Elizabeth Kortright was the fifth First Lady of the United States, as the wife of the 5th U.S. president, James Monroe. She has a lower profile in the historical record than the four First Ladies who came before her, but her story is an interesting one, nonetheless. If you’ve ever been curious about James Monroe’s wife, or First Ladies in general, then Elizabeth’s tale is one you won’t want to miss.
Elizabeth was born in New York City on June 30, 1768, the youngest child and daughter of Lawrence Kortright and Hannah Aspinwall. Her father was a wealthy merchant and was also one of the founding members of the New York Chamber of Commerce. Lawrence was a co-owner of several pirate ships that sailed out of New York, and also owned at least four slaves. The land he owned in what became Delaware County, New York is now the town of Kortright, New York, named after him.
Elizabeth had four older siblings… sisters Sarah, Hester, and Mary, and a brother named John. She was raised in a wealthy and socially known household, and so was taught the proper social graces at an early age. She was later known for her grace and elegance.
When Elizabeth was nine years old, her mother died of what the parish records record as “child bed,” which means she died giving birth. It is assumed that the child she was birthing also died, as no further siblings are recorded for her. She did have one unknown sibling, however, as a few days after her mother’s death, the parish records mention the death of a 13-month-old infant of her parents’ who is recorded as having died of fever and flux. A name for the infant is not recorded. Elizabeth’s mother and unknown sibling were buried together at St. George’s Chapel in New York City. Her father, Lawrence, never remarried.
The Kortright family still had some hardships ahead of them, as their house was nearly destroyed in a fire a year after the death of Elizabeth’s mother. As many as fifty houses near Cruger’s Wharf in Manhattan were damaged or destroyed in this same fire, the extensive nature of it being caused by British troops mismanaging the firefighters. No one in the Kortright family was hurt or injured in the fire, thankfully.
When Elizabeth was about 17, James Monroe first noticed her. This was while Monroe was in New York City serving as a member of the Continental Congress during the Revolution. Elizabeth and her sisters were at the theater one evening, and, according to Monroe’s cousin, William Grayson, they were all so beautiful, all the men in the other theater boxes left them to come seek out the attention of the lovely, single Kortright sisters.
James was particularly attracted to Elizabeth and asked her to marry him a few months later. They were married early the next year, shortly before Elizabeth turned 18. James Monroe was twenty-seven at the time. The wedding was on February 16, 1786, at Lawrence Kortright’s house in New York City. The Monroes briefly honeymooned on Long Island, then returned to make their home in New York City with Elizabeth’s father. They stayed with Lawrence until the Continental Congress adjourned. They moved to Virginia later that year, where their first child, Eliza Kortright Monroe, was born in December of 1786.
Elizabeth traveled quite a bit with Monroe during the early years of their marriage. After the Revolution, in 1794, Monroe was appointed as US Minister to France by George Washington. The Monroes ended up in Paris at a bad time, during the infamous Reign of Terror during the French Revolution. Elizabeth was instrumental in securing the release from prison of the wife of American Revolutionary hero, the Marquis de Lafayette, and likely saved her from beheading by guillotine by doing so. She and Monroe provided a refuge to American Thomas Paine in Paris after he was arrested for opposing the execution of the French king. Elizabeth’s daughter, Eliza, became friends with Napoleon’s step-daughter, and they received their schooling at the same exclusive school. Because of this association, the entire Monroe family became friends with Napoleon Bonaparte.
After being recalled to the United States, the Monroes went to Virginia, where Monroe was elected governor. Elizabeth gave birth to a son, James Monroe, Jr., there in 1799. He died in 1801. After his birth, Elizabeth had the first of what would become a series of seizures that bothered her the rest of her life. They eventually became so bad, she had to restrict her social activities. The Monroes had a third child during Monroe’s governorship, a daughter named Maria Hester, born in 1802.
Monroe was appointed as US Minister to Great Britain by Thomas Jefferson in 1803, and the family moved once more. Elizabeth did not like English society as much as French society, because there was still a lot of coldness from the British toward the Americans at this time. Monroe was appointed US Ambassador to Spain during this time, though he remained stationed in Great Britain. In 1804, the family was invited personally by Napoleon Bonaparte to attend his coronation in Paris.
The Monroes came back to the United States in 1807, where Monroe was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates, and also began practicing as a lawyer once more. He also served as governor again, then as James Madison’s Secretary of War and Secretary of State during the War of 1812. Elizabeth mostly stayed home in Virginia during this time. When Monroe was elected as President of the United States in 1817, Elizabeth went to the White House with him.
She began her First Lady duties by hosting his inaugural ball at their private residence because the White House was still under reconstruction and repairs from the war. The Monroes even furnished the White House from their own collection, since all of the previous White House furniture had been destroyed in the war. Elizabeth was well-liked as First Lady but was not as popular as her predecessor, Dolley Madison, who had set a standard by which all other First Ladies became measured. Part of Elizabeth’s lesser popularity seems to have been because she, along with her eldest daughter, tried to make access to the White House more exclusive than it had been in the past. This was in keeping with French cultural and social traditions, which she liked, but went against the Democratic nature of the new nation over which her husband now presided. In spite of this, she generally drew favorable reviews for the parties and other social events she hosted, and General Andrew Jackson, who would later become the 7th US president, always asked about her in his letters to Monroe.
In keeping with the traditions of the time, which aimed to respect and protect the privacy of highborn ladies, either Monroe or Elizabeth herself destroyed all of her correspondence between each other and everyone else she ever wrote to sometime before her death. It is because of this tradition that we know so little about Jefferson’s wife, Martha. Fortunately, more records exist about Elizabeth outside of her correspondence, giving us a better picture into her life and who she was as a person than we have about Martha. As a contrast, 2nd First Lady Abigail Adams bucked this tradition and chose to have her correspondence saved and published, so we know much more about her than most other early First Ladies.
After retiring from public life following Monroe’s second term as president, the Monroes sold their plantation in Albermarle County, and moved to the Oak Hill estate in Loudon, to be closer to their daughter, Eliza, and her husband. Elizabeth was suffering from poor health at this point but made a visit to New York City to visit her younger daughter, as well as other friends and relations. She made no more trips after this visit, and her health became even more precarious after she suffered burns after falling near a fireplace during a seizure. She died at Oak Hill on September 23, 1830.
She was originally buried at Oak Hill, but Monroe died the next year in New York while visiting their younger daughter, and was buried there. A quarter-century later, his remains were moved to the new Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia, to become a major attraction there. In 1903, Elizabeth was moved to Hollywood and placed beside him. They are both there together still.