My Booking It Through History: First Ladies focus in May is Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, the accomplished yet relatively unknown wife of our country’s fifth president, James Monroe. While following Dolley Madison would be a tough job for anyone, it was particularly a challenge for Elizabeth as she struggled with health complications throughout her adult life. Once you learn more about her, though, you’ll grow to appreciate her place in American history as the woman who created the White House style that we still admire today!
Each month, I’ll detail the life of the first lady and their legacy. Then I’ll share what I learned while studying them, along with ways you can travel in their footsteps through historical sites and museums. I’ll also share books, podcasts, TV shows, and websites where you can learn even more about that first lady. Read all of the way through the blog post or click on the links below to go straight to those sections.
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe was born on June 30, 1768 in New York City to Lawrence and Hannah Kortright, and she was well educated as the youngest daughter of a wealthy shipping merchant of Flemish descent. However, tragedy struck her life at the young age of nine when her mother died of childbirth complications in 1777. Her father never remarried and lost much of his fortune during the American Revolution when he remained loyal to the Crown.
She met the dashing former Continental Army colonel, James Monroe, at a theater when he served in Congress in New York City. One of Monroe’s friends with him that night said that Elizabeth and her sisters “made so lovely an appearance as to depopulate all the other boxes” (picture the Schuyler sisters from Hamilton: The Musical!). Elizabeth was just sixteen to Monroe’s late twenties, but it didn’t take long for them to fall in love and marry in 1786 at New York’s famous Trinity Church. Many in the city thought Monroe beneath Elizabeth as the Kortrights had been part of New York society for over one hundred years and Monroe was a penniless orphan with little land to his name. His education and time in the army did brighten his prospects, however, along with his famous mentors, Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.
The Monroes stayed in New York with Elizabeth’s family until the Congressional session was completed, and then they started the arduous two-week journey back to Virginia accompanied by Monroe’s good friend and fellow Virginian, James Madison. Elizabeth was seven months pregnant by the time they bounced over the rutted roads to their eventual home in Fredericksburg, Virginia, stopping to visit Washington’s Mount Vernon along the way. Monroe had been with Washington during key points of the Revolution, including Valley Forge, the crossing of the Delaware, and the Battle of Trenton where Monroe almost died.
Once they made it to Fredericksburg, Elizabeth established their home at 301 Caroline Street, less than a mile from James’ law office (now the James Monroe Museum). She gave birth to their daughter, Eliza, soon after their arrival, and she and the baby often traveled with James on the legal circuit in central Virginia. By 1789, the Monroes moved to be near their friend, Jefferson, in Charlottesville (their farm is now the site of the University of Virginia), and Elizabeth became sick upon their arrival, the beginning of a lifetime of health struggles.
Monroe soon became a senator, and Elizabeth and Eliza traveled back and forth with him to Philadelphia (and also to visit family in New York) during much of his tenure. It was during his time as senator that Monroe became aware of a former friend’s affair that threw shade on the finances of the federal government. He and Alexander Hamiton almost dueled over the Reynolds scandal with Aaron Burr serving as Monroe’s second. How different would Monroe’s legacy have been if he had been (rightfully) included in Hamilton: The Musical as one of the three people who confronted Hamilton about the scandal!
President Washington thought highly of his young protege and nominated Monroe to be the ambassador to France (Aaron Burr’s stepson served as his secretary!). James, Elizabeth, and Eliza arrived in Paris during the French Revolution in 1794, just weeks after Robespierre was guillotined. This is where Elizabeth shined as the “la Belle Américaine” – her French nickname. In fact, one of Monroe’s biographers estimates that “no other American First Lady would beguile France until Jackie Kennedy” like Elizabeth. Elizabeth and James hosted grand dinners and events at their home, including a July 4th celebration, charming both the French officials and the Americans in Paris. Elizabeth loved the French style and purchased many furnishings for their home in Paris that were eventually sent back to America. Eliza was put in a French school where she became lifelong friends with Hortense de Beauharnais, the daughter of Josephine (soon-to-be Bonaparte). It was here in France that Elizabeth sat for one of the few portraits we still have of her beauty (see it on the cover of a book mentioned below).
It was in France that Elizabeth’s bravery withstood the executioner’s blade. She learned of Adrienne de Lafayette’s plight in a French prison, only days away from being guillotined. Her husband, the Marquis de Lafayette, was imprisoned in Austria and Adrienne’s own mother, grandmother, and sister had been executed already. Elizabeth rented a grand carriage and made sure to parade to the prison under the watchful eyes of the French revolutionaries. She visited Adrienne day after day until the authorities were shamed into releasing her. The Monroes gave her money and helped her and her daughters travel to Austria to be with Lafayette in prison. They also ensured her son’s safe passage to America to visit with his namesake, President Washington. The Monroes also saved Thomas Paine from French prison, and he lived with them as Elizabeth nursed him back to health.
After the political machinations surrounding the Jay treaty (instigated by Hamilton!) in the fall of 1796, Monroe was recalled as the ambassador, so James, Elizabeth, and Eliza made their way back to America and their new home adjacent to Jefferson’s Monticello called Highland. They spent much time with the Madisons, with Elizabeth and Dolley becoming fast friends. In May of 1799, Elizabeth gave birth to a son named James Spence, and by the end of the year, James had been elected governor of Virginia.
During 1800-1801, James had to deal with the Gabriel slave rebellion, and during this trying time, little James Spence died of whooping cough with his funeral held at Richmond’s St. John’s Church. A heartbroken pregnant Elizabeth became sick after his death with the epilepsy that would plague her the rest of her life. The following year, Elizabeth gave birth to their last child, a daughter named Maria Hester.
In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson named James Monroe as envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to France where he finalized the Louisiana Purchase, and he and Elizabeth had a lovely reunion with Lafayette and Adrienne. Then the Monroes moved to London as James served as the minister to Great Britain and Spain. They were received warmly at first, even by King George III, but a diplomatic dustup in America chilled relations. It was in the foul air and dampness of London where Elizabeth’s health deteriorated more rapidly. She traveled to Bath hoping to restore her health and even went back to Paris while James traveled to Spain. It was during this time in Paris where she and James attended the coronation of Napoleon in the Notre-Dame Cathedral.
They finally came home in the fall of 1807 where financial, political, and family woes awaited them. Elizabeth must have been torn when James decided to run for president against their good friend, James Madison. Monroe lost the election but Madison didn’t hold a grudge for long, eventually nominating him for Secretary of State. The Monroes moved to Washington City, living in what is known as the Monroe House on I Street, NW.
Their daughter, Eliza, married George Hay (more than twenty years her senior and the prosecutor in the Burr treason trial) and had a daughter she named Hortensia for her French friend. Eliza lived with James and Elizabeth in Washington City on and off throughout the years, subbing in for the sick Elizabeth when necessary. Elizabeth was able to attend Dolley Madison’s famous parties (called squeezes) and partook of the ice cream and sumptuous food. She and Dolley resumed their friendship, and she must have enjoyed Dolley’s vivacious personality, in stark contrast with Elizabeth’s more refined, formal manner of being.
While in Washington City, the Monroes purchased a home in nearby Loudoun County, Oak Hill, where they would find refuge from politics (and where Elizabeth would flee when the British invaded during the War of 1812!). Monroe not only served as the Secretary of State but also jointly as the Secretary of War, so it was no surprise when he was elected the new president in 1816.
Elizabeth and James stayed in their I Street home for months until the recently rebuilt White House was ready. Then they had the herculean task of furnishing the entire home from scratch as nothing from the Madisons’ tenure survived the fire. Thankfully the Monroes had plenty of French furnishings from their time in France, and Elizabeth set out to acquire even more. It’s thanks to her impeccable taste that the White House is the beacon of American style today, a French-inspired formal style with thoroughly American accents. Many of the items you can see in today’s White House rooms were purchased by Elizabeth.
As First Lady, Elizabeth hosted in a formal, European style, much different than her predecessor. The Monroes hosted Wednesday night drawing rooms and several dinners a week that included diplomats and politicians where Elizabeth used lovely dishes and served good quality French-influenced food.
Presidential china at Highland
She didn’t visit other women like Dolley, but did invite them to the White House where she or Eliza served as hostess, receiving them for hours. She wore beautiful French fashions and future First Lady, Louisa Adams, commented on her beauty and poise, calling her a gracious hostess. Some thought her to be a snob but she was just reserved (however Eliza was a snob!). She became good friends with several Washington ladies, including Susan Decatur who lived just across the street in what’s now known as the Decatur house.
In March of 1820, Maria married her first cousin, Samuel Gouverneur, at the White House, the first child of a president to be married there. The Monroes hosted a small gathering for family only in keeping with their more formal entertaining style. Maria and her husband soon moved to New York (mainly to get away from the opinionated Eliza who didn’t like Maria’s husband!).
Monroe’s presidency is called the “Era of Good Feelings” for the peace and prosperity that it contained and is mostly known for the Monroe doctrine and the Missouri compromise. It’s also known for the grand tour of America by none other than Lafayette. James toured the country twice and was gone for months at a time, and during his absence, Elizabeth would escape back to Highland.
Elizabeth’s health continued to decline precipitously during James’ second term, and Eliza had to step in as the main hostess. In fact, his departure from the White House at the end of his term was delayed by several weeks because of Elizabeth’s condition. James told Jefferson that he wanted to “retire home in peace with my family, on whom, and especially Mrs. Monroe, the burden and cares of my long public service, have born [sic] too heavily.”
Elizabeth recovered enough to take a prolonged visit to Maria’s house in New York where she doted on her grandson who was born deaf. Upon her return to Oak Hill in 1826, however, Elizabeth suffered an epileptic seizure and fell into a fireplace, giving her severe burns. The last years of her life were spent in constant bad health and she finally succumbed on September 23, 1830 at Oak Hill. James was bereft, burning all of their correspondence and her journals, and died less than a year later (on July 4th!) at Maria’s home in New York. Rarely separated during life, it took over twenty-five years for them to be joined together at Richmond’s Hollywood Cemetery. Their daughter, Eliza, lost her husband just days before her mother, and once her father passed, she moved back to Paris and is buried in its famous Père-Lachaise Cemetery.
Elizabeth Monroe’s legacy is hidden from history and is one that I think should get more prominence. Not many people are aware of her poise and elegance in setting the presidential style that we still use today. We think of style setters like Jackie Kennedy but Elizabeth Monroe was the original First Lady influencer. From her refined furnishings to her White House china that is still the standard bearer, we can see glimpses of her taste through the centuries today.
I also believe that James Monroe’s stature as the last of the founding generation to serve as president is a hard one to place in history (even though one podcast calls him the “Forrest Gump” of presidents!). He wasn’t old enough to be a signer of the Declaration and he was overshadowed by the other prominent Virginians at the time. Elizabeth suffered from this as well with Dolley being such a hard act to follow. However, Elizabeth didn’t try to replicate Dolley’s entertaining, she forged her own path which is very admirable especially in light of her health issues. In fact, one woman in Washington society said that Elizabeth’s style was more authentic, that her attention “wouldn’t have flattered her as much if it had been Dolley.”
Hamilton: The Musical could have made James (and by extension Elizabeth) more of a household name, especially with Monroe’s involvement in the Reynolds scandal. Read up on this to see just how close he and Hamilton came to a duel (“I will meet you like a gentleman” – Hamilton; “Get your pistols” – Monroe). It would be interesting to learn more about Elizabeth’s relationship with Hamilton’s wife, Eliza. While James and Alexander were complete opposites (James was cool and collected, Alexander was hot-headed and impulsive), I would imagine the wives had a lot in common! It is telling that late in life, James visited Eliza in hopes they could put their differences aside but she refused. She and her descendents continued to blame Monroe for Alexander’s death (and later the death of her grandson who died while transferring Monroe’s body to the Richmond cemetery).
As with most of the late 18th and early 19th century first ladies, Elizabeth’s legacy is tainted by the use of the enslaved. With little to no primary sources available, not much is known about her beliefs, and while she was raised in a New York home, it also included some enslaved. As a wife of a Virginia planter, it was expected that she serve as the mistress of the house, overseeing the enslaved. We do know that James grappled with the idea of slavery and worked to establish a colony of freed slaves in Africa (Liberia whose capital is Monrovia, named after James). He presided over the hangings of Gabriel and the others involved in the 1800 slave revolt but he also stayed the execution of other enslaved men caught in the roundup. One gets the idea that Monroe tried to find a logical way out of slavery but it was just beyond his grasp. Monroe also sued Jefferson’s nephew for beating one of his slaves, but when it came down to finances, Monroe sold the enslaved to pay his debts. It’s a difficult legacy to reconcile today.
Elizabeth’s legacy is mostly marred by her health. If she had been healthy, maybe she would be known for the renown of Dolley or the grace of Martha Washington. The wit of Abigail or the intellect of Louisa. We will never know as there are no surviving letters or journals in Elizabeth’s voice. We have to rely on the reports from her peers which were effusive in singing her praises.
My Time with Elizabeth
It was a challenge to learn about Elizabeth Monroe with so few primary sources or books written about her. I felt like I understood her though, her reserve, her wish to be private. In a world where that’s pretty much impossible today, especially as a First Lady, I am glad that she was able to live what seems like a full life while remaining herself. It would have been easy to feel “less than” after the gregarious Dolley, but it doesn’t seem Elizabeth thought like that. She knew her personality and her limitations, and instead of apologizing for them, she used them to her advantage. That’s a lesson I need to remember as this world constantly makes you feel like you have to be someone you’re not to be seen.
Elizabeth’s love for James really made me smile. They met and married at a young age (at least for her!) but it seemed like a true love match. They were rarely apart and had an unbreakable bond. James Monroe seems like an upstanding gentleman who was besotted by Elizabeth, evident in the one letter that remains from their correspondence which discusses how much he hates when they are separated. They were an intellectual and personality match, both gentle and understated with a reserve not seen in many politicians. Even John Quincy Adams remarked about their utter devotion to each other. A worthy life goal!
Travels with Elizabeth
She may have been born in New York, but Elizabeth was an adopted Virginian, spending much of her adult life in its rolling countryside. Unusual for women of her time, she spent a good part of her life in Europe, and its influence affected the rest of her life. It’s amazing how much some of these First Ladies traveled during war and with the difficulties of transportation. They were hardy women!
New York City:
Trinity Church Wall Street – Where James and Elizabeth were married according to some biographers; others say the Trinity rector married them at her childhood home
Sycamore – Elizabeth’s childhood home was located on today’s Pearl Street near the waterfront
Highland – The home near Monticello where James and Elizabeth spent much time between their posts in Europe. The home they lived in burned down after they sold it in 1826, but you can tour what was part of their guest house which contains many exhibits and items from the Monroe family.
Charlottesville farm – Now the site of the University of Virginia, you can see the historical marker about Monroe’s first farm on these rolling hills.
Fredericksburg – There are two sites to see in this small Virginia town. The Monroe home is located at 301 Caroline Street and the James Monroe Museum is located in his former law office. The museum has many exhibits with priceless items from James and Elizabeth, including a gown Elizabeth wore in France.
Oak Hill – The home near Washington that provided a respite for James and Elizabeth during his presidency and where Elizabeth died is privately owned. You cannot tour it but there is a historical marker.
Hollywood Cemetery – The final resting place for James and Elizabeth, this beautiful cemetery fittingly overlooks the James River in Richmond.
The Monroe House (2017 I Street, NW) – Now the home of the Arts Club of Washington, this is the actual home of James and Elizbeth while he served as Secretaries of State and War and also for the first six months of his presidency.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History – In its First Ladies exhibit, you can see Elizabeth’s beautiful china.
The Monroes had two homes in Paris. Now demolished, you can see a rendering of their main home, La Folie, here. Their other home at 88 Rue de La Planche seems to now be a park.
To Learn More
Books to Read:
All links are Amazon affiliate links. You can also purchase the books through my affiliate link to Bookshop.org which supports independent bookstores.
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe by James E. Wootton
This small brochure-type book is the only book written about Elizabeth herself since there are scant primary sources in her voice. It can only be purchased at Highland and the James Monroe Museum.
James Monroe: A Life by Tim McGrath: A massive biography about James, this book is a must-read to learn about their life in politics and foreign policy. While long, it reads very fast!
The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation’s Call to Greatness by Harlow Giles Unger: This smaller biography contains many references to Elizabeth. It’s a quick read!
With little to no real historical resources about Elizabeth, her life seems perfect for historical fiction! However there are not many books about her. Below I have listed several where she is a tangential character.
The Women of Chateau Lafayette by Stephanie Dray: Read this to learn more about Elizabeth’s role in saving Adrienne de Lafayette.
My Dear Hamilton by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie: Read this to learn more about Monroe’s role in the Hamilton/Reynolds scandal. I’ll never forget the first chapter about James visiting Eliza in his later years!
Dolley by Rita Mae Brown: Elizabeth is mentioned several times in this book about Dolley’s life in the White House.
The White House 1600 Sessions: Episode 4: British Invasion to French Restoration and Episode 21 Back in the Blue Room: Restoring the Bellangé Suite
- Also where you can purchase the official White House Christmas ornament in honor of the Monroes
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe is an enigma in history but is someone who still influences us today. Her elegant style and impeccable manners set the tone for American First Ladies that we still expect today. While reserved, she left a huge impact.