A Reference Resource
Since few of her personal papers remain in existence, relatively little is known about Elizabeth Kortright Monroe. Most of the information about her comes from other people’s letters and writings. As First Lady, she is probably best remembered for reinstating a more formal style of entertaining in the White House and for adopting the etiquette of European courts.
Elizabeth Kortright was born to a wealthy family in colonial New York. Her father, Lawrence Kortright, was a prominent merchant who lost much of his wealth during the Revolution. She met James Monroe when she was sixteen years old and married him a year later; their marriage, which lasted until her death, was by all accounts a strong partnership.
In 1786, the young couple moved to Fredericksburg, Virginia. The relocation demanded quite an adjustment for Elizabeth, who was raised in the big city of New York, but she adapted to her new life. In 1794, she accompanied her husband to France after President George Washington appointed him minister to that country. The Monroe family had a delicate task: helping the United States be taken seriously as a world power without offending the government in revolutionary France. As such, Elizabeth immersed herself in French culture and life; she learned to speak French, educated herself on the ins and outs of European etiquette, and enrolled her daughter in a French school. She thrilled the French people by adopting their customs, and they, in turn, affectionately referred to her as "la belle americaine."
The Monroes returned to the United States in 1797, and for three years Elizabeth lived in Richmond while her husband served as governor of Virginia. By 1803, however, the couple was back in Europe with Monroe serving as minister to both France and Britain. Although they had friends in London, their time in England was difficult. The British viewed the United States as a political nonentity and thus did not treat Elizabeth and James with the respect usually accorded European diplomats. Both were relieved when the President recalled Monroe and hurried home, risking a winter crossing of the Atlantic Ocean in 1807 rather than waiting until the weather improved in the spring.
From their time in Europe, the Monroes learned that Europeans placed more importance on formal etiquette than Americans. They wanted European diplomats to respect the United States and take it seriously as an international power. Therefore, when she became First Lady in 1817, Elizabeth instituted a more formal protocol in the White House than the Jefferson or Madison administrations had used, knowing that it would be more familiar to European diplomats. Although her changes offended some in Washington society, Elizabeth stood by them.
Elizabeth Monroe often suffered from ill health and could not carry on all her duties as First Lady. As such, she reduced the number of social calls she made and limited the White House social calendar. On many occasions, her daughter Eliza served as White House hostess.
It was hard for Elizabeth to follow Dolley Madison as First Lady. Whereas Dolley was very energetic and outgoing and enjoyed the social demands of the White House, Elizabeth was more introverted and preferred a quieter lifestyle. She was not always at her best in large groups and occasionally came across as being aloof. Still, those who knew her personally commented upon her warmth, beauty, and intelligence.
Elizabeth Monroe was a constant partner to her husband. Despite his frequent travels, she was rarely separated from him for any extended period of time. However, her level of involvement in his career and in politics is far from clear. She did not insert herself into his presidency and seemed to concentrate her energies mostly on domestic matters. In the White House, she developed more formal social customs that future First Ladies followed for years to come.