Elizabeth Jane Kortright was born in New York City on June 30, 1768, which means it was British America at the time.
Her father was a wealthy merchant who was also one of the founders of the New York Chamber of Commerce. He was also part owner in several privateers during the Revolutionary war and through various sales and transactions; the town of Kortright emerged about 30 miles west of Albany, NY.
The Kortright family was members of Trinity Church at the head of Wall Street and on February 16, 1789, in her father’s house in New York, Elizabeth at 17 years old married a young gentleman of 26 named James Monroe as recorded in the parish records of Trinity Church.
As we all know, when it comes to couples, it is sometimes difficult to talk about one without talking about the other and that’s where we are at this point in the presentation.
I’m sure some, if not all of you, are wondering why I picked this woman to talk about. Well, I hope that may become apparent as we move along.
James Monroe at the time of his marriage to the very attractive and petite Elizabeth was a member of the Continental Congress from Virginia where he grew up as a farmer and attended William and Mary College with encouragement from his uncle. While at William and Mary James met two people who would become lifelong friends: John Marshall and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom are familiar names to all of us.
James is sometimes called: “The last founding father” of this country.
In 1794, James was appointed as United States Minister to France by George Washington and so Elizabeth became an ambassador’s wife in Paris. It was in Paris that her charm, beauty, and flair for fashion made her very popular with the French people even though this was the time in France of “The Reign of Terror” and trips to the guillotine in creaking horse-drawn 2 wheeled carts was a common sight.
Now, it was during this period that Marie Adrienne Lafayette, the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette who assisted in the American Revolution, was imprisoned and threatened with death by guillotine, and it was Elizabeth who went alone to the French authorities and secured the release of Madame Lafayette. In addition, the Monroe’s provided shelter and support to Thomas Paine after he was arrested for his opposition to the execution of Louis XVI.
Just as a quick refresher, Thomas Paine was a political theorist and revolutionary who authored two very famous pamphlets during the revolution” “Common Sense” and “The American Crisis”.
While in Paris, the Monroe’s eldest daughter attended school with Napoleons’ stepdaughter and they became good friends.
In 1801, the Monroe’s returned to America where James became the Governor of Virginia and it was during this period that Elizabeth’s’ health began to decline as evidenced by a series of seizures and collapses that caused her to restrict her activities.
After six years in Virginia, James and Elizabeth were back in France and they lived in both Paris and London at that time.
During this stay, Elizabeth’s experiences influenced her greatly but also damaged her image with the American public, which regarded her as an elitist and as too European. Now, as far as she was concerned, she preferred to keep her distance from people, especially the cliques of “Washington” wives who often shunned her.
Her attitude greatly affected her reputation as First Lady. She did not follow in the footsteps of her predecessor, Dolly Madison, who initiated social calls on new legislator’s wives as they arrived in Washington.
This particular behavior was so insulting to the “Washington” wives that they asked their husbands to bring it to the attention of the President and it was soon resolved in Elizabeth’s favor as a result of a cabinet meeting. Let’s remember that the President at that time was James himself.
However, there were other social problems, as when she insisted on keeping her daughter’s marriage private, which annoyed the Washington ladies. About this time, Elizabeth fled Washington, saying she was ill, thus boycotting parties and other social events that were an important part of Washington’s social life.
James however, was elected to the Presidency again and this time it was uncontested. Now, during Elizabeth’s second term as First Lady, she regained some of the respect and admiration that was due to her. However, she never quite measured up to her predecessor, Dolly Madison, who set social standards by which future First Ladies were measured. However, I don’t think Elizabeth cared, as she seemed more interested in making access to the White House more socially exclusive like French and European practices. She did get many favorable reviews and comments as she hosted General Lafayette’s return tour through America.
During her illness, she shared or passed on some of her obligations to her daughters.
As you know, it was James who was the author of the Monroe Doctrine and the Louisiana Purchase that doubled the size of the country and opened up the fertile Midwest to most income from agriculture and natural resources.
Elizabeth may be best remembered for her role in choosing new furniture for the White House when it was rebuilt in 1817 after the British burned it down. When the White House was refurbished in the 1960s, these furnishings were considered to be some of the finest holdings in America. However, some of the furnishings came from the Monroe’s private home and are still on display.
So, Elizabeth, a small woman at 5 foot tall and “sickly” we might add, had to learn to withstand the pressures of social life that existed and still exists in Washington today. Not an easy task for even a healthy woman. It’s no wonder she tried to model social life and access to the White House after the more casual style of the French and European countries. It would have been a lot less stressful for both her and James too, who was for all his political growth, still a farmer at heart, and Elizabeth didn’t like to mingle with others either. For all her supposed sophistication, she was glad to remain a very private person.
After leaving Washington, the Monroe’s returned to their estate in Oak Field, Virginia where Elizabeth dies in 1830. James only lives a year longer. They are buried next to each other in Virginia’s capital city of Richmond. In conclusion, then, all the correspondence between James and Elizabeth as well as with others were destroyed at her request before she dies, so, we really don’t know a lot about either of them other then what can be found in the official government documents and comments from outsiders.