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Eliabeth Monroe (1768-1830) was an American first lady (1817-1825) and wife of James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States. Elizabeth and James spent much of their early married life abroad, where James served as the U.S. minister to several European nations. After her husband became president in 1817, Elizabeth Monroe was criticized for her failure to embrace the public role of first lady, which stood in stark contrast to her socially adept and popular predecessor, Dolley Madison.
Her father, Lawrence Kortright, earned a fortune as a privateer in the British army during the French and Indian War, and her paternal grandmother was a wealthy landowner. But while Elizabeth was born with the proverbial silver spoon in her mouth, she endured some leaner times as a teenager; her father was a dedicated Loyalist, and while he kept a low profile during the American Revolution, his money was mostly gone by war’s end.
James Monroe was in New York City as a Virginia delegate to the post-war Continental Congress when he became entranced by the beautiful, raven-haired Elizabeth. Little is known of the courtship, as Monroe burned all correspondence between the two; however, their romance fueled the high-society gossip mill, with many wondering whether the southern-born farmer’s son could provide for someone with Elizabeth’s upbringing. The two were married on February 16, 1786, and while they lived modestly before Monroe’s ascension to the highest levels of the U.S. government, their union reportedly was strong.
After President George Washington appointed Monroe ambassador to France in 1794, Elizabeth acclimated herself to life in her new country by immersing herself in French culture. Her fashionable appearance and efforts to learn proper etiquette pleased the French, who referred to the petite beauty as “La Belle Americane.” However, Elizabeth was also an effective diplomat during a time of immense turmoil. Her highly publicized visit to Adrienne de Noiolles de Lafayette, the jailed wife of the American Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette, helped secure the release of the political prisoner.
Influenced by her experiences in the European royal courts, Elizabeth ended many of the social policies established by her predecessor in the White House. She neglected to visit the wives of other government officials, and passed hosting duties to her oldest daughter, Eliza Monroe Hay. Her actions rankled political allies to the point where President Monroe twice had to call cabinet meetings to clear the air, but her perceived aloofness largely stemmed from an undisclosed illness, now believed to have been epilepsy. The capital’s social structure eventually adjusted to her preferences, and her formal protocols were adopted by successive first ladies.
Illustrating the frailty of her health, Elizabeth was too ill leave the White House when her husband’s second term ended in March 1725; it would be another three weeks before the Monroes were finally able to retire to their estate in Oak Hill, Virginia. Not long afterward, Elizabeth suffered a seizure and collapsed near an open fireplace, leading to severe burns. She lived for another three years, often in pain, until her death on September 23, 1830. Noting that he wouldn’t survive long without her, the grief-stricken Monroe passed away less than a year later.
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Elizabeth Monroe's son was President James Monroe Elizabeth Monroe's son was Andrew Monroe Elizabeth Monroe's son was Spence Monroe Elizabeth Monroe's daughter was Elizabeth Buckner Elizabeth Monroe's son was Joseph Monroe
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Elizabeth Monroe's husband was Andrew Monroe
Elizabeth Monroe's grandchildren:
Elizabeth Monroe's granddaughter was Maria Gouverneur
Elizabeth Monroe's in laws:
Elizabeth Monroe's daughter in law was Eliza Monroe
Elizabeth Monroe (née Kortright June 30, 1768 – September 23, 1830) was the First Lady of the United States from 1817 to 1825, because the spouse of James Monroe, President of the United States. Due to the delicate situation of Elizabeth’s well being, lots of the duties of official White House hostess had been assumed by her eldest daughter, Eliza Monroe Hay.
The warfare went very badly, so Madison turned to Monroe for assist, appointing him Secretary of War in September 1814 after the British had invaded the nationwide capital and burned the White House. Monroe resigned as Secretary of State on October 1 however no successor was ever appointed, so he dealt with each workplaces from October 1, 1814, to February 28, 1815. As Secretary of War, Monroe formulated plans to invade Canada a second time to win the warfare, however the peace treaty was ratified in February 1815, earlier than any armies moved north. Monroe, subsequently, resigned as Secretary of War and was formally reappointed Secretary of State. Monroe stayed on at State till March 4, 1817, when he started his time period as the brand new President of the United States.
The Monroes returned to Virginia in 1807. James Monroe gained election and returned to the Virginia House of Delegates, and likewise resumed his authorized profession. In 1811 Monroe gained election to a different time period as governor of Virginia, however served solely 4 months. In April 1811, his buddy 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 had been dominant. During the War, Elizabeth stayed primarily inland in Virginia, on the Monroe household estates, Oak Hill in Loudoun and later Ashlawn-Highland in Albemarle Counties.
In 1803, President Jefferson appointed James to be United States Minister to Great Britain, and likewise the United States Minister to Spain. Elizabeth discovered the social local weather there much less favorable than in France, presumably as a result of British society resented the United States’ refusal to ally towards France regardless of the governmental change. In 1804, James was despatched as a particular envoy to France to barter the acquisition of Louisiana, along with remaining the Ambassador to each Great Britain and Spain. That identical yr the Monroes had been invited by Napoleon Bonaparte to attend his coronation in Paris, as a part of the official American delegation.
The Monroes returned to Virginia, the place he grew to become governor. A son, James Monroe, Jr., was born in 1799 however died in 1801. During this time, Elizabeth suffered the primary of a sequence of seizures and collapses (presumably epilepsy), which might plague her for the remainder of her life, and steadily trigger her to limit social actions.  The Monroe’s third little one, a daughter whom they named Maria Hester, was born in Virginia in early 1802. 
In 1794, James was appointed United States Minister to France by President George Washington. In Paris, as spouse of the American Minister through the Reign of Terror, she helped safe the discharge of Madame La Fayette, spouse of the Marquis de Lafayette, when she discovered of her imprisonment and threatened demise by guillotine. The Monroes additionally supplied assist 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 grew to become a buddy of Hortense de Beauharnais, step-daughter of Napoleon, and each women obtained their training within the faculty of Madame Jeanne Campan. James was recalled from his Ambassadorship in 1796, resulting from his assist of France within the opposition of the Jay Treaty.
Elizabeth first caught the eye of James Monroe in 1785 whereas 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 sensible and wonderful an look” at a theater one night, “as to depopulate all the opposite packing containers of all of the genteel male folks therein.”  James, age twenty-six, married Elizabeth, age seventeen, on February 16, 1786, at her father’s house in New York City.  The marriage was carried out by Reverend Benjamin Moore, and recorded within the parish information of Trinity Church, New York.  After a quick honeymoon on Long Island, the newlyweds returned to New York to dwell together with her father till Congress adjourned. Their first little one, whom they named Eliza Kortright Monroe, was born in December, 1786, in Virginia. 
On August 3, 1778, nearly a yr after the demise of Elizabeth’s mom, the house of the Lawrence Kortright household was practically destroyed by fireplace  throughout a blaze which prompted injury and destruction to fifty properties close to Cruger’s Wharf in decrease Manhattan. A historian later wrote that this blaze was because of the mismanagement of British troops whereas directing the firefighters.  Elizabeth, age 10, together with her father and siblings, survived the hearth unscathed.
Elizabeth acquired social graces and magnificence at an early age. She grew up in a family with 4 older siblings: Sarah, Hester, John and Mary.  According to the parish information of Trinity Church, New York, Elizabeth’s mom, Hannah, died on September 6 or 7, 1777, on the age of 39. The reason behind demise was recorded as ensuing from Child Bed.  An unidentified sibling of Elizabeth, age 13 months, succumbed to flux and fever a number of days later. Mother and toddler had been each buried at St. George’s Chapel in New York.  At the time of their deaths, Elizabeth was 9 years previous. Her father by no means remarried.
Born in New York City on June 30, 1768, Elizabeth was the youngest daughter  of Lawrence Kortright, a rich service provider, and Hannah (née Aspinwall) Kortright.  Elizabeth Monroe’s paternal 2nd nice grandfather, Cornelius Jansen Kortright, was born in Holland, Netherlands within the yr of 1645, and immigrated to New York within the yr of 1663. His father, Jan Bastiaenson Van Kortrijk, was additionally born in Holland, Netherlands within the yr of 1618 and immigrated together with his son to New York. Jan Bastiaenson’s father, Bastiaen Van Kortrijk, was born within the metropolis of Kortrijk in Flanders, Belgium within the yr of 1586, and immigrated to Holland, Netherlands within the yr of 1615. Elizabeth’s father was one of many founders of the New York Chamber of Commerce. During the Revolutionary War, he was half proprietor of a number of privateers fitted out at New York, and it has additionally been documented that he owned a minimum of 4 slaves.  He bought land tracts in what’s now Delaware County, New York, and from the sale of this land the city of Kortright, New York, was shaped.
Elizabeth Monroe - HISTORY
The Makeup of this Gown:
This gown is made of off-white, damask silk taffeta and has an overskirt made of straight panels. Additionally, the overskirt is made of a cartridge pleated to a muslim waistband that opens in the front. The petticoat is also constructed of straight panels that have slits in the side seams that date to the 1700s. This historic gown is embroidered with various shades of red, pink, yellow, green. 1
Period of Influence:
This gown was influenced by the Georgian Period (1714-1790) because by looking at the images of it on a mannequin one can see the conical shape of the dress with the emphasis on the hips. Also, one can determine that it was made in the Late Georgian Period (1780-1790) because there is not a stomacher due to the fact that the bodice of the dress is closed.
This gown was in the Monroe family for a long time. In fact, when the descendants of James and Elizabeth Monroe gave it to the museum they were under the impression that it was Elizabeth Monroe’s wedding gown. This dress would have been a typical wedding dress because when Elizabeth Monroe was married wedding dresses were not traditionally white. 2
According to conservators that the James Monroe Museum hired for the restoration of the Monroe Costume Collection the fabric used to make this dress would have been incredibly expensive for the 18th century. Therefore it is assumed that the gown was made for an important purpose. 3 However, it is important to note that Kortright’s, Elizabeth’s family, was considered to be an “old New York Family.” 4 On her paternal side, her family descended from Jan van Kortryk, a Flemish immigrant from Leerdam, Holland, who arrived in New York in 1663. 5 Based on Elizabeth Monroe’s dresses we can start to understand that the Kortright family was a prominent and socially well-connected family, which is important in understanding why Elizabeth Monore would have a dress like this one.
Additionally, when this historic dress was being assessed, conservators determined that while the dress itself dates to about 1776 the fabric actually dates to 1750. Since the fabric was purchased in the 1750s it meant that the fabric was purchased for Elizabeth’s mother, Hannah Kortright. Through this investigation, the conservator determined that the oldest seams and stitching on this gown are 1786. While the most recent seams date to the 1840s, which suggests that this gown may have been altered for the youngest Monroe daughter, Maria Monore Gouverneur. If that’s the case then “the fabric and the gown together represent at least three generations.” 6
Elizabeth Monroe First Spouse $10 Gold Coin First Lady, 1817–1825
Elizabeth Kortright was born in New York City in 1768 and married James Monroe at age 17. The family made their home in Virginia, but spent several years overseas while James Madison served as U.S. Foreign Minister to Great Britain, France, and Spain. She became a popular figure in France, where she was affectionately called la belle Americane because of her beauty and style.
Her time spent in European diplomatic circles influenced her sense of proper protocol for the White House, to which she brought a European stateliness and formality. Their youngest daughter, Maria, was the first presidential child to be married in the White House, in a small, private ceremony. When Elizabeth and James Monroe left the White House, they returned to Oak Hill, the family estate in Virginia, where she lived for the remainder of her life.
A European Touch at the White House
The Monroes eventually moved back to Virginia, and then to Washington, DC, in 1811, when James was appointed secretary of state by President Madison. Monroe was elected president in 1817, making Elizabeth the nation&rsquos fifth First Lady. Elizabeth, who remained interested in European customs and manners, altered the White House hosting customs to reflect more of the European hosting style during her time in the White House. She even went back to Europe numerous times to travel through London and Paris.
Flashback EXTRA! EXTRA! Read More About It!
When I first went to the library to research this piece about James Monroe, who became president 200 years ago this March, I found two biographies on the shelf — fewer than for lesser-known executives such as Martin Van Buren or James Knox Polk. The perplexed librarian went downstairs to fetch older books. She observed, “He must’ve fallen out of favor.”
In the spring of 2016, some big news came out of the Monroe estate near Charlottesville, Highland (previously known as Ash Lawn-Highland). Monroe’s alma mater, the College of William and Mary, owns the modest two-room cottage in which somehow the Monroes were supposed to have lived. Recent archaeology yielded quite a different story.
Excavations at James Monroe's Albemarle County home, Highland, revealed this past summer the foundation of the structure where he lived. (Larry Bouterie Photography)
As Charlottesville-based journalist Hawes Spencer wrote for the New York Times, excavation revealed “a fieldstone foundation for a much larger house with a footprint of about 74 by 30 feet. Tours have been revised to reflect the discovery that the humble cottage was, in fact, merely a guesthouse — and Monroe’s actual home, a mansion, had probably burned down after he sold the property.”
Monroe somewhat facetiously referred to his house as a “cabin-castle,” and that description caused historians to think that the little place was just that. That one was built about 20 years after the main Monroe house that no longer stands. Monroe kept ownership of Highland until he moved to Oak Hill in 1826. The article quotes William Hosley, a Connecticut-based house museum consultant, calling the findings an “occupational hazard” of preserving historic sites. “They’re all works in progress. You’ve got to play the cards you’ve got.” As goes archaeology, so goes the founding of nations.
Meanwhile, at the University of Mary Washington, the ongoing Papers of James Monroe project is steadily working toward publishing a 10-volume collection of selected letters and papers by Monroe. Five have already hit the shelves they include pieces written from Valley Forge during the winter of 1777 and forward through his 1811 appointment as secretary of state. Volume Six, coming out in 2017, comprises materials from 1811 to 1813, with correspondence from the War of 1812 and Monroe’s cabinet positions as secretary of state and secretary of war. You can delve into this endeavor here.
When his Revolutionary War service ended, Monroe “assumed more public posts than any American in history: state legislator, U.S. congressman, U.S. senator, ambassador to France and Britain, minister to Spain, four-term governor of Virginia, U.S. secretary of state, U.S. secretary of war, and, finally, America’s fifth president, for two successive terms,” writes Harlow Giles Unger in “The Last Founding Father” (2009).
James Monroe and his wife, Elizabeth Kortright Monroe. James' portrait was completed around 1820 by Samuel F.B. Morse, renowned for his development of the telegraph and co-inventor of its language, Morse Code. The painting is in the White House collection today and hangs in the Blue Room (Wikimedia Commons). Elizabeth's portrait is by Eben F. Comens after John Vanderlyn, 1816 or 1820. (Wikipedia)
A Little-known Love Story
Unger describes the untrendy Monroe as “dressed in outmoded knee breeches and buckled shoes, protecting the fragile structure of republican government from disunion.” In contrast to Monroe’s unassuming appearance, his wife, Elizabeth Kortwright Monroe, was admired for her elegance and style.
Unger calls the courtship of James and “stunningly beautiful” Elizabeth, “one of the great — yet little-known — love stories in early American history. All but unknown to most Americans, Elizabeth Monroe was America’s most beautiful and most courageous first lady.”
She twice crossed the Atlantic on sailing ships with her children to join Monroe on his ambassadorial duties. During the Reign of Terror in the French Revolution, Unger writes, “she braved Paris mobs by herself to free [the Marquis] de Lafayette’s wife from prison and the guillotine. A New York sophisticate with exquisite tastes, Elizabeth Monroe filled the White House with priceless French and American furnishings and set standards of elegance that transformed it into the glittering showplace it remains today. The wedding of the younger Monroe daughter was the first ever held in the White House.” When Louisa Adams, John Quincy’s wife, reflected on Elizabeth Monroe, she compared her “dress and demeanor to those of a goddess.” Yet, her taste for finer things and her ability to seem younger than her years provoked gossip and smears borne from envy disguised as republican ire.
Though only in her 40s when the Monroes moved to Washington, Elizabeth grew afflicted by severe rheumatoid arthritis. She also never recovered emotionally from the loss of their second child, James Spence, who lived only from 1799 to 1801. Yet to stand at her husband’s side and represent them at formal occasions, Unger writes, “She often ignored the pain and stood poised, stately and as beautiful as ever in her magnificent gowns.” She didn’t like large crowds but exuded charm when at the center of a small circle of friends or visitors. In that respect, she was unlike her social butterfly friend Dolley Madison. If you’d like to go down a James and Elizabeth rabbit hole, via C-SPAN, and you should, click here.
When Elizabeth felt too indisposed to receive guests, her place was taken by her first-born daughter, Eliza Monroe Hay. Had Elizabeth dined with ambassadors at one particular occasion, a brawl might’ve been avoided.
This came during an official dinner at the White House. Writes biographer William P. Cresson, “According to a report of a New York representative, dinner parties at the Monroes’, which Mrs. Monroe seldom attended and to which, as a consequence, the wives of guests were rarely invited, were exceptionally dull.” At one such dinner, the guests were British minister Sir Charles Vaughan who was seated opposite his French counterpart, Count de Sérurier. When Vaughan made a remark, he noticed that the Frenchman bit his thumb, and this happened not just once, but a few times, until the gesture annoyed Vaughan enough for him to ask, “Do you bite your thumb at me, sir?” It’s a line right out of Shakespeare, and a gesture intended to start a fight.
The count replied, “I guess I do.”
The ministers stood from the table, and when Monroe went to follow them, he found the two in the next room with their swords crossed. The president drew his sword and swatted theirs apart. The demonstration of executive privilege defused the immediate tension. Monroe instructed servants to show the gentlemen out and called for their carriages. “The dinner was resumed,” Cresson describes, “and both miscreants sent their apologies the following morning.”
Money Troubles, Failing Health
Monroe’s second term began with such unanimity that no one ran against him. But this sense of harmonious relations didn’t last long. The speaker of the House – Hanover County native Henry Clay — wrote to Secretary of State John Quincy Adams that Monroe had “not the slightest influence in Congress. His career was considered as closed. There was nothing further to be expected of him or from him.” As author and former U.S. Sen. Gary Hart observes, “personal rivalries and sectional quarrels erupted to replace the deep philosophical divisions produced by the founding era.” An economic bust, replete with bank closures, defaults and evaporating property values, led to federal budget cutting.
Monroe’s personal money problems started even before he became president. A lifetime of public service financially ruined him. He was forced to sell his Highland plantation before leaving the presidency. In his later years, Monroe contended with growing infirmities, as did his wife. He once fell from his horse and was left on the ground 20 minutes before a neighbor found him. Elizabeth suffered a seizure and collapsed into a fireplace.
He declined another term as governor but accepted a delegate seat to the 1829 Virginia state constitutional convention – an opportunity to connect again with James Madison and his boyhood friend and Valley Forge bunkmate, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall. He accepted chairmanship, but his illness forced him home to the Oak Hill estate in Loudoun County. He felt well enough by spring to resume horse riding and writing his autobiography, but the summer heat caused the collapse both of his son-in-law George Hay and Elizabeth. She died Sept. 23, 1830. Her passing drove Monroe into grief-stricken hysterics. He couldn’t sustain Oak Hill in his state of health and financial condition and thus moved in with his youngest daughter and son-in-law in New York City. There, he began a severe decline. The memoir went uncompleted.
Return to Virginia
Upon his death in New York City on July 4, 1831, his body was interred in that city's Marble (Second Street) Cemetery. In 1858, the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Commonwealth of Virginia decided that the remains should return home. The state legislature appropriated funds for this purpose. The directors of the barely decade-old Hollywood Cemetery were enthusiastic about receiving their first celebrity, even if pre-buried.
In a somewhat gruesome ritual of honor that Victorian-Americans seemed fond of, the exhumed body of President Monroe lay in state at the Church of the Annunciation on West 14th Street. The inner lead coffin was slid inside a new mahogany casket. He remains the only president to be laid out for public view long after his demise. Some 10,000 people shuffled past the pall and flag-draped coffin before transportation aboard the steamboat Jamestown.
The funereal party, including the 7th Regiment of the New York National Guard, arrived in Richmond on July 5. A ceremony of parades and pomp wended from Rocketts Landing past great crowds and at the gravesite, gun salutes and much speechifying including by Gov. Henry A. Wise.
Key Facts & Information
- Elizabeth’s maiden name was Elizabeth Jane Kortright.
- She was born on June 30, 1768, at New York City, New York, British America.
- She died at the age of 62, on September 23, 1830 in Oak Hill, Virginia, U.S.
- Elizabeth Jane Kortright married James Monroe in 1786.
- They had three children. Eliza Monroe was the eldest.
- Elizabeth’s father was Lawrence Kortright.
- He was born on November 27, 1928.
- He worked as a merchant in New York.
- He died in September of 1794.
- He was one of the founders of the New York Chamber of Commerce.
- Elizabeth’s mother was Hannah Aspinwall.
- She was born around 1729-1730 in New York City.
- She married Lawrence on May 6, 1755, at Trinity Church, New York.
She died in 1777.
- Elizabeth Monroe had four siblings, consisting of three sisters and a brother.
- The birth order of Elizabeth’s siblings are unknown they were Hester Kortright Gouverneur, Mary Kortright Knox, Sarah Kortright Heyliger, and John Kortright.
EARLY LIFE AND EARLY TRAGEDIES
- Elizabeth was raised by her paternal grandmother to be an elegant and elite child.
- Her grandmother taught her social graces.
- However, there are no known records of Elizabeth’s educational background.
- Hannah, Elizabeth’s mother, died due to puerperal infections or Child Bed, a bacterial infection that could be acquired after childbirth.
- Various sources indicate that Elizabeth’s mother died on September 6 or 7, 1777.
- Hannah was 39 at the time of her death.
- Subsequently, an unnamed sibling of Elizabeth, 13 months of age, died due to fever, and was buried beside Hannah.
- These tragic events happened when Elizabeth was only nine years old.
- After Hannah’s death, Lawrence never remarried.
- Their home was almost destroyed by fire on August 3, 1778, as a blaze happened to destroy fifty homes in lower Manhattan.
- The fire resulted from a mismanagement of the British troops while directing the firefighters.
- Fortunately, the Kortright family survived the fire.
ELIZABETH AND JAMES
- Elizabeth and James met in New York, 1785.
- James Monroe was serving as a member of the Continental Congress when he met Elizabeth.
- Elizabeth was only seventeen when she married James, who was 26 at the time. They wed on February 16, 1786.
- The wedding ceremony was performed by Reverend Benjamin Moore, in Trinity Church, New York.
- Elizabeth and James honeymooned on Long Island, and returned to New York after.
- Elizabeth lived with her father until Congress adjourned.
LIFE AFTER MARRIAGE
- Monroe was elected to the Senate in 1790 he had to move to the new temporary capital city of Philadelphia.
- While James was in Philadelphia, Elizabeth spent most of her time with her sisters in New York.
- Monroe was assigned as U.S. Minister to France, so the Monroe family relocated to Paris. Elizabeth thrived and became fond of the place.
- Elizabeth made a name during the later days of the French Revolution, as she visited Adrienne de Noailles de Lafayette, a political prisoner at the time.
- Adrienne was the wife of Marquis de Lafayette, a great personal friend of George Washington. He was France’s most prominent supporter of American independence.
- The Monroes had to return to Virginia after hosting the freed Thomas Paine.
- James Monroe became Governor of Virginia from 1799 until 1803.
- Elizabeth commuted between Richmond and Charlottesville.
- It was this time that she developed health problems.
- James Monroe was sent to France during the Jefferson Administration, so Elizabeth managed to return to Europe from 1803 to 1807 her family lived alternatingly in London and Paris.
- James Monroe served as Secretary of State from 1811 until 1817, and moved with Elizabeth in Washington, D.C.
AS FIRST LADY
- Elizabeth Monroe officially became the First Lady on March 4, 1817, as James Monroe commenced his first term of presidency.
- The inaugural ball happened at Monroe’s private residence on I Street, as the White House underwent reconstruction at the time.
- James Monroe was re-elected to his second term in 1820. Elizabeth hosted the inaugural ball in Brown’s Hotel.
- Elizabeth remained in this position until March 4, 1825.
- After the Monroe Administration, Elizabeth suffered from poor health as her activities centered on her family.
- The Monroes retired to their plantation estate in London County, Virginia.
- Elizabeth died on September 23, 1830, due to health complications.
She was buried at Oak Hill estate.
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January 22, 1795: Elizabeth Monroe rescues Madame de Lafayette from the Guillotine
Life was pretty dicey during the French Revolution for anyone with an aristocratic background, even for the wife of that lover of democracy and liberty, the Marquis de Lafayette.
When James Monroe was named U.S. Minister to France and arrived in Paris, his elegant wife Elizabeth plunged into the social and diplomatic life of the city, but she was shocked to find that Marie Adrienne Françoise de Noailles, Marquise de Lafayette, the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette was being held in prison and could soon face death on the guillotine, the fate which had befell her mother, her sister, and her grandmother.
A diplomatic resolution to the situation seemed unlikely, so one day, leaving her husband behind, Elizabeth Monroe commanded the American Embassy’s carriage to drive her, accompanied only by her servants, to the prison where she asked to see Madame Lafayette. Those who clung to power during these last days of the French Revolution understood that Madame de Lafayette was the wife of a great personal friend of George Washington and many other revolutionary era patriots, and France’s most prominent supporter of American independence, but still….
Elizabeth Monroe’s visit sent as clear a message as could be made unofficially by the U.S. government. Not wishing to offend their ally, the French government acknowledged Elizabeth Monroe’s “unofficial” interest in Adrienne de Lafayette, and released her on January 22, 1795. Without any official provocation, the situation was diffused and France maintained its alliance with the United States.
The French took notice of Elizabeth Monroe. She was bold, a striking beauty, and she possessed a great air of self-confidence. Soon “toute de Paris” was referring to her with affectionate name of “la belle Americaine”.
About this time, the Boston merchant Tom Perkins showed up in Paris. He had sailed to Bordeaux with a cargo of beef and pork hoping to profit from the disruption of agriculture and the danger of famine brought about by the Reign of Terror. He soon fell in with the local American community and dined every Saturday with James and Elizabeth (“one of the finest women I ever knew”) Monroe.
The Monroes introduced Tom to the newly free Adrienne Lafayette (the Marquis was still in prison in Austria). Madame Lafayette wanted desperately to get her thirteen-year-old son George Washington Lafayette out of the country and to the United States where she hoped that the boy’s godfather, President George Washington, would take care of the boy, and Elizabeth Monroe desperately wanted to help her new friend.
Tom Perkins had a ship waiting he secured the necessary travel documents and conveyed the boy, under the family name of Motier, to Le Havre, where he took passage on board the firm’s boat bound for Boston. When the boy arrived in Boston, Tom’s brother James took the young Lafayette under his wing as part of his family, understanding that he would soon travel south to Mount Vernon to live with his Godfather.
President Washington hesitated at first – evidently nervous that it might affect diplomacy with France. Finally “his heart overcame his doubts” and he sent for the boy in the spring of 1796 and George Washington Lafayette joined his godfather’s familty at Mount Vernon.
Editor's Note: Harlow Giles Unger is the author of twenty-eight books, including more than a dozen biographies of America’s Founding Fathers. He adapted this essay for American Heritage from his best-selling book The Last Founding Father: James Monroe and a Nation's Call to Greatness.
“You infernal scoundrel,” Crawford shook his cane menacingly at the president. James Monroe reached for the tongs by the fireplace to defend himself, as Navy Secretary Samuel Southard leaped from his seat and intercepted Crawford, pushing him away from the president’s desk and out the door. It was a terrifying scene: the president — the presidency itself — under attack for the first time in American history.
Twenty years younger than the president, South Carolina’s William H. Crawford had emerged from a new generation of politician — ready to plunge the nation into civil war to promote sectional interests and personal ambitions. Unlike Monroe and the other Founding Fathers, Crawford’s generation had not lived under British rule had not battled or shed blood in the Revolution had not linked arms with men of differing views to lay the foundation of constitutional rule.
Gilbert Stuart's portrait of the 5th president is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
James Monroe was the last of the Founding Fathers — dressed in outmoded knee breeches and buckled shoes, protecting the fragile structure of republican government from disunion. Born and raised on a small Virginia farm, Monroe had fought and bled at Trenton as a youth, suffered the pangs of hunger and the bite of winter at Valley Forge, galloped beside Washington at Monmouth.
And when the Revolution ended, he gave himself to the nation, devoting the next forty years to public service, assuming more public posts than any American in history: state legislator, U.S. congressman, U.S. senator, ambassador to France and Britain, minister to Spain, four-term governor of Virginia, U.S. secretary of state, U.S. secretary of war, and finally, America’s fifth president, for two successive terms.
Recognized by friends and foes alike for his “plain and gentle manners” in the privacy of his home or office, Monroe proved a fearless and bold leader in war and peace. A champion of the Bill of Rights, Monroe fought the secrecy rule in the U.S. Senate, opening the halls of government to the eyes, ears, and voices of the people for the first time in history. As governor of Virginia, Monroe brought education to illiterate children by establishing the first state-supported public schools, and he enriched their parents with a network of publicly built roads that let them speed the products of their labor to market.
Sent to France as George Washington’s minister during the French Revolution, Monroe saved Tom Paine’s life, then risked his life smuggling the Lafayette family out of France. A decade later, as President Jefferson’s minister to France, Monroe engineered the Louisiana Purchase, doubling the size of the United States without firing a shot and extending American territory from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains. As secretary of war in the War of 1812, he all but charged into battle to try to prevent the British from burning the Capitol and the White House.
Elected fifth president of the United States, Monroe transformed a fragile little nation — “a savage wilderness,” as Edmund Burke put it — into “a glorious empire.” Although George Washington had won the nation’s independence, he bequeathed a relatively small country, rent by political factions, beset by foreign enemies, populated by a largely unskilled, unpropertied people, and ruled by oligarchs who controlled most of the nation’s land and wealth.
Washington’s three successors — John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison — were in many ways caretaker presidents who left the nation bankrupt, its people deeply divided, its borders under attack, its capital city in ashes. Monroe took office determined to lead the nation to greatness by making the United States impregnable to foreign attack and ensuring the safety of Americans across the face of the continent. He expanded the nation’s military and naval power, then sent American troops to rip Florida and parts of the West from the Spanish, extending the nation’s borders to the natural defenses of the Rocky Mountains in the West and the rivers, lakes, and oceans of the nation’s other borders.
Secure that they and their families and properties would be safe, Americans streamed westward to claim their share of America, carving farms out of virgin plains, harvesting furs and pelts from superabundant wildlife, culling timber from vast forests, and chiseling ore from rich mountainsides. In an era when land — not money — was wealth, the land rush added six states and scores of towns and villages to the Union and produced the largest redistribution of wealth in the annals of man. Never before had a sovereign state transferred ownership of so much land — and so much political power — to so many people not of noble rank. For with land ownership Americans gained the right to vote, stand for office, and govern themselves, their communities, their states, and their nation.
To ensure the success of the land rush and perpetuate economic growth, Monroe promoted construction of roads, turnpikes, bridges, and canals that linked every region of the nation with outlets to the sea and to shipping routes to other continents. The massive building programs transformed the American wilderness into the most prosperous and productive nation in history, generating enough wealth to convert U.S. government deficits into large surpluses that allowed Monroe to abolish all personal taxes in America.
Monroe’s presidency made poor men rich, turned political allies into friends, and united a divided people as no president had done since Washington. The most beloved president after Washington, Monroe was the only president other than Washington to win reelection unopposed. Political parties dissolved and disappeared. Americans of all political persuasions rallied around him under a single “Star-Spangled Banner.” He created an era never seen before or since in American history — an “Era of Good Feelings” that propelled the nation and its people to greatness.
Secure about America’s military and naval power, Monroe climaxed his presidency — and startled the world — by issuing the most important political manifesto in American history after the Declaration of Independence: the Monroe Doctrine. In it, Monroe unilaterally declared an end to foreign colonization in the New World and warned the Old World that the United States would no longer tolerate foreign incursions in the Americas. In effect, he used diplomatic terms to paraphrase the rattlesnake’s stark warning on the flag of his Virginia regiment in the Revolutionary War: Don’t Tread on Me!
With the Monroe Doctrine, the 5th president unilaterally declared an end to foreign colonization in the New World and warned the Old World that the United States would no longer tolerate foreign incursions in the Americas.
Although fierce in the face of enemies, Monroe hid what one congressman called a “good heart and amiable disposition” behind his stony facial expression. His courtship of the stunningly beautiful Elizabeth Kortright is one of the great — yet little known — love stories in early American history. All but unknown to most Americans, Elizabeth Monroe was America’s most beautiful and most courageous First Lady. All but inseparable from her husband, she traveled with him to France during the Terror of the French Revolution, then braved Paris mobs by herself to free Lafayette’s wife from prison and the guillotine. A New York sophisticate with exquisite taste, Elizabeth Monroe filled the White House with priceless French and American furnishings and set standards of elegance that transformed it into the glittering showplace it remains today. The wedding of the younger Monroe daughter was the first ever held in the White House.
Eventually, James Monroe became a victim of his own patriotism, optimism, and generosity, however. Like his idol George Washington, Monroe ignored the costs of his service to the nation. He refused any pay in the Revolutionary War and later spent tens of thousands of dollars of his own funds to promote the nation’s interests during his years as a diplomat, cabinet officer, and president.
No longer peopled by men of honor, Congress delayed repaying him for so long that he, like Jefferson, had to sell his beautiful Virginia plantation to pay his debtors. Failing health and the death of his beloved wife in 1830 left him a broken man — emotionally and financially. He went to live with his younger daughter in New York City, where he died a year later, all but penniless — a tragic victim of his love of country.
Thirty years after he died, Monroe’s successors — sectarian politicians like South Carolina’s vicious cane-wielding Crawford — rent the nation’s fabric in a Civil War that all but destroyed the governmental masterpiece the Founding Fathers had created. But as the wounds of war healed, Americans could still look to the vast western wilderness that James Monroe had opened for his countrymen to build new homes, new towns, and a new, stronger, united nation.
The spirit of America’s last Founding Father still beckoned to them to join the nation’s march to greatness.