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First Lady Elizabeth Monroe

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First Lady Elizabeth Monroe

Elizabeth, born on June 30th, 1768 to Mr. and Mrs. Kortright, who gave her the name Elizabeth but called her Eliza. 

She was born and raised in the best part of New York City and brought up to know the difference in lifestyle, living with high society; Elizabeth followed the rules of those who walked in her shoes. 

Mr. Kortright, a wealthy merchant in his day, and a British Loyalist, adored his daughter but had second thoughts when his son wore a red coat during the Revolution.  Elizabeth loved New York where she gained the knowledge and attitude of being a snob; she was beautiful, even stunning, long dark hair and flirty eyes, any man would have married her.

Eliza chose James Monroe even after her family told her she was stooping below her lifestyle.  Eliza was not only known as a snob, but a stubborn snob.  She married James Monroe in 1786.  She followed her husband, leaving New York and setting up house in the State of Virginia.  James and Eliza had three children; Eliza, James, and Maria.

James Monroe practiced law in Virginia, and soon became a United States Senator.  During the Washington’s Administration, the President made Monroe the Minister of France.  People who knew Mrs. Monroe knew leaving for France, living in France, would only make her fall into the right class of people.  They remained in France long enough for their first daughter, Eliza, to experience a French education.  Eliza or her mother wanted to return to the States but they did in 1797.

Elizabeth-MonroeIt would be the year, 1797, when James Monroe was elected Governor of Virginia.  Only a few months into office their son James was born but lived only a few months, he died from whooping cough.  During this time mother and daughter kept close ties, so close people remarked Eliza, was exactly like her mother.  People knew Elizabeth was not a person who took to socializing or carrying on a normal conversation.    

When Jefferson, now elected President, gave orders to James Monroe to return to France, it was 1803.  Mrs. Monroe and her daughter Eliza were excited to live in France, and hoped they could remain their forever, and they enjoyed everything about France and stayed there until 1811, when they returned to Virginia. James Monroe once more won the office of Governor.  Five years later, he knew he wanted to be President; it would be his next goal.

It would be Dolly Madison, who Elizabeth followed as First Lady when her husband became President. Dolly, an outgoing individual who loved all people no matter where they lived, and the people loved her.  She received as much attention as the President during her years as First Lady.  It would be a radical change in the White House, with Elizabeth Monroe serving as First Lady.

The President clearly wanted his years as President to be a social event, and he travelled all around the country to meet the people; Elizabeth remained at the White House.  By now, James knew his wife and knew he could never change her, and he understood her temperament.  She never engaged in small talk with anyone, she was never a people person, and being affectionate was not part of her upbringing.  With all the negative many complimented her because of her elegance, and beauty.  Some did the opposite regarding her beauty, complaining about the cost of such expensive clothing.  She brought the French flair for fashion back to the States and into the White House. 

The First Lady made several changes regarding how accessible she would be to the public.  Her plan was to be accessible to her family and extremely close friends.  Gossip travelled through every group in Washington D.C., from the rich to the poor, no one was pleased with the First Lady.  She never returned even one social call.  She told her close friends, “If her husband did not have to travel to see some stranger for a social reason, neither did she.”  She never considered his visits to the States, meeting the people, a social call.

The First Lady also refused to attend formal dinner held at the White House or elsewhere, instead she would send her daughter Eliza to enter the room with their arms linked.  Daughter Eliza appeared to have the same attitude of her mother, and the more she appeared in public with her father, the more people noticed she too was a bit snobbish. 

It was not secret concerning the First Lady, she made a point of letting the public know she had no time for them, but news quickly travelled that Elizabeth Monroe – through the voice of a close friend – suffered from an illness, which began before she moved into the White House. Would this be her excuse and the reason why she was never with the President, or was she ill the public wondered.  As months and years went on this elegantly dressed, charming woman, who captivated so many people in France had disappeared.  

News always travelled by word of mouth, or a letter, and people wondered what the doctors tending to the First Lady diagnosed.  Elizabeth began falling to the ground; called a “falling disease.”  She was not only falling, but she fell asleep at odd intervals during the day.  These conditions would keep anyone home, no matter if home was called the White House.

President Monroe was re-elected in 1820 and he continued to travel and told his people he wanted to get to know his country.  During Monroe’s time occupying the White House and the seat of President,  it wasn’t as people expected, as noted by the famous writer, James Fennimore Cooper, who wrote, “The White House really had nothing to do with the common man, the poor and laboring classes of the community stay away.”

The First Lady never gained the peoples approval, stepping into the limelight behind Dolly was a difficult task.  Monroe’s close friends were the elite, and Dolly invited anyone into her White House, held wild parties, and attended parties whenever she could.  Elizabeth, on the other hand, remained the people’s mystery for eight years in the White House.  She used this mansion as her very own hideout. 

Historians whom write about First Lady Monroe speak about her illness, and never knowing the real diagnosis.  People had their own idea concerning this First Lady; some believed she suffered from arthritis, or even epilepsy; little known facts on diseases known at this early date.  If, it was true and the First Lady suddenly fell, or had a fit (known to be fits during this time.) people tended to stay away from “her kind.”  People thought it might be contagious, and others felt if one had a fit, and falling to the ground, they were out of their mind. If this were the case, it proved to be a good reason why the First Lady remained behind the scenes, alone, away from the public.

President Monroe and his First Lady left the White House in the spring of 1825.  Elizabeth Monroe passed in 1830.  Any formal writing by the First Lady no longer exists; it was burned after her death by her daughter.

First Lady Elizabeth Monroe was last modified: February 23rd, 2013 by Nancy Duci Denofio

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