Sunday, March 25, 2012

Elizabeth Kortright Monroe

Some first ladies are more well known than others. I knew when I started this project there was a possibility that there would not be a biography for each one. I thought that was the case when I first started looking for Elizabeth Monroe. A simple Amazon search and Google search came up empty. I wasn't sure what to do next. After a couple of weeks, I tried an Amazon search again. This time there was a used biography of Mrs. Monroe for $40! That was little more than I was willing to pay. Especially when I looked at the details of the book and discovered the book only contained 35 pages. So I went to the library. There was only one copy of the book in any library in the state. But they were not willing to lend it out. Hmmm. Then my brother suggested that I call Ash-Lawn Highland, the Monroe's home. Jack-pot! I called the gift shop and after yelling my name and address into the phone several times so the kind, but hard-of-hearing volunteer could get my information, the 35 page booklet was in the mail. For only $4!! It came addressed to Rachel Moyer! Close enough!

It turns out that so little has been written on Elizabeth Monroe because so little is known. Her personal papers were destroyed when she died. She was born into a well-known and prominent family in New York and was married to James Monroe when she was 17 and he was 27. James was a Virginia representative to the Continental Congress which met in New York at the time.

One story about Elizabeth stands out which happened when James was minister to France during the French Revolution. The Lafeyettes were considered enemies of the state since he was imprisoned in Austria and Madame Lafayette was imprisoned in France along with the rest of her family. James Monroe wanted to help her out of prison, but could not directly do anything as a foreign minister. So Elizabeth climbed into a beautiful carriage and visited the Madame in prison. When the Madame was summoned from her cell to see her visitor she thought her time had come to be executed since her grandmother, sister, and mother had recently been executed. When she saw Elizabeth was there to visit she "became hysterical with joy!" Elizabeth's attentions swayed public opinion and eventually led to the Madame's release. The Lafayette's were ever grateful to the Monroes.

The people of America were not so kind to Elizabeth when she took on the role of First Lady. Cokie Roberts in her book Ladies Of Liberty comments that Elizabeth's lack of hospitality and calling on others "was the cause of crisis cabinet meetings, summons to the secretary of state, and grousing gossip gaggles."

When she did entertain in the White House, the atmosphere was lofty, formal, and elegant. No longer were the parties a mix of the common people and the upper class. This was a relief to some Washington watchers, but to others this was a loss of the uniqueness of American "court." Elizabeth announced she would be happy to receive calls and visits, but would not make calls, let alone the first call to someone new to town the way Dolley Madison had.  Elizabeth's daughter Eliza would pay some calls, but she was haughty since her French boarding school experience and most people couldn't stand her. Many women were personally offended and angered by this tone of privacy and formality brought to the White House.

In fairness to Elizabeth, she was sick much of the time and could not physically keep up the demands of the social schedule that Dolley Madison had kept. Could ANYONE have kept the schedule Dolley kept? She set the bar so high! After 8 years of Dolley creating the unwritten rules of the role of first lady as the capital itself was being created, anyone following Dolley would be scrutinized in comparison to her. Elizabeth Monroe, unfortunately, was the one to sit in that hot seat.

This is not unlike a pastor's wife. In many churches the congregation expects the pastor's wife to do things a particular way or to fill a particular role. Like the joke of when a congregation goes to hire a new pastor and the number one concern is: does his wife play the piano? And none of these expectations are written down. They just exist in each individual's own assumptions of what a pastor's wife should be like.  Fortunately for me, the congregations I've been a part of have been kind and gracious in allowing me to be myself. Some of my pastor's wife friends have not been so fortunate. Like Elizabeth, all we can do is be ourselves and do the best with the energy and time we are given. And "whatever we do, work heartily as unto the Lord, not to men" Colossians 3:23.