred to her husband's wishes to minimize White House social events. He & Elizabeth both deplored the opulent displays of the previous first lady, Dolley Madison, preferring more private, stately affairs modeled after European society.
Just after he assumed office, in June 1817, President Monroe embarked on a "Goodwill Tour" of the United States. Paying expenses out of his own pocket, the new president was greeted by cheering crowds & treated to celebratory picnics, dinners, & receptions in every city he visited. After touring New York, Philadelphia, & Baltimore, Monroe stopped in Boston, where a newspaper hailed his visit as the beginning of an “ERA OF GOOD FEELINGS.” Despite this phrase, while in the White House, the Monroes endured the depression called the Panic of 1819 & a fierce national debate over the admission of the Missouri Territory. Monroe is most noted for his proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which stated that the United States would not tolerate further European intervention in the Americas.
As First Lady she was inevitably compared with her predecessor, the warm & open-hearted Dolley Madison, who had elevated presidential receptions above the dull level of official functions. In a rapidly growing Washington, the Monroes introduced a new formality, & White House receptions took on an austerity reminiscent of George Washington’s administration, with Monroe & his wife receiving guests but manifesting little personal solicitude. In her 1st year Mrs. Monroe appeared only infrequently at White House dinners, & consequently ladies were seldom invited. She further announced that she would not make or return any calls, although it had been Mrs. Madison’s custom not only to return all calls but to pay her respects to visiting ladies. Many women, particularly the wives of Senators, took offense at the new rule, but Mrs. Monroe, supported by Louisa Catherine Adams, whose husband was then Secretary of State, prevailed, & the new policy became firmly set. Mrs. Monroe’s French-educated & somewhat formidable daughter Eliza (Mrs. George Hay) shared her social duties at the White House, where social life was also curtailed by Elizabeth's declining health. Washingtonians, eager to being seen with the powerful even back then, mistook the lack of White House social events for snobbery.
James Monroe (1758-1831) by Gilbert Stuart
During her husband’s 2nd term Mrs. Monroe’s always delicate health failed rapidly, & her public appearances became more rare. She preferred to spend as much time as possible at Oak Hill, their country home in Loudoun County, Va., some twenty miles from the capital, where she was joined by Monroe upon his retirement in 1825. She died at Oak Hill in 1830 & was buried there. Of her death the aged ex-President wrote to James Brown, “After having lived with the partner of your life, in so many vicissitudes…& afforded to each other comforts which no other person on earth could do…to have her snatched from me…is an affliction which none but those who feel it, can justly estimate” (Dec. 9, 1830), John Deposit, University of Virginia Library). According to the family, Monroe burned 40 years' worth of their intimate correspondence.
James Monroe (1758-1831) painted by Rembrandt Peale about 1824-1825
Upon Elizabeth's death in 1830, Monroe moved to New York City, to live with his daughter Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur who had married Samuel L. Gouverneur in the White House. Monroe’s death occurred the next year. In 1903 Elizabeth Monroe’s body was re-interred beside that of her husband in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, VA.