I remember when I first saw James and Elizabeth Monroe. The tall handsome Virginian and the petite elegant New Yorker made a striking couple. The Monroes lived west of Charlottesville on their first Albemarle farm while they were having their home built here just a few yards from my then slender trunk. They moved in during November, 1799.
Elizabeth Kortright met James Monroe in 1785 while he was serving in the Continental Congress of the Confederation in New York City. William Grayson wrote Monroe that the Kortright sisters “made so brilliant and lovely an appearance” at the theatre that the “genteel” men all left their seats to go pay compliments to them. February 16, 1786 Elizabeth and James married in Trinity Episcopal Church. She was 17; he was 27. Stephen M. Mitchell wrote to his friend William S. Johnson that: “The night after you left us our friend Monro was married & next morning decamp’d for Long Island with the little smiling Venus in his Arms, where they have taken house, to avoid fulsome Complements during their first Transports.”
President Monroe wrote many years later “[Elizabeth] left her state & her family, & became a good Virginian.” Their first daughter Eliza was born in December 1786. Their son, James Spence died when he was 18 months old in September 1800. Their younger daughter Maria Hester was born in April 1802. Elizabeth Monroe made a home for her family in Fredericksburg, Richmond, Philadelphia, Paris, London, and here at Highland in Albemarle County.
When James Monroe became Secretary of State in Madison’s administration the Monroes moved to Washington, D.C. Mrs. Monroe entertained in their home on I Street NW. After having dinner with the Monroes in 1815, the Secretary of the Navy’s wife Mrs. Crowninshield praised the elegant table Mrs. Monroe presented:
The table wider than we have and in the middle a larger, perhaps silver, waiter, with images . . .and vases filled with flowers, which made a very showy appearance as the candles were lighted when we went to the table. The dishes were silver and set round this waiter, the plates were handsome china, the forks silver, and so heavy I could hardly lift them to my mouth, dessert knives silver, and spoons very heavy . . .
When Elizabeth Monroe became First Lady in March 1817, the Monroes furnished the President’s House which had recently been restored after it was torched by the British Royal Marines in 1814. President Monroe and his wife held a dinner or reception every fortnight. Among their guests was Rosalie Stier Calvert, a Belgian aristocrat married to a Maryland planter, George Calvert. They lived at Riversdale Plantation near Bladensburg, MD. Rosalie routinely requested that her sister Isabelle van Havre send dresses, shoes and hats from Paris for her daughters and herself. On March 25, 1819 she wrote to her sister describing an evening at the executive mansion and her hostess:
The other day we went to an extremely splendid state dinner at the President’s House. All the foreign ministers were there. I was seated between the English and Russian ambassadors. Mrs. Monroe gave me the most flattering reception; she does the honors with much grace and dignity. She is a charming woman, much superior to the last President’s wife. She is from one of the better families and received an excellent education. She spent several years in France and in England when Mr. Monroe was Ambassador. Her older daughter, who is married, was educated in Paris and couldn’t be nicer. The younger [daughter] was at School with Caroline [and] returned home last month. She was here [at Riversdale] yesterday to see Caroline. Mrs. Monroe, her daughters, and four or five other Washington women receive their clothes from Paris, but they are not in as good taste as ours.
Elizabeth Kortright Monroe passed away at her final home Oakhill near Leesburg, VA in September 1830 when she was 63 years old. Her husband wrote in his autobiography: “It is a remark, which it would be unpardonable to withold, that it was improbable for any female to have fulfilled all the duties of the partner of such cares, and of a wife and parent, with more attention, delicacy and propriety than she has done.”
Today, guests at Ash Lawn – Highland can see the miniature portrait of Elizabeth painted by Louis Sené in Paris when she was 28. The French people called her “la belle américaine.” Visitors today often comment that she was very pretty, even beautiful. As they exit the house museum they remark on the exact copies of two of her gowns; her pink wedding dress with its low cut bodice and generous pinked ruffles and the gold velvet empire dress which she wore to Napoleon’s coronation. Inevitably, someone says she was so slender, small or tiny and I think . . . “the little smiling venus in his arms.”
Quotes from: James Monroe: An Illustrated History by Daniel Preston
Monroe Family Recipes, Judith E. Kosik, Editor
Mistress of Riversdale the Plantation Letters of Rosalie Stier Calvert 1795-1821, Margaret Law Callcott, Editor