Elizabeth Monroe

Posted by Jay Turner, NGC Grader and Attributor, on 3/17/2008

In honor of the latest First Spouse release, Jay Turner reviews the life of Elizabeth Monroe, a little-known first lady due to the loss of her letters and papers.

The First Spouse series, which may have been less popular with collectors than initially anticipated, is seemingly increasing in desirability again — probably due in part to rising metal prices.

The latest addition to the First Spouse coin series features Elizabeth Monroe, a person who many know little about. Elizabeth Monroe first came to political light in 1786 when she married James Monroe, who was serving in the Virginia House of Delegates. James Monroe was later appointed minister to France and Elizabeth went with him to Paris while he served his term. When they arrived, the French Revolution was in full swing and government officials were being put to death at the guillotine. This was a difficult situation for United States officials who had just come off their own successful and bloody revolution and who had allies in the French government that had helped America in their struggle to gain independence. One such French ally was General Lafayette, who fought alongside Americans against the British. His wife was being held and likely would have been put to death had Elizabeth Monroe not gone to the prison and asked to see her. Because of the American interest in the prisoner, Madame Lafayette was freed. Elizabeth and her husband were very popular in France, but he would serve only two years there as minister.

In 1817, James Monroe became the fifth president of the United States and Elizabeth became the first wife. Unlike her predecessor, Dolley Madison, Elizabeth was not as active in fulfilling her responsibilities as first lady, though this is commonly attributed to her declining health. Notably less social than Dolley Madison, Elizabeth would host fewer events and often those events would be private. This was a dramatic shift in White House customs compared to the previous term, during which Dolley fostered an open, welcoming social scene. At the end of the second term of office, Elizabeth and James Monroe retired back to their estate in Virginia and she died there five years later. As Monroe family tradition dictated, her papers and letters were burned after her death and with that, a lot of her historical records were lost.

While Elizabeth Monroe may not be a historical figure that many know or care to study, she does provide a sharp contrast to previous first lady, Dolley Madison, who elevated the position to that of a dignitary. However, due to the destruction of her documents, it will always be unknown what larger part Elizabeth Monroe played in history and what influences she might have had. If this woman of foreign political power went to a prison during a revolution and had the influence to save not just a political prisoner, but the wife of a leader of the opposing side, it is hard to imagine that she did not play a more significant role behind the scenes. It is unknown if her commemorative will be popular or melted with many of the other First Spouse coins as the price of gold continues to climb, but it is worth noting her achievements.

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