ELIZA MONROE HAYDolley Madison so successfully established the prominent stature of an American First Lady that many successors found it difficult to match. For Elizabeth Monroe, the next claimant of the First Lady title, the position was an especial struggle to master.

Elizabeth was the wife of James Monroe, the fifth president of the United States (1817 – 1825). She became enthralled with French culture, etiquette, and customs during her husband’s two tours as American ambassador to Paris. She spoke French, projected an European hauteur, and discontinued Dolley Madison’s practice of returning social calls. Thus, Elizabeth’s stature suffered significantly,in stark contrast with her White House predecessor. Fortunately, in time, Mrs. Monroe’s beauty, charm, and sincerity won over her detractors. Her physical appearance was stunning:  “At an early WH New Year’s reception, a Federalist congressman opined that Mrs. Monroe ‘was the finest looking woman I saw,’ appearing little older than Eliza, her daughter.” (1)

But, Elizabeth possessed neither the health nor the endurance of Dolley Madison. During her adult life, and most notably during her husband’s two-term presidency, she suffered from several medical ailments.  Rheumatoid arthritis was the most troubling. It commenced about age 35 when Monroe  was the Governor of Virginia. It worsened during the Monroe’s1803 transatlantic voyage to France and again in the dampness of England, when her husband was the Ambassador to the Court of Saint James, and it persisted while Elizabeth resided in the White House. Gastrointestinal complaints afflicted this First Lady, especially during the summer of 1820. The final blow to her health was epilepsy which may have been masked when she lived in the nation’s capital. (2)

Who does the job of First Lady when she is incapable? Who fills in as Surrogate First Lady? It is often the daughter of the president. The Monroe’s were blessed with two, Eliza, born in 1787, and Maria Hester, born in 1803 in Paris. (3)  Eliza, the older and dominant daughter, assumed the responsibilities as her mother’s surrogate.

My next post will examine Eliza’s responsibilities as Surrogate First Lady and her success or failure in this role.


  1. Cunningham, Noble E., Jr.: The Presidency of James Monroe (Lawrence KS: The University Press of Kansas, 1996) 139.
  2. Deppisch, Ludwig M: The Health of the First Ladies. Medical Histories from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 2015) 41-4.





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