Elizabeth Monroe

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Elizabeth Monroe
Monroe depicted in an early 19th century portrait
First Lady of the United States
In role
March 4, 1817 – March 4, 1825
PresidentJames Monroe
Preceded byDolley Madison
Succeeded byLouisa Adams
First Lady of Virginia
In role
December 28, 1799 – December 1, 1802
GovernorJames Monroe
Preceded byJean Moncure Wood
Succeeded byMargaret Lowther Page
In role
January 16, 1811 – April 2, 1811
GovernorJames Monroe
Preceded byAgnes Sarah Bell Cabell (1808)
Succeeded byJane Reade Smith
Personal details
Elizabeth Kortright

(1768-06-30)June 30, 1768
New York City, New York, British America
DiedSeptember 23, 1830(1830-09-23) (aged 62)
Oak Hill in Aldie, Virginia, U.S.
Resting placeHollywood Cemetery in Richmond, U.S.
(m. 1786)
Children3, including Eliza and Maria

Elizabeth Monroe (née Kortright; June 30, 1768 – September 23, 1830) was the first lady of the United States from 1817 to 1825, as the wife of James Monroe, fifth president of the United States. Due to the fragile condition of Monroe's health, many of her duties as the official White House hostess were assumed by her eldest daughter, Eliza Monroe Hay.

Birth, parents, and childhood[edit]

Monroe was born in New York City on June 30, 1768, the youngest daughter[1] of Lawrence Kortright, a wealthy merchant, and Hannah (née Aspinwall) Kortright.[2] Elizabeth Monroe's paternal 2nd great grandfather, Cornelius Jansen Kortright, was born in Holland, Netherlands in the year of 1645, and immigrated to New York in the year of 1663. His father, Jan Bastiaenson Van Kortrijk, was also born in Holland, Netherlands in the year of 1618 and immigrated with his son to New York. Jan Bastiaenson's father, Bastiaen Van Kortrijk, was born in the city of Kortrijk in Flanders, Spanish Netherlands in the year of 1586, and immigrated to Holland, Netherlands in the year of 1615. Monroe's father was one of the founders of the New York Chamber of Commerce. During the American Revolutionary War, he was part owner of several privateers fitted out at New York, and it has also been documented that he owned at least four slaves.[3] He purchased land tracts in what is now Delaware County, New York, and from the sale of this land the town of Kortright, New York, was formed.

Monroe grew up in a household with four older siblings: Sarah, Hester, John and Mary.[2] According to the parish records of Trinity Church, New York, Monroe's mother, Hannah, died on September 6 or 7, 1777, at the age of 39. The cause of death was recorded as resulting from Child Bed.[4] An unidentified sibling of Monroe's, aged 13 months, succumbed to flux and fever a few days later. Hannah and the infant were both buried at St. George's Chapel in New York.[5] At the time of their deaths, Monroe was nine years old. Her father never remarried.

On August 3, 1778, almost a year after the death of Monroe's mother, the home of the Lawrence Kortright family was nearly destroyed by fire[6] during a blaze which caused damage and destruction to fifty homes near Cruger's Wharf in lower Manhattan. A historian later wrote that this blaze was due to the mismanagement of British troops while directing the firefighters.[7] Monroe, age 10, with her father and siblings, survived the fire unscathed.

Courtship and marriage[edit]

Kortright first caught the attention of James Monroe in 1785 while he was in New York City serving as a member of the Continental Congress. William Grayson, James Monroe's cousin and fellow Congressman from Virginia, described Elizabeth and her sisters as having "made so brilliant and lovely an appearance" at a theater one evening, "as to depopulate all the other boxes of all the genteel male people therein."[8]

James Monroe, then 27 years old, married Elizabeth, then 17 years old, on February 16, 1786, at her father's home in New York City.[1] The marriage was performed by Reverend Benjamin Moore, and recorded in the parish records of Trinity Church, New York.[9] After a brief honeymoon on Long Island, the newlyweds returned to New York City to live with her father until Congress adjourned. Their first child, whom they named Eliza Kortright Monroe, was born in December, 1786, in Virginia.[10]

Ambassador's wife[edit]

In 1794, George Washington appointed James as United States Minister to France. In Paris, as wife of the American Minister during the Reign of Terror, she helped secure the release of Madame La Fayette, wife of the Marquis de Lafayette, when she learned she was imprisoned and scheduled to be executed by guillotine. The Monroes also provided support and shelter to the American citizen Thomas Paine in Paris, after he was arrested for his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI. While in France, the Monroes' daughter Eliza became a friend of Hortense de Beauharnais, step-daughter of Napoleon, and both girls received their education in the school of Madame Jeanne Campan. James was recalled from his Ambassadorship in 1796, due in part to his support of France in the opposition of the Jay Treaty.

Governor's wife[edit]

The Monroes returned to Virginia, where James became governor, and Elizabeth became First Lady of Virginia. The couple's son, James Spence, was born in 1799 but died in 1800. During this time, Elizabeth suffered the first of a series of seizures and collapses that were possibly a product of epilepsy, which plagued her for the rest of her life and gradually caused her to restrict her social activities.[11] The Monroe's third child, a daughter they named Maria Hester, was born in Virginia in early 1802.[12]

Great Britain[edit]

In 1803, President Thomas Jefferson appointed James as United States Minister to Great Britain and Spain. Elizabeth found the social climate in London less favorable than it had been in Paris, possibly because British society resented the United States' refusal to aid it in its conflict with France. In 1804, James was sent as a special envoy to France to negotiate the Louisiana Purchase. That same year, the Monroes were invited by Napoleon Bonaparte to attend his coronation in Paris, as part of the official American delegation.

Return to Virginia and Washington[edit]

The Monroes returned to Virginia in 1807. James Monroe won election and returned to the Virginia House of Delegates, and also resumed his legal career. In 1811, Monroe won election to another term as governor of Virginia, but served only four months. In April 1811, his friend President James Madison appointed Monroe Secretary of State, and he was confirmed to the position by the United States Senate. Monroe had little to do with the War of 1812, since President Madison and the war hawks in Congress were dominant. During the War, Elizabeth stayed primarily at the Monroe family estates at Oak Hill in Loudoun County, Virginia, and later at Ashlawn-Highland in Albemarle County, Virginia.

The war went very badly, so Madison turned to Monroe for help, appointing him United States Secretary of War in September 1814 after the Burning of Washington by the British, who the national capital and burned the White House. Monroe resigned as Secretary of State on October 1 but no successor was ever appointed, so he handled both offices from October 1, 1814 to February 28, 1815. As Secretary of War, Monroe formulated plans to invade Canada a second time to win the War of 1812, but a peace treaty was ratified in February 1815, before any U.S. military forced moved north. Monroe then resigned as Secretary of War and was formally re-appointed Secretary of State, where he served until March 4, 1817, when he succeeded James Madison to become the nation's fifth President of the United States.

First Lady of the United States[edit]

Elizabeth began her tenure as First Lady on March 4, 1817, when her husband commenced his first term as the fifth president of the United States. However, the White House was still under reconstruction, so Elizabeth hosted the inaugural ball at their private residence on I Street, and part of the time the First Family lived in the Octagon House.[11] Since all the White House furnishings had been destroyed, the Monroes brought some from their private residences. Her husband was re-elected to a second term in office in 1820, and Elizabeth attended the inaugural ball held in Brown's Hotel. She remained in her role of First Lady until March 4, 1825.

Although Elizabeth Monroe regained a measure of respect and admiration during her husband's second term, she compared poorly to her predecessor, Dolley Madison, who had captivated Washington society, setting a standard by which future First Ladies were measured.[13] Furthermore, Elizabeth and her eldest daughter may have sought to make access to the White House more socially exclusive, reflecting French practices, which were barely tolerated given American democratic values, although President Monroe's term was also known for good feelings and relations. Still, Elizabeth had made such an impression upon General Andrew Jackson that her husband always mentioned her to him in their correspondence. Elizabeth also drew favorable reviews as the couple briefly hosted General Lafayette during his return tour through America.[11] During Elizabeth's illnesses, some of the social duties were carried out by her daughters, as discussed below. Furthermore, James or Elizabeth destroyed her correspondence, both between themselves and with others, before her death.

Since 1982 Siena College Research Institute has periodically conducted surveys asking historians to assess American first ladies according to a cumulative score on the independent criteria of their background, value to the country, intelligence, courage, accomplishments, integrity, leadership, being their own women, public image, and value to the president.[14] Consistently, Monroe has been ranked in the lower-half of first ladies by historians in these surveys. In terms of cumulative assessment, Monroe has been ranked:

  • 24th-best of 42 in 1982[15]
  • 23rd-best of 37 in 1993[15]
  • 31st-best of 38 in 2003[15]
  • 29th-best of 38 in 2008[15]
  • 30th-best of 38 in 2014[16]

In the 2014 survey, Monroe and her husband were also ranked the 15th-highest out of 39 first couples in terms of being a "power couple".[17]


James and Elizabeth had three children:

  • Elizabeth ("Eliza") Kortright Monroe Hay (1786–January 27, 1840): Born in Virginia in December, 1786,[18] Eliza was educated at the school of Madame Jeanne Campan in Paris, when her father served as United States Ambassador to France. Eliza appeared to many a haughty, pompous socialite, quick to remind others of her good breeding and lofty station. In late September or early October 1808 she married George Hay,[19][failed verification] a prominent Virginia attorney who had served as prosecutor in the trial of Aaron Burr and later U.S. District Judge. Their daughter, Hortense, was named in honor of her childhood friend and classmate, Hortense de Beauharnais, step-daughter of Napoleon. During her father's presidency, Eliza alienated most of Washington society for her refusal to call on wives of the diplomatic corps, as was the custom, and caused another social furor in closing her sister's wedding to all but family and friends. For all her apparent vanity, however, she demonstrated genuine compassion during the fever epidemic that swept Washington during her father's Presidency. She spent many sleepless nights selflessly caring for victims. Following the deaths of her husband and father, Eliza moved to Paris, France, where she died on January 27, 1840.[20] [failed verification]
  • James Spence Monroe (1799–1800): The only son of the Monroes, James Spence was 16 months old[21] when he died after "several days sickness".[22]
  • Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur (1802–June 20, 1850) In an April 12, 1802 letter[23] to James Madison, James Monroe states that his wife recently added a daughter to their family. Parish records indicate that Maria was born on April 8.[24] The following year, while still an infant, Maria accompanied her parents to London, when James Monroe became Ambassador from the United States to the Court of St. James. Upon the family's return to the United States, Maria finished school in Philadelphia. On March 9, 1820, she married her first cousin, Samuel L. Gouverneur, in the first wedding of a president's child at the White House.[25] Many in Washington criticized the Monroes for keeping the wedding private; just 42 members of the family and close friends were invited. Friction between Maria's husband and her outspoken sister strained family relations thereafter. The Gouverneurs moved to New York City. Former President Monroe, upon losing his wife in 1830, moved in with them. President John Quincy Adams appointed her husband postmaster of New York City. Maria died on June 20, 1850, at the age of 48, at Oak Hill, in Loudon County, Virginia.[26] [failed verification]

Death and legacy[edit]

After Monroe's terms as president expired, he and Elizabeth faced considerable debts from their years of public service, both from non-reimbursed entertaining expenses and because Monroe was forced to manage their various properties remotely. Monroe sold his plantation, Highland in Albemarle County to pay debts, and both retired to Oak Hill in Loudoun County, nearer Washington, D.C., and their daughter Eliza and her husband (although the Hays moved to Richmond in 1825 when he became the U.S. District Judge for Virginia). Although retiring, Elizabeth managed to travel to New York to visit her younger daughter, as well as other friends and relations, but made no further social visits. Sickly and suffering several long illnesses (including severe burns from a collapse near a fireplace a year after leaving the White House), Elizabeth died at Oak Hill on September 23, 1830, aged 62, her husband following her less than a year later, aged 73.

She was interred at the estate, but her husband later died in New York under their daughter's care and was originally buried in that northern state. His remains were moved 25 years after his death to become a key attraction during the development of Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. Elizabeth's remains were reinterred there in 1903, where both spouses remain buried.

The First Spouse Program under the Presidential $1 Coin Act authorizes the United States Mint to issue 1/2 ounce $10 gold coins and bronze medal duplicates[27] to honor the first spouses of the United States. Elizabeth Monroe's coin was released in February 2008.

A gown in the collection of the James Monroe Museum indicates Elizabeth was a petite woman, not taller than 5 feet.

Through her mother, she is a first cousin twice-removed to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Franklin D. Roosevelt's paternal grandmother, Rebecca Aspinwall Roosevelt, was a first cousin to Elizabeth Monroe.)




  • McGrath, T. (2020). James Monroe: A Life. New York: Penguin Random House.[a][28]


  1. ^ A personal as well as political biography of James Monroe that contains significant information about Elizabeth Monroe.


  1. ^ a b Saturday, February 18, 1786, Independent Journal (New York, N. Y.), No. 232, page 2: "On Thursday evening [February 16] was married at her father's house in Great Queen-Street, the Hon. Colonel JAMES MONRO, Member of Congress for the State of Virginia, to Miss ELIZA KORTWRIGHT, youngest daughter of Lawrance Kortwright, Esq; of this City."
  2. ^ a b COURTRIGHT (KORTRIGHT) FAMILY [1] by JOHN HOWARD printed by ABBOTT TOBIAS A. WRIGHT Printer and Publisher 150 Bleecker Street, New York 1922
  3. ^ March 10, 1750, Record of Purchase of Slaves, from the Estate of Adolph Philips, Manor of Philipsburg, New York, Compiled by J. M. Haley in The Slaves of Philipsburg Manor Upper Mills, HHV, 1988: "Sampson - sold to Lawrence Kortright, New York City, for 75 pounds; Kaiser - sold to Lawrence Kortright, New York City, for 75 pounds"; June 27, 1763, The New-York Mercury, No. 609, page 3, (Advertisement:) "RUN-AWAY, From on board the Snow CHARMING NANCY, Francis Haines, Master; a Molatto [sic] Negro, about 18 Years of Age, his Hair curls much, speaks good English. Had on when he went away, a striped Waist-Coat. Whoever takes up said Negro, and will bring him to Lawrence Kortright, shall have Forty Shillings, and all reasonable Charges, paid. N. B. All Masters of Vessels are forwarned not to carry said Negro off". September 11, 1780, The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, No. 1508, page 3 [Advertisement:] A REWARD. RUN-AWAY about 15 days ago, my Negro Man PARIS, about 21 years of age, about 5 feet 9 inches high, he is rather remarkable, having one bandy leg, so much that one knee knocks against the other when he walks and is much addicted to liquor. Whoever takes up said Negro Man, and will deliver him to me, shall have a reward of Five Dollars, and all reasonable charges paid them. LAWRENCE KORTRIGHT. New-York, 9th September, 1780"
  4. ^ September 7, 1777, Trinity Parish (New York, N. Y.), Parish Register [Burial Record:] "Mrs. Kortright, died September 7, 1777, aged 39 years, in Child-Bed. St. George's. [Burial site]"; September 8, 1777, The New-York Gazette and the Weekly Mercury, No. 1350, page 3: "Departed this Life the 6th Instant, Mrs. HANNAH KORTRIGHT, the Wife of Mr. Lawrence Kortright, in the 39th year of her Age, much lamented by all her Acquaintances."
  5. ^ September 10, 1777, Trinity Church (New York, N. Y.), Parish Register [Burial Record:] "Child Kortwright, died September 10, 1777, age 13 mos. of Flux & Fever. St. George's [Burial site]"
  6. ^ August 26, 1778, The Pennsylvania Evening Post (Philadelphia, Pa.), Vol. 4, No. 522, page 309: "A list of the houses burnt in the late fire at New York, the third inst.... Mr. Isaac Low's house, and that of Mr. Lawrence Kortwright, adjoining, greatly damaged..."
  7. ^ James Grant Wilson, The Memorial History of the City of New York, [(New York): New-York History Company, 1892], Vol 2, page 540: "Another fire occurred August 3, 1778, on Cruger's Wharf, and about fifty houses were destroyed. It was said the loss was increased by the ill-advised attempt of the British officers to direct the firemen..."
  8. ^ Harlow Unger, The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness (Boston, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2009) page 61
  9. ^ Thursday, February 16, 1786, Trinity Church (New York, N. Y.), Parish Record - [Marriage Record:] February 16, 1786, James Monroe to Elizabeth Kortright, Minister: Benjamin Moore"
  10. ^ Letter, April 10, 1788, James Monroe (Richmond, Virginia) to Thomas Jefferson (Paris)The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.: "...I think I mention'd to you in my last Mrs. M[onroe] had made us happy by giving us a daughter who is now 16 months old an[d] begins to talk..."
  11. ^ a b c "Elizabeth Monroe Biography :: National First Ladies' Library". Firstladies.org. Archived from the original on 2012-05-09. Retrieved 2016-09-07.
  12. ^ James Monroe (Richmond, Va.) to James Madison, 12 April 1802, "Mrs. M[onroe] who has lately added a daughter to our family, unites in best regards to Mrs. Madison." Founders Online, National Archives (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-03-02-0149 [last update: 2015-12-30]) and printed source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 3, 1 March–6 October 1802, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 122–123.
  13. ^ "First Lady Biography: Elizabeth Monroe". Canton, Ohio, USA: National First Ladies' Library. Archived from the original on 2012-05-09. Retrieved 2015-10-03.
  14. ^ "Eleanor Roosevelt Retains Top Spot as America's Best First Lady Michelle Obama Enters Study as 5th, Hillary Clinton Drops to 6th Clinton Seen First Lady Most as Presidential Material; Laura Bush, Pat Nixon, Mamie Eisenhower, Bess Truman Could Have Done More in Office Eleanor & FDR Top Power Couple; Mary Drags Lincolns Down in the Ratings" (PDF). scri.siena.edu. Siena Research Institute. February 15, 2014. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  15. ^ a b c d "Ranking America's First Ladies Eleanor Roosevelt Still #1 Abigail Adams Regains 2nd Place Hillary moves from 5 th to 4 th; Jackie Kennedy from 4th to 3rd Mary Todd Lincoln Remains in 36th" (PDF). Siena Research Institute. December 18, 2008. Retrieved 16 May 2022.
  16. ^ "Siena College Research Institute/C-SPAN Study of the First Ladies of the United States 2014 FirstLadies2014_Full Rankings.xls" (PDF). scri.siena.edu. Sienna College Research Institute/C-SPAN. 2014. Retrieved 21 October 2022.
  17. ^ "2014 Power Couple Score" (PDF). scri.siena.edu/. Siena Research Institute/C-SPAN Study of the First Ladies of the United States. Retrieved 9 October 2022.
  18. ^ Letter, April 10, 1788, James Monroe (Richmond, Virginia) to Thomas Jefferson (Paris)The Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, D. C.: "...I think I mention'd to you in my last Mrs. M[onroe] had made us happy by giving us a daughter who is now 16 months old an[d] begins to talk...". Subtracting 16 months from April 1788 indicates a birthdate for Eliza of circa December, 1786.
  19. ^ October 15, 1808, Poulson's American Daily Advertiser (Philadelphia), page 3, "MARRIED... in the county of Albemarle, (Virg.) GEORGE HAY, Esq. of Richmond, to Miss ELIZA MONROE, eldest daughter of James Monroe, Esq, late minister to Great-Britain."
  20. ^ February 3, 1840, The Observer (London, England), page 1: "BIRTHS, MARRIAGES, AND DEATHS...DIED... [January] 27th, at her residence in the Champs Elysees, Paris, Mrs. Elizabeth K. M. Hay, relict of the late George Hay, Esq., of Virginia, and daughter of the late James Monroe, Esq., formerly President of the United States of America."
  21. ^ Schnieder, Dorothy; Schnieder, Carl J. (2010). First Ladies: A Biographical Dictionary. Infobase Publishing. p. 40. ISBN 9781438127507.
  22. ^ Monroe, James. "James Spence Monroe". The Papers of James Monroe. University of Mary Washington. Retrieved February 2, 2018. An unhappy event has occurr'd which has overwhelmed us with grief. At ten last night our beloved babe departed this life after several days sickness
  23. ^ James Monroe (Richmond, Va.) to James Madison, 12 April 1802, Founders Online, National Archives (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Madison/02-03-02-0149 [last update: 2015-12-30]) and printed source: The Papers of James Madison, Secretary of State Series, vol. 3, 1 March–6 October 1802, ed. David B. Mattern, J. C. A. Stagg, Jeanne Kerr Cross, and Susan Holbrook Perdue. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1995, pp. 122–123.
  24. ^ "Trinity Church - Registers". registers.trinitywallstreet.org. Archived from the original on 2016-10-20.
  25. ^ "Presidents & First Ladies". While House History website. The White House Historical Association. Archived from the original on May 26, 2011. Retrieved March 13, 2011.
  26. ^ June 23, 1850, The Daily Union (Washington, DC), page 3, "Died, At Oak Hill, Loudoun County, Va., her late residence, on the 20th instant, MARIA HESTER, wife of Samuel L. Gouverneur, and daughter of the late James Monroe, fifth President of the United States." Also published June 25, 1850, in the Alexandria Gazette (Alexandria, Va.), page 3
  27. ^ U.S. Mint: First Spouse Program Archived 2007-01-07 at the Wayback Machine. Accessed 2008-06-27. "The United States Mint also produces and make available to the public bronze medal duplicates of the First Spouse Gold Coins."
  28. ^ Ricahrd Brookhiser (May 1, 2020). "'James Monroe: A Life' Review: His Competency". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved September 2, 2020.

External links[edit]

External videos
video icon First Lady Elizabeth Monroe, C-SPAN
Honorary titles
Preceded by First Lady of the United States
Succeeded by