This post is the first in the series “Documenting a First Lady”
Conditioned as we are to the accessible and often voluminous correspondence of many early Americans, it frequently comes as a surprise to both the public and scholars to find out that there are fewer than a half-dozen surviving documents written by Elizabeth Kortright Monroe. According to their daughter, Eliza Hay, James Monroe burned his wife’s correspondence following her death in 1830. Such an act would not have been considered unusual by their contemporaries, as individuals of this era held a strongly defined sense of what constituted private, rather than public, correspondence. To historians, however, the five letters that currently constitute Elizabeth Monroe’s entire body of correspondence function as a tarnished mirror, allowing only fleeting and incomplete glimpses of this enigmatic First Lady.
For decades, only one letter in her handwriting was known to have survived. Addressed to her friend, Margaret Stone of Maryland, and written from Philadelphia in 1792, it is held in the collections of the James Monroe Museum in Fredericksburg, Virginia. In 2014, staff at the Papers of James Monroe were made aware of the existence of a second letter, which is held in a private collection. This letter, written in 1793 from Elizabeth to James, added a wonderful depth and nuance to her character, highlighting her intelligence, independence, and forthrightness. A recent review of the archives at William & Mary has now revealed a third item, a short note written in 1815.
This note, easily identifiable by her distinctive handwriting, was written during her husband’s tenure as secretary of state under president James Madison. In full, it reads:
Mrs Monroe requests Mr Smith will be so good as send by the
bearer Tom, one hundred Dollars to the account of Mr Monroe.
Saturday January 21th 1815
In the world of documentary editing, where this find has increased the known body of correspondence by 20%, the existence of such a document is significant. While the contents are not deeply illustrative, they add shading and color to the continuously developing portrait of Elizabeth Monroe and the fascinating life that she led.