James and Elizabeth Monroe had three children, two of whom lived to maturity. (Readers might want to read the two-part article “James Monroe: Last Revolutionary President” published on June 30 and July 7.) A son was born in May 1799 and died on September 28, 1801. The two that lived could not have been more different.
Eliza Monroe, 1787-1835. While her father was in Paris as the U.S. Minister, she attended an exclusive school run by Madame Campan who had been a lady-in-waiting to Marie Antoinette. Eliza was described as appearing a “haughty, pompous socialite quick to remind others of her good breeding and lofty station” in life. In 1808, she married George Hay, a prominent lawyer from Virginia. Hay had served as the prosecutor in Aaron Burr’s trial for treason. When James Monroe ran for President, George Hay was his Virginia campaign chairman. President John Quincy Adams later appointed Hay to a post as a federal judge. Eliza very often served as the official White House hostess due to her mother’s long illness. Eliza created a social controversy by declining to pay social calls on the wives of the diplomatic corps, which had been the custom in prior administrations. This alienated much of Washington society. She caused further social controversy by deciding to keep her sister’s White House marriage ceremony private; only family and close friends were allowed to attend. In spite of her apparent conceit and social aloofness, she earned respect with her selfless and compassionate service to the victims of the fever epidemic that struck Washington during the Monroe Administration. After the deaths of her father and her husband, she moved to Paris, converted to Catholicism, and lived the remainder of her life in a convent. It is thought she died in 1835.
Maria Hester Monroe, 1803-1850. Only fourteen when her father became President, she continued her schooling in Philadelphia and did not move into the White House until 1819. On March 9, 1820, she married Samuel L. Gouverneur, a first cousin. This was the first wedding held in the White House, and was anxiously anticipated by Washington society. There was, therefore, much criticism when the wedding was kept private. Friction between Maria’s husband and her strong-willed sister strained family relations from then on. She and her husband settled in New York City. In 1830, Maria’s mother (living with her husband at Oak Hill in Virginia since her husband’s retirement) suffered a violent seizure and collapsed into the fireplace. She sustained severe burns and died on September 23. After that, James Monroe moved in with Maria and her husband in New York City. He lived with them until his death in 1831. President John Quincy Adams appointed Samuel Gouverneur postmaster of New York City. Maria died at Oak Hill, Virginia, in 1850.
Although neither made a name for themselves on their own, both played an important part in the life of President Monroe. Eliza acted as White House hostess for her ailing mother, and changed some of the social customs of the White House and Washington society. The other looked after President Monroe in his later years, taking him into her home for the last year or so of his life.