Some First Ladies loom very large in American history. We will never forget the likes of Mary Todd Lincoln, Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt or Nancy Reagan; why, I can even think of one First Lady who has her eye on her husband’s old office. But many wives of U.S. Presidents don’t leave much of a mark after they’re gone. Can you even name the wife of James K. Polk, for instance, or maybe Grover Cleveland? Yet these women do exert a major influence on history. How can the person who sleeps with, counsels and shares the daily burdens of the President fail to be a historic figure in her own right, regardless of how “big” her own accomplishments are?
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe, the wife of the 5th President, James Monroe, was by all accounts a very kind, beautiful and charming lady. She was the daughter of a wealthy “old money” family from New York, born shortly before the American Revolution, and in fact her family was at least nominally loyal to the British. She met her future husband James Monroe in 1785 while he was serving with the Continental Congress as a delegate from Virginia. As was typical in the late 18th century, their courtship was very short. Elizabeth, age 17, married James, age 27, in February 1786, and she was pregnant with their first child almost immediately.
It was in Europe where Elizabeth made her mark. James was dispatched as Ambassador to France in 1794, and as a diplomat’s wife Elizabeth rubbed elbows with all the important people in Paris society. Nevertheless it was her daughter who made the acquaintance of one Hortense de Beauharnaise, who was the stepdaughter of an up-and-coming military officer named Napoleon Bonaparte. The friendship between the Monroes and the Bonapartes continued for years. When Napoleon had himself crowned Emperor of France in Notre Dame in December 1804, the Monroes were present as part of the American delegation.
Elizabeth’s influence on her husband’s career was obviously very much behind the scenes. We know surprisingly little about that influence, but she remained a supportive wife throughout James’s steadily rising offices in the new republic. She succeeded Dolley Madison as First Lady when her husband was inaugurated the 5th President in March 1817, but she didn’t go to live in the White House, which was still a ruin from having been burned by the British three years earlier. Elizabeth seems to have been shy and retiring. She was also ill for much of her husband’s two terms, probably with epilepsy. Many of the scant references to Elizabeth in James’s official papers refer to her convalescing or being otherwise unwell.
She lived only a few years after leaving Washington following the conclusion of her husband’s two terms in 1825. Not long after returning home to Virginia, she fell–possibly due to a seizure–in front of a fireplace, her clothes caught fire and she was badly burned over much of her body. She remained ill throughout the next few years, and finally died in September 1830 at the age of 62. Despite being married to the last of the Revolutionary generation to hold power in the United States, Elizabeth Monroe managed to remain a very private individual–which makes her own contributions to history all the more interesting, and difficult, to discern.