When the battle of Yorktown was won ending the war of independence, many young officers of the continental army turned their attention to finding a wife. Debutants of the New York social season of 1786 were looking for husbands after several seasons when the young officers were occupied with the war and could not marry.
According to several diaries from that season Lieutenant Colonel James Monroe was not thought of as a good match. He was of good family but had lost most of the family wealth due to the ineptitude of a relation he had appointed to manage his affairs while he was away at war.
In the hearts and minds of all the young gentlemen, Elizabeth Kortwright , 17 years old and the daughter of a very wealthy family was the prize of this season. She was beautiful beyond words to describe. Also she was better educated than most of the young men, her father having insisted that his daughters have an education as good or better than a man’s education. She spoke French fluently, she read the classics in the original Latin or Greek and to the astonishment of all, she picked James Monroe as her husband.
What was not known to the world at large at that time was her courage and her strength. They would be discovered later in her life.
James Monroe had been sent to Paris by President Thomas Jefferson several times during his diplomatic career and before his own election to the Presidency. His last appointment was to Paris during the last bloody days of the French Revolution when tens of thousands were being sent to the guillotine at the whim of Danton and Robespierre.
Lafayette was imprisoned in Switzerland. His wife’s parents and siblings had already been executed in Paris and Lafayette’s own wife and children were in prison condemned to the guillotine.
Lafayette had been Monroe’s best friend when Monroe was seriously wounded in the American war of independence. it was Lafayette who bandaged him and nursed him back to health. It could be said that he saved Monroe’s life.
Monroe’s low level diplomatic position did not allow him to officially petition the French Revolutionary government regarding Lafayette. But beautiful Eliza had become the darling of Parisian society. Napoleon himself would later invite her to his coronation. Even in the streets of Paris she was recognized and hailed as the” La Belle Americane”
When the news came of the Lafayette family She ordered her carriage and with her children rode to the gates of the prison. There was always a bloodthirsty crowd there waiting for and sometimes demanding the next to be guillotined. She got out of her carriage and demanded of the warden to free Lafayette’s family and give them to her.
It could have gone either way. She might have saved the Lafayette family or she might have infuriated the crowd with her demand and be ascending the steps to the guillotine herself, perhaps with her own children. She stood and waited. After tense moments the warden returned with the family of Lafayette and gave them to Eliza. The crowd around her carriage was silent and gave her passage.
Meanwhile James Monroe had been in the American Embassy busy forging letters of transit that would allow the Lafayette family to leave France and enter the United States where George Washington would shelter them and meet his godson George Washington de Lafayette for the first time.
The Bad Times
Fortune was not with Elisa in later years. According to those who knew her, her beauty and her youthful look stayed with her all her life, but she had acquired the “falling sickness” as epilepsy was called at that time. The Monroe’s kept this a secret.
While she was first lady for eight years she was disliked by the wives of high government officials because she did not attend social or political events and refused invitations from socially prominent ladies. Because they did not know the reason for her refusals they were offended and some later biographies were not kind to Eliza on these points.
Her seizures became more frequent and consequently she attended fewer and fewer events. Finally a seizure caused her to fall into a blazing fireplace that burned her badly. She had endured her painful years with courage until then. Afterwards there is not much mention of Eliza until her death three years later in 1830. At her death ex President James Monroe went into a deep depression, predicted his own death, and died of sorrow ten months after losing his beloved wife.