On this day in history, future President James Monroe weds a 17-year-old New York beauty named Elizabeth Kortright. The 26-year-old Monroe, already a famous revolutionary and practicing lawyer, married not for money, but for love. Elizabeth’s father, once a wealthy privateer, had lost most of his fortune during the Revolutionary War.
The Monroes settled in Virginia and promptly started a family. Elizabeth gave birth to two daughters, Eliza and Marie. A son, James, died in infancy. Elizabeth and the girls followed Monroe to Paris when President George Washington appointed him ambassador to France in 1794. There, he and Elizabeth became enthusiastic Francophiles. Elizabeth, with her sophisticated social graces, adapted easily to European society. The French aristocracy referred to her as la belle americaine.
The violent fallout of the French Revolution marred the Monroes’ sojourn in France. Members of the aristocracy whom the Monroes befriended were increasingly falling prey to the rebels’ guillotine. In 1795, Elizabeth succeeded in obtaining the prison release of the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette, the dashing Frenchman who had served on Washington’s staff during the American Revolution.
When Monroe’s term as ambassador ended in 1796, he brought his family back to America and settled on the Oak Hill plantation in Virginia. For the next 15 years, he shuttled his family between stints in Virginia political office and the occasional foreign appointment. In 1811, Monroe accepted President James Madison’s offer to serve as U.S. secretary of state. Six years later, Monroe himself was elected president.
During their first year in Washington, the Monroes lived in temporary lodgings until the White House, which had been destroyed by the British during the War of 1812, was repaired. As first lady, Elizabeth, usually a very social creature, deferred to her husband’s wishes to minimize White House social events. He and Elizabeth both deplored the opulent displays of the previous first lady, Dolley Madison, preferring more private, stately affairs modeled after European society. The White House social life was also curtailed by Elizabeth’s declining health. Washingtonians, however, mistook the lack of White House social events for snobbery.
Elizabeth died in 1830, only five years after Monroe left the presidency. According to family lore, Monroe, in his grief, burned 40 years’ worth of their intimate correspondence.