The reverse of the coin shows a very attractive and youthful-looking Elizabeth Monroe with the inscription “Reopening the White House in 1818”. There was indeed a large “open house” reception on January 1, 1818 to commemerate the opening of the White House, which had burnt down in 1814- in retaliation for burning down the government buildings in Toronto. The Madisons moved their home to the Octogon Building – which a millionaire let them use as the executive mansion.
Elizabeth wore a very expensive French dress and was accused of wearing too much makeup (“rouging”) because she looked so young for her age.
Elizabeth Kortright was born in 1768 to a well connected and very rich family who sided with the king in the Revolutionary war. She received no formal education, was served by slaves, and never voted. She was the 17 year-old bride of James Monroe, who was then a lawyer.
In 1794, she and James travelled to France, where she enjoyed the French parties. One of her major accomplishments was saving Mrs. Lafayette from the guillotine. The French were into cutting off the heads of their upper class during their French Revolution. Elizabeth went with a few of her servants to the French prison and asked if they could see Madame Lafayette – wife of General Lafayette. When the guards called her name, Mrs. Lafayette thought was being called for her execution. When she saw that it was only for a social visit with Mrs. Monroe – she broke down and wept. When the French saw Madame Lafayette’s reaction they decided to pardon her. Madame Lafayette’s mother and grandmother were not so lucky – they both lost their heads.
When Mrs. Monroe’s husband became president, the Washington Establishment were expecting Mrs Monroe to continue in her partying ways (Dolley Madison also was a partier). Elizabeth became sickly and so she cut way back on her entertaining. One reason Mrs. Monroe may have become so private is that she was having seizures. She had epilepsy which was then called the “falling sickness”. Whenever Elizabeth did appear in public, she was accompanied and protected by a circle of female relatives.
When the Monroes were together as a family, they only spoke French to each other. She liked to have parties European style – with one servant for each guest.
One time, she had a seizure next to the fireplace and got badly burnt.
She died in 1830, five years after her husband stepped down from being president. James Monroe burnt all of their private letters so we don’t know as much about Elizabeth as we would like. She was very beautiful.