|First Lady of the United States|
March 4, 1817 – March 4, 1825
|Preceded by||Dolley Madison|
|Succeeded by||Louisa Adams|
June 30, 1768|
New York, Province of New York, British America
|Died||September 23, 1830
Oak Hill, near Leesburg, Loudoun County, Virginia, U.S.
|Children||Eliza Kortright Monroe Hay
James Spence Monroe
Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur
|Occupation||First Lady of the United States|
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe (June 30, 1768 – September 23, 1830) was First Lady of the United States from 1817 to 1825, as the wife of James Monroe, fifth President. Due to the fragile condition of Elizabeth's health, many of the duties of official hostess were assumed by her eldest daughter, Eliza Monroe Hay.
Birth, Parents, and Childhood
Born in New York city on June 30, 1768, Elizabeth was the youngest daughter of Lawrence Kortright, a wealthy merchant, and Hannah (Aspinwall) Kortright. Her father was one of the founders of the New York Chamber of Commerce. During the 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. 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.
Elizabeth acquired social graces and elegance at an early age. She grew up in a household with four older siblings: Sarah, Hester, John and Mary. According to the parish records of Trinity Church, New York, Elizabeth'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. An unidentified sibling of Elizabeth, age 13 months, succumbed to flux and fever a few days later. Mother and infant were both buried at St. George's Chapel in New York. At the time of their deaths, Elizabeth was nine years old. Her father never remarried.
On August 3, 1778, almost a year after the death of Elizabeth's mother, the home of the Lawrence Kortright family was nearly destroyed by fire 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. Elizabeth, age 10, with her father and siblings, survived the fire unscathed.
Courtship and Marriage
Elizabeth first caught the attention of James Monroe in 1785 while he was in New York 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." James, age twenty-seven, married Elizabeth, age seventeen, on February 16, 1786, at her father's home in New York City. The marriage was performed by Reverend Benjamin Moore, and recorded in the parish records of Trinity Church, New York. After a brief honeymoon on Long Island, the newlyweds returned to New York to live with her father until Congress adjourned. Their first child, whom they named Eliza Kortright Monroe, was born in December, 1786, in Virginia.
In 1794, James was appointed United States Minister to France by President George Washington. 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 of her imprisonment and threatened death 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, who had been an advisor on court etiquette to Marie Antoinette. This association led to a friendship between the family of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Monroes. James was recalled from his Ambassadorship in 1796, due to his support of France in the opposition of the Jay Treaty.
The Monroes returned to Virginia where he became Governor. A son, James Monroe, Jr., was born in 1799 but died in 1801. During this time, Elizabeth suffered the first of a series of seizures and collapses (possibly epilepsy), which would plague her for the rest of her life, and gradually cause her to restrict social activities.
Life in Great Britain
In 1803, President Jefferson appointed James to be United States Minister to Great Britain, and also the United States Minister to Spain. The Monroes' third child, a daughter whom they named Maria, was born in 1803, probably in England. Elizabeth found the social climate there less favorable than in France, possibly because British society resented the United States' refusal to ally against France despite the governmental change. In 1804, James was sent as a special envoy to France to negotiate the purchase of Louisiana, in addition to remaining the Ambassador to both Great Britain and Spain. 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
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 the Senate agreed. However, Monroe had little to do with the War of 1812, as President Madison and the War Hawks in Congress were dominant. During the War, Elizabeth stayed primarily inland in Virginia, on the Monroe family estates, Oak Hill in Loudoun and later Ashlawn-Highland in Albemarle Counties.
The war went very badly, so Madison turned to Monroe for help, appointing him Secretary of War in September 1814 after the British had invaded 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, but the peace treaty was ratified in February, 1815, before any armies moved north. Monroe therefore resigned as Secretary of War and was formally reappointed Secretary of State. Monroe stayed on at State until March 4, 1817, when he began his term as the new President of the United States.
First Lady of the United States
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. 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. Therefore, she remained in her role of First Lady until March 3, 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. 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 the 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. 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.
James and Elizabeth had three children:
- Eliza Kortright Monroe Hay (1786–1840): Eliza appeared to many a haughty, pompous socialite, quick to remind others of her good breeding and lofty station. In 1808 she married George Hay, 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, Hortense de Beauharnais, step-daughter of Napoleon. 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.
- James Spence Monroe (1799–1801): The only son of the Monroes was sickly and died in early childhood. His name is merely educated speculation, as his gravestone reads "J.S. Monroe".
- Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur (1803–1850) was still a child when her father was elected president. Maria finished school in Philadelphia before moving into the White House in 1819. 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. 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.
Death and legacy
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.
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 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 Law Office & 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 maternal grandmother, Rebecca Aspinwall Roosevelt, was a first cousin to Elizabeth Monroe.)
|Monroe family tree|
|First Lady Elizabeth Monroe, C‑SPAN|
- 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."
- COURTRIGHT (KORTRIGHT) FAMILY  by JOHN HOWARD printed by ABBOTT TOBIAS A. WRIGHT Printer and Publisher 150 Bleecker Street, New York 1922
- 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"
- 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."
- 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]"
- 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..."
- 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..."
- Harlow Unger, The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness (Boston, Massachusetts: Da Capo Press, 2009) page 61
- 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"
- 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..."
- 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.",
- "Presidents & First Ladies". While House History web site. The White House Historical Association. Retrieved March 13, 2011.
- U.S. Mint: First Spouse Program. 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."
- "First Lady Elizabeth Monroe". C‑SPAN. March 18, 2013. Retrieved March 25, 2013.
- Elizabeth Monroe at Findagrave
- Elizabeth Monroe at C-SPAN's First Ladies: Influence & Image
|First Lady of the United States