Documenting a First Lady

This post is the second in the series “Documenting a First Lady”

When discussing First Lady Elizabeth Monroe and the paucity of her written record, the immediate follow-on question is nearly always “How many of her letters have survived?” Quantifying the documentary record of any historic figure relies heavily on semantics – specifically, what counts as a letter? As a document? Which are being considered? In this case, Mrs. Monroe’s written records fall primarily into two categories: correspondence in which she is either the author or recipient, and documents written in her hand but that are not necessarily intended to be communicative, such as mortgages or transaction records, or instances where she assisted her husband in copying out his letters.


Elizabeth Monroe’s signature on a letter to her friend, Margaret Stone (James Monroe Museum)

By limiting the parameters to items where she is either author or recipient, rather than amanuensis or signatory, staff at the Papers of James Monroe are currently aware of six letters.  These include three documents that she authored – a letter written to a friend during the early years of her marriage, another to James Monroe during a time of turmoil in her extended family, and the recently identified note held by the College of William & Mary, written in 1815.  Three letters addressed to her have survived as well, one each from her husband, her son-in-law, and a family acquaintance. She also regularly assisted her husband with his own correspondence by copying out letters for him, an act which preserved additional documents in her handwriting. Several deeds and records of property transactions in which she is named bear her signature and are held in various courthouse records throughout Virginia.


The only known surviving letter to Elizabeth Monroe from her husband, James Monroe, written in 1787 (Library of Congress)

The absence of surviving letters is not to be construed as an absence of activity on Elizabeth’s part.  James Monroe’s letters to his sons-in-law, George Hay and Samuel Gouverneur, reveal a decade of regular correspondence between his wife and their two daughters, in which she relayed everything from recommendations for architectural modifications to a house under construction to queries into the health of her children and grandchildren (a topic which gave her greatest concern).  Mrs. Monroe, one of five children herself, maintained regular contact with her family in New York as well.  Following her death in 1830, Monroe burned the remainder of his wife’s correspondence, in keeping with a consideration of privacy and respect that was common to the era.


An 1811 letter in which Monroe explains that Elizabeth is assisting him in his correspondence by copying the lower portion of the letter, noting to the recipient that this demonstrates the high level of confidentiality which he is maintaining of the contents.

The lack of surviving primary sources forces historians to be circumspect in where and how we find information about this enigmatic First Lady.  Earlier biographical writings often draw from the same narrow field of third-person accounts of her, written by those who only encountered her in brief social settings, and were not a part of her inner circle.  Reliance solely on these types of sources have led to her being variously misclassified as shy, retiring, anti-social, or overwhelmed by the demands of life in Washington, DC.  These writings fail to take into account her upbringing as the daughter of an upper-class Manhattan merchant, her decade abroad in Europe as the wife of a diplomat, and her extensive experience as a politician’s wife, which included Monroe’s four terms as governor of Virginia and six years as secretary of state.  Monroe’s records clearly indicate that he regularly sought out and acted on her observations and opinions, and that the nuanced approach they took redefining the etiquette and formality of the White House was a carefully considered joint undertaking. Correspondence that has more recently come to light give much more intriguing glimpses into her observant, decisive, and independent nature and demand a revision of the earlier narrative of a fragile and retiring First Lady.


Editors at the Papers of James Monroe always maintain the hope that additional documents will be located over time, and allow us to better understand the life and character of Elizabeth Monroe.

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