Maria Hester Monroe was the first daughter of a President to be married in the White House.
Maria (pronounced Mar-IAH) Hester was born in 1803, seventeen years after her only sibling, Eliza. Due to the difference in their ages, the two were never close.
Also, due to the age difference, Maria was never afforded the aristocratic-style European education that her sister received when her father was serving abroad. The Monroes had returned to America shortly after Maria was born.
Nevertheless, Maria received a fine American education, and was fourteen when her father was elected President. Washington was no novelty to her; Madison cabinet member James Monroe and his family lived in or near the capital for several years, but remained socially remote.
The only likeness of Maria Hester is a conventional head-and-shoulders portrait, which appears to resemble her father. A contemporary account rather uncharitably describes her as “raw boned.” Similar descriptions were said about Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Martha (Patsy), but it alluded to her height, rather than body-build. James Monroe was a tall fellow; Elizabeth Kortright, her mother, was petite.
At seventeen, a common age for marriage in the early nineteenth century, Maria became engaged to marry her cousin Samuel Gouverneur, whose mother was a sister of Elizabeth Monroe. He was twenty one, and serving as a secretary to his Uncle-the-President.
Mother and Sister
James Monroe held a variety of elected and appointed offices during his pre-presidential career. Two decades earlier, he had served as Minister to France during the French Revolution and its aftermath. He took his wife Elizabeth and his little daughter Eliza with him. Then they served in other diplomatic posts on the continent. They were seminal years.
When Eliza was school-aged, she attended a girls’ academy, where she received a superb education – and made a dear friend who she maintained for life: Hortense de Beauharnais, daughter of soon-to-be Empress Josephine, and thus step-daughter of Napoleon. Not long afterwards, Hortense married a younger Bonaparte brother and became Queen of Holland. Longer afterwards, she was known as the mother of Napoleon III.
The Monroes traveled in high level diplomatic circles during a time that etched station, rank, behavior, protocol and manners into the psyches of the Monroe women. Despite their elegant pretensions, once back in the US, they maintained rather secluded lives. Elizabeth Monroe had frail health, always an acceptable excuse for ducking society. Some hinted that she was prone to epileptic seizures. Maybe. Her now married daughter Eliza Hay assumed their social duties.
The Hard Act to Follow
Dolley Madison had been at the social epicenter of Washington for sixteen years. As the wife of the Secretary of State, she had served as a de facto hostess for President Thomas Jefferson. The Madisons also picked up the social slack when the President wanted to duck society.
Of course, when the Madisons occupied the White House for their own two terms, the Divine Mrs. M., who never ducked, set the standard and the place for Washington’s social scene. Even after the War of 1812, when fire damaged the White House to a point where the Madisons never lived there again, they “borrowed” a suitable house, and within a week, Dolley was hosting.
She was quick to pay the first call on newcomers, to invite all levels of “brow,” and entertain both lavishly and informally, setting the tone for a republican social scene. Everybody loved her.
Maria Hester: Wedding Woes
The popular “republican” style of society that Dolley Madison espoused did not set well with the senior Monroe women. Rebuilding and refurbishing the fire-damaged building took the better part of two years, and it was several months into his first term before James Monroe and family (which now included 14 year old Maria Hester) were able to move in.
Believing that their elevation to the country’s highest office was akin to the monarchs of Europe and beyond, Mrs. Monroe and Eliza Hay put an abrupt end to paying or returning calls. In the 19th century (and even into the 20th) paying and receiving calls was vital to the political-social scene. Needless to say, the Monroe women were unpopular with their countrymen and women, and positively loathed by foreign diplomats, who expected high level receptions and courtesies. President Monroe was either unable or unwilling to change that situation.
So when Monroe’s younger daughter’s marriage was announced, all of Washington was agog for the big “do,” after all, the White House does make a nice backdrop for a wedding.
But the imperious thirty-something Eliza Hay let it be known that her sister’s marriage would be strictly a private affair and wedding gifts from non-invitees would not be acknowledged. Not even cabinet members (the “official” family) were invited. In all, only forty invitations were issued. If the distaff side of the Monroe family was unpopular before, by this time they were seriously disliked. Louisa Adams, the wife of Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, commented to her diary, regarding Eliza Hay as “so proud and so mean I scarcely ever met such a compound.”
Making the Best of It
Neither Maria Hester nor her fiance, Samuel Gouverneur were consulted about their wishes. Perhaps because of their youth, they were reluctant to cause trouble and the young couple did pretty much as they were told, but…
President Monroe, perhaps trying to please his daughter and his nephew/secretary, hosted two small receptions during the week following the wedding – but most of “social” Washington (including the diplomats and press) was still not included.
Being young, Maria and Sam naturally wanted to make their wedding a special occasion. Many socially and politically inclined folks in Washington agreed with them, and a series of charming events “in honor of” the new couple were hosted for Mr. and Mrs. Samuel Gouverneur, who were delighted to attend.
Private citizens can invite whoever they like.
Allgor, Catherine – Parlor Politics – University of Virginia Press – 2000
Unger, Harlow Giles – The Last Founding Father – DeCapo Press, 2009
Wead, Doug – All The Presidents’ Children: Triumph and Tragedy in the Lives of America’s First Families – Atria – 2003