Thursday, February 16, 2012

James Monroe's wife Elizabeth Kortright 1768-1830

On this day in history, January 16, 1786, future President James Monroe married a 17-year-old New York beauty named Elizabeth Kortright (1768-1830). She first caught Monroe's attention in 1785, while he was in New York serving as a member of the Continental Congress.

Detail of a Miniature

The 6 ' tall, 26-year-old Monroe, already a famous revolutionary & a practicing lawyer, married not for money, but for love. Elizabeth's father, once a wealthy privateer, had lost most of his fortune during the Revolutionary War. She was the daughter of Lawrence Kortright, an officer in the British army who had made his fortune privateering during the French & Indian War, & his wife Hannah Aspinwall.

James Monroe

After a brief honeymoon out on Long Island, the newlyweds rode back to New York City to live with her father, until the Continental Congress adjourned. The Monroes returned to Virginia, where he had graduated from the College of William & Mary, & promptly started a family.

Elizabeth & the girls followed Monroe to Paris, when President George Washington appointed him ambassador to France in 1794. There, he & Elizabeth became enthusiastic Francophiles. Elizabeth, with her sophisticated social graces, adapted easily to European society. The French aristocracy referred to her as "la belle americaine."

The violent fallout of the French Revolution marred the Monroes' sojourn in France. Members of the aristocracy whom the Monroes befriended were increasingly falling prey to the rebels' guillotine. In 1795, Elizabeth succeeded in obtaining the prison release of the wife of the Marquis de Lafayette, the dashing Frenchman who had served on Washington's staff during the American Revolution.

Elizabeth Monroe by John Vanderlyn

When Monroe's term as ambassador ended in 1796, he brought his family back to America & settled on the Oak Hill plantation in Virginia. For the next 15 years, he shuttled his family between stints in Virginia political office & the occasional foreign appointment. In 1811, Monroe accepted President James Madison's offer to serve as U.S. secretary of state. Six years later, Monroe himself was elected president from 1817-1825.

During their 1st year in Washington, the Monroes lived in temporary lodgings until the White House, which had been destroyed by the British during the War of 1812, was repaired. As first lady, Elizabeth, usually very social, deferred to her husband's wishes to minimize White House social events. He & Elizabeth both deplored the opulent displays of the previous first lady, Dolley Madison, preferring more private, stately affairs modeled after European society. The White House social life was also curtailed by Elizabeth's declining health. Washingtonians, worrying about being seen with the powerful even back then, mistook the lack of White House social events for snobbery.

James Monroe by Gilbert Stuart

Just after he assumed off, in June 1817, President Monroe embarked on a "Goodwill Tour" of the United States. Paying expenses out of his own pocket, the new president was greeted by cheering crowds & treated to celebratory picnics, dinners, & receptions in every city he visited. After touring New York, Philadelphia, & Baltimore, Monroe stopped in Boston, where a newspaper hailed his visit as the beginning of an “ERA OF GOOD FEELINGS.” Despite this phrase, while in the White House, the Monroes endured the depression called the  Panic of 1819 & a fierce national debate over the admission of the Missouri Territory. Monroe is most noted for his proclamation of the Monroe Doctrine in 1823, which stated that the United States would not tolerate further European intervention in the Americas.

James Monroe, painted by Rembrandt Peale about 1824-1825

To add to James Monroe's woes, his beloved Elizabeth died in 1830, at the age of 62. According to the family, Monroe burned 40 years' worth of their intimate correspondence. Upon Elizabeth's death in 1830, Monroe moved to New York City, to live with his daughter Maria Hester Monroe Gouverneur who had married Samuel L. Gouverneur in the White House.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Charity Worker Isabella Marshall Graham 1742-1814

Isabella Marshall Graham, (1742-1814), teacher & early charitable worker, the daughter of John & Janet (Hamilton) Marshall, was born in Lanarkshire, Scotland, & grew up on an estate at Eldersley near Paisley. Her father, a landowner, raised Isabella & her brother in comfort, & a legacy from her grandfather, spent at her own request on a “finished education,” enabled her to attend the boarding school of Mrs. Betty Morehead for 7 years. The family was known for piety, in the stern tradition of Scottish Presbyterian Calvinism, & the child early manifested a religious interest. At 17, she became a communicant of the Church of Scotland under the ministry of Dr. John Witherspoon, later president of the College of New Jersey (Princeton).

Isabella Marshal Graham from the Library of Congress

She was married in 1765 to Dr. John Graham of Paisley, a widower & a “gentleman of liberal education, & of respectable standing.” Planning to settle in America, they went 2 years later to Canada, where Graham was physician to a British army regiment, the Royal Montreal, & Fort Niagara. They left behind in Scotland an infant son who died within the year; in North America their other 4 children were born: Jessie, (Mrs. Hay Robinson), Joanna Graham Bethune, Isabella (Mrs. Andrew Smith), & John. Mrs. Graham enjoyed life at Fort Niagara, although she found the soldiers’ irreligion appalling. Her own faith enabled her to accept with devout resignation the death of her husband in Antigua, where they had recently been transferred in 1773, just before the birth of her 5 child.

Left almost penniless, Mrs. Graham returned to her father in Scotland, only to find that he, too, was in need. For 3 years she lived in a thatched cottage at Cartside, in such poverty that she sometimes had only porridge & potatoes to eat. Unable to support her father & children on her meager widow’s pension, she opened a small school in Paisley. Around 1780, on the invitation of some “”friends of religion,” she founded a boarding school for young ladies in Edinburgh. In this improved situation she was able to indulge in charity, becoming “ingenious in contrivances to do good.” She used some of her income from tuitions to help people in small businesses, taking payment in their manufactured articles; she served as almoner for her friend Lady Glenorchy, a philanthropist & a patron of the school; & she organized a mutual-benefit Society for the Relief of the Destitute Sick.

David F. Bloom, ed. Memoirs of Eminently Pious Women of Britain and America (Hartford, 1833), detail

Her desire to return to America, which she thought “the country where the Church of Christ would eventually flourish,” was encouraged by Dr. Witherspoon & “many respectable persons” of New York. In 1789, she came to New York City with her daughters & established a girls’ school that soon had more than 50 students & a distinguished list of patrons. Uniting with the Cedar Street Scotch Presbyterian Church, Mrs. Graham moved in a congenial religious & social climate. Her daughters all married New York merchants; once they were comfortably settled she retired from teaching, lived with one or another of them, & devoted herself to philanthropy.

In 1797, Mrs. Graham joined with her daughter Joanna & her friends Sarah (Ogden) Hoffman (1742-1821) & Elizabeth Bayley Seton in organizing the Society for the Relief of Poor Widows with Small Children-one of the earliest charitable associations in the United States & one of the first instances of women taking organized action on their own. Mrs. Graham was chosen “First Directress”, or head of the society, & for then years she supervised its board of managers, each member of which was responsible for visiting in one district. Under her frugal management the society aided 98 widows with 223 children during the winter of 1797-98, & the number increased during the years following. With funds raised by subscription &, after 1802, when the society was given a New York State charter, with money from legislative grants, they purchased food & distributed it to needs widows; in unusual cases they gave direct financial relief. The society also sought employment for the widows. Buying a house for the purpose, Mrs. Graham & her associated took orders for needlework, & during the winter of 1807-08, when work was scarce, they gave out flax & spinning wheels, & paid for the product. They engaged widows to teach schools in different parts of the city; some of Mrs. Graham’s former pupils, under her supervision, conducted a school for the widows’ children. The society also opened two Sabbath schools for the instruction of adults, one of which Mrs. Graham herself taught.

When her daughter Joanna Bethune organized the Orphan Asylum Society in 1806, Mrs. Graham presided over the founding meeting & in 1810, became a trustee. With her daughter she taught for a time at the asylum’s school, & she gave regular religious instruction at the school as well as to children in the public almshouse. With her friend Mrs. Hoffman she regularly visited needy families, helping them with her own money & with religious encouragement; often she would be away from home all day on various charitable missions. All kinds of destitute & unfortunate women came under her care. She called on female inmates of the Lunatic Asylum & sick women prisoners & served as president of the Ladies Board of the Magdalen Society form its organization in 1811, until her death. In her final year, at 71, she established an adult school for young people working in factories, which met on Sundays, & presided over the organization of her daughter’s society for establishing a female House of Industry to provide employment for needy women.

No longer strong enough for extensive visiting, Mrs. Graham spent much of her last 2 years in prayer & meditation. She died of “cholera morbus” in New York City at the home of her son-in-law Divie Bethune. A biography, The Power of Faith: Exemplified in the Life and Writings of the Late Mrs. Isasbella Graham, of New York (1816), published by the Bethunes, was widely circulated here & in Great Britain, with more than 50,000 copies printed in the United States before 1852 (Sarah J. Hale, Woman’s Record, 2nd ed., 1855, pp. 331-32). The widest circulation was in American Tract Society editions. In the text, her daughter & son-in-law recall her early efforts to encourage industry among the female poor:

“In the winter 1807-8, when the suspension of commerce by the embargo, rendered the situation of the poor more destitute than ever, Mrs. Graham adopted a plan best calculated in her view to detect the idle applicant for charity, & at the same time to furnish employment for the more worthy amongst the female poor. She purchased flax, & lent wheels, where applicants had none. Such as were industrious, took the work with thankfulness, and were paid for it; those who were beggars by profession, never kept their word to return for the flax or the wheel.” (p. 59)