Year
1786

James Monroe marries Elizabeth Kortright

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.

ALSO ON THIS DAY

The most daring act of the age

During the First Barbary War, U.S. Lieutenant Stephen Decatur leads a military mission that famed British Admiral Horatio Nelson calls the “most daring act of the age.” In June 1801, President Thomas Jefferson ordered U.S. Navy vessels to the Mediterranean Sea in protest of ...read more

Castro sworn in

On February 16, 1959, Fidel Castro is sworn in as prime minister of Cuba after leading a guerrilla campaign that forced right-wing dictator Fulgencio Batista into exile. Castro, who became commander in chief of Cuba’s armed forces after Batista was ousted on January 1, replaced ...read more

Archaeologist opens tomb of King Tut

On this day in 1923, in Thebes, Egypt, English archaeologist Howard Carter enters the sealed burial chamber of the ancient Egyptian ruler King Tutankhamen. Because the ancient Egyptians saw their pharaohs as gods, they carefully preserved their bodies after death, burying them in ...read more

Tet Offensive results in many new refugees

U.S. officials report that, in addition to the 800,000 people listed as refugees prior to January 30, the fighting during the Tet Offensive has created 350,000 new refugees. The communist attack known as the Tet Offensive had begun at dawn on January 31, the first day of the Tet ...read more

Silver dollars made legal

Strongly supported by western mining interests and farmers, the Bland-Allison Act—which provided for a return to the minting of silver coins—becomes the law of the land. The strife and controversy surrounding the coinage of silver is difficult for most modern Americans to ...read more

Brush fires ravage South Australia

Brush fires rage across South Australia on this day in 1983, burning thousands of acres, killing 75 people and injuring another 800. There were 24 major fires in total across the region, in addition to scores of smaller ones. The summer of 1982-83 had been extremely hot and dry ...read more

John Wesley Hardin is pardoned

Infamous gunslinger John Wesley Hardin is pardoned after spending 15 years in a Texas prison for murder. Hardin, who was reputed to have shot and killed a man just for snoring, was 41 years old at the time of his release. Hardin probably killed in excess of 40 people during a ...read more

Capture of Fort Donelson

On this day in 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant finishes a spectacular campaign by capturing Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in Tennessee. This battle came10 days after Grant’s capture of Fort Henry, just10 miles to the west on the Tennessee River, and opened the way for ...read more

Joseph Stalin attacks the United Nations

In a statement focusing on the situation in Korea, Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin charges that the United Nations has become “a weapon of aggressive war.” He also suggested that although a world war was not inevitable “at the present time,” “warmongers” in the West might trigger ...read more

Russians capture Erzerum

After five days of intense fighting, the Russian army defeats the Third Turkish Army to capture Erzerum, a largely Armenian city in the Ottoman province of Anatolia, on this day in 1916. The Central Powers considered Turkey, which entered World War I in November 1914, a valuable ...read more

Bataan recaptured

On this day, the Bataan Peninsula in the Philippines is occupied by American troops, almost three years after the devastating and infamous Bataan Death March. On April 3, 1942, the Japanese infantry staged a major offensive against Allied troops in Bataan, the peninsula guarding ...read more