Elegance in the White House
By Anne Adams
While she attracted admirers for her fashionable presence and youthful appearance, and critics for her imperious pompousness, Mrs. James Monroe came to the White House with a disadvantage. She wasn’t Dolley Madison. After all, her predecessor had been widely regarded and loved for her generous, congenial and lively personality as well as how these qualities were reflected in the way she entertained so anyone who succeeded her would find Dolley a “a tough act to follow.” Yet Elizabeth Monroe didn’t attempt to duplicate Dolley’s ways and because she was exhibited a more formal and continental than American method of entertaining she met with criticism and scorn among Washington society. But through it all, Elizabeth retained her own identity.
Elizabeth Kortright was born in New York in June, 1768, the daughter of a British army officer turned businessman. The Revolutionary war had seriously affected the family fortune but Kortright retained the respect of the business community, and in 1770 he and others formed the New York City Chamber of Commerce.
The family atmosphere of wealth and privilege stamped Elizabeth with what could be called haughtiness, and when she became engaged to James Monroe in 1785 the talk of New York society was speculation as to whether the marriage would work. Monroe was a lawyer from Virginia and came from a respectable but less prosperous family. Like many southern farming families, the Monroes owned their own land but the profits from farming it were often less than the value of the land.
At the time they met Monroe was a member of the Continental Congress in 1785, and he was as unassuming and sociable as Elizabeth was imposing, even at age seventeen. Elizabeth’s family urged the marriage, perhaps because it meant one less person to support on a declining family income, so Elizabeth and Monroe were married in February, 1786. Though there is little record of how Elizabeth was educated she possibly had a private tutor as a child. James on the other hand had attended William and Mary College in Virginia, and when he left college at his father’s death, he joined the American army in the Revolution before he returned home in 1779. He then began studying law with Thomas Jefferson, then Virginia’s governor, and was elected to the Continental Congress in 1783.
After his marriage Monroe began to practice law in Fredericksburg, Virginia, and also continued with his political interests. The next year, in July, 1787 they had their first child, a daughter named Eliza, and the next year Monroe became a member of the Virginia Convention and in 1790 was elected to the Senate. One reason he sought this office was to be able to move to Philadelphia where Elizabeth could visit her family in New York. Then in 1784 Monroe was appointed to be American Minister to Paris, and the family moved to France. That country was in the throes of the French Revolution and before the Monroes arrived the Marquis de Lafayette had been imprisoned. A long time ally of Washington and the new American nation, Lafayette had been a major figure in their struggle for independence, so his imprisonment required a quick and determined response by the new American minister. However, he would have to be careful since he was supposed to be officially neutral and could not be seen to be taking an interest in an internal French matter.
Then Monroe heard that Madame Lafayette was in danger of being executed and decided to try to save her life, but decided that what he couldn’t do, his wife could.
He arranged for a fine carriage, complete with liveried coachmen and footmen to take Elizabeth to visit the prisoner. Crowds gathered as the coach approached the prison, impressed at the elaborate vehicle, since such a symbol of wealth and position could not belong to anyone French at that time of revolution. News of the vehicle’s arrival, along with the identity of its passenger, spread quickly – that it was wife of the American Minister, and she was there on a personal visit to a controversial figure. Unsure of her reception, Elizabeth arrived at the prison for the visit, possibly unaware that Madame Lafayette’s mother and grandmother had just been executed.
Madame Lafayette was brought out of her cell, possibly convinced she too would be soon put to death but to her utter relief she realized that her American friends had not deserted her. It is said that witnesses to the visit were in tears. As she left, Elizabeth made it clear that she would return the next day to visit the prisoner again, a message that impressed and also challenged the guards and the prison officials. For it was thought that Madame Lafayette was due to be executed that same day, and if that happened, then what would be the American reaction if Mrs. Monroe arrived and found her friend had been put to death?
That quandary may have been Monroe’s purpose. For some have speculated that Monroe’s reasoning was his wife’s visit to such a high profile prisoner would attract attention and make it difficult for the French government to justify harming such a prominent person with influential foreign friends. If this was his idea then he succeeded. Conscious of public opinion and the evident American interest, the government succumbed to the pressure and released Madame Lafayette soon after. The public then dubbed Elizabeth as “la belle Americaine.” (the Beautiful American).
Elizabeth and her family grew to admire and emulate the French customs, culture and language during their time in Paris, an influence Elizabeth would long retain. Their daughter Eliza, now eight, attended a fashionable girls’ school and as one author described it: “Here aristocratic little girls developed inflated ideas of their own importance and often became insufferable snobs. Eliza was no exception.” (Presidents’ Wives, Carole Chandler Waldrup, p. 41). One of her classmates was Hortense Eugenie Beauharnis, stepdaughter of Napoleon, and her presence assured royal protection. Hortense, who would eventually be named Queen of Holland, remained a long time friend of Eliza’s.
However, what some considered to be an excessive admiration of the French may have proved detrimental to Monroe’s diplomatic career so he was recalled in December, 1796, and when he returned he found that he met disapproval because some officials felt he had lost his diplomatic neutrality. Now out of government service, Monroe began construction of a home in Virginia, near Monticello, Jefferson’s home. Ash Lawn, as he named the farm, was then the center of many visits from not just Jefferson but also James and Dolley Madison.
In 1799 Monroe was elected Governor of Virginia and served four years and that same year Elizabeth gave birth to their only son who lived but a few months. Monroe’s term as governor was completed in 1803 and since fellow Virginian Thomas Jefferson was then president he decided to use Monroe’s diplomatic skills again in France. Monroe reluctantly accepted the offer since he wanted to serve, but he also knew it would not help them financially. Government service did not pay enough to live well in Europe, and Monroe was still in debt from his previous service. However, he accepted and he and his family arrived in France in April, 1803. Eliza returned to the fashionable girls school and they resumed their former routine in a favorite atmosphere.
Yet Jefferson had a new assignment for Monroe and that concerned the acquisition of a vast tract of land that would become known as the Louisiana Purchase. Napoleon had agreed to sell the land to the U.S and Monroe seized the opportunity to manage the negotiations and thus boost his diplomatic reputation. However, in 1803 Monroe was transferred to London, where Elizabeth and Eliza found it an unpleasantly unhealthy atmosphere and that they missed their French friends. Elizabeth developed rheumatism, which added to her misery, plus the English ladies she called on did not receive her properly. The only bright spot was that she gave birth to Maria Monroe in 1804, and because of the rude response of the English diplomats the family grew closer to each other. When Monroe was transferred to Spain in 1805 they welcomed the change.
However, there Monroe failed in several treaty negotiations and Jefferson called him home. On his return home in 1808 Monroe ran for president against his friend James Madison, but lost and then became Secretary of State and then later Secretary of War in the Madison administration. He was more successful in these positions than he had been as a diplomat, so when he ran again for president in 1816 this time he won.
When the Monroes arrived, as a national capital Washington was a great contrast to the great cities of Europe where Monroe had previously served. It had few paved streets, buildings were run down and ramshackle, in dry weather the dust choked everyone and in wet weather the dust turned into sticky goopy mud. To make matters worse, the Executive Mansion had not yet been repaired since it was burned during the War of 1812, so after the inauguration in March, 1817 Monroe went on a national tour and Elizabeth returned to her Virginia home till the White House was ready for them.
However, when they did return to the President’s House, Elizabeth shocked Washington society by deciding that she would not call on anyone and instead would follow the French custom of remaining at home and receiving Washington society there! Yet though they Washington dames griped and gossiped, they did come to call, partly to see the furniture the Monroe’s had imported from France, some of which had belonged to the late Queen Marie Antoinette. Even after Congress appropriated funds for new furniture, the Monroe’s imported more pieces from France. Along with Elizabeth and James, Eliza and her husband George Hay resided in the White House, along with their little daughter, Hortensia.
For many years the New Year’s Eve reception at the White House was a Washington tradition, and when the Monroes hosted their edition in 1818 it was an open house of sorts to show off the newly renovated White House. Elizabeth received her guests in a $1500 French imported gown, which caused even more tongues to wag. Actually she was a very private person who saw nothing wrong with wearing pretty clothes so she paid no attention to the gossip. The Monroes did host a weekly formal reception for politicos, as well as dinner parties that were known for being dull. Since Elizabeth seldom attended, custom decreed when she did not that no women could be guests. Those who did found it a solemn and joyless occasion, for once their guests arrived, they sat in silence for a few minutes till they entered the State Dining Room, again in silence. Also, Elizabeth and Monroe never attended political dinners outside the White House. However, Elizabeth’s heath was not always the best and when she could not preside, Eliza served as her father’s hostess.
Historians cannot accurately identify the illness that precluded Elizabeth’s White House appearances. It could have been arthritis, and other historians have suggested it was epilepsy or as it was sometimes then called: “the falling disease.” Since this was such a widely misunderstood condition at the time, and would be for many years, it was natural that it was kept very private, particularly in a First Lady. Some commonly believed at the time that it had mental or emotional origins so it could be embarrassing and shameful to those afflicted. Monroe wrote that Elizabeth was prone to “convulsions” and that one time that when she was sitting front of a fireplace she had fallen in and been seriously burned.
Yet if the ladies of Washington society gossiped and criticized Elizabeth they also did not miss out on a chance to visit the First Lady to admire her elegant wardrobe and stylish appearance. Also, because Elizabeth was unusually young looking for her age, there was also speculation as to whether she got some help. Did she look so well because she “rouged”? The application of such makeup was a characteristic of “loose” women but there was conjecture that Elizabeth might do it – a habit she’d picked up in decadent Europe.
Then if Washington society had been displeased with Elizabeth’s lack of calling or speculation that she “rouged” then the wedding of daughter Maria in the White House in 1820 did nothing to boost local admiration for them. Elizabeth and Eliza arranged that the wedding would be in the “New York style” which meant it would be so private only relatives and close friends would be invited. Washington society was aghast! How could the Monroes ignore the fact that this was a first White House wedding and it was their responsibility to open it to the public! Even foreign diplomats got the cold shoulder. When the Russian minister asked Eliza how he might honor her sister as the bride, he was informed he should ignore the event!
At the time there was no presidential expense allowance for entertaining so by 1822 Monroe was $35,000 in debt. Since his salary was only $25,000 he left office in debt and spend many years in seeking reimbursement for his expenses.
Monroe served two terms, and before the end of his second administration he had begun construction of a retirement home in Virginia based on plans drawn by Thomas Jefferson, and under the supervision of James Hoban, who had also built the White House. After the Monroes had retired to their new home, one of their visitors in 1825 was Marquis de Layfayette who brought a fine gift in gratitude for Elizabeth’s part in securing his wife’s release.
From that date till her death, Elizabeth enjoyed retirement, including frequent visits from her children and grandchildren, until her death in September 1830.