Dominant by nature, Eliza Monroe Hay’s social edicts shaped the very nature of her father’s Administration.
This wife and mother, thirty-year old at the time her father James Monroe began his eight-year, two-term presidency in 1817, managed to help worsen an acrimonious situation between the Administration and the representatives of foreign countries into a serious diplomatic crisis.
Like other Presidents before the Civil War such as the two Adamses, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, John Tyler, James Polk, Zachary Taylor, James Monroe invited extended family members to live with him in the White House and named one, his wife’s nephew, to collect the federal salary for the post of land officer while performing the duty of private presidential secretary.
The nephew, Samuel Gouverneur would go on to marry his first cousin Maria and then become the presidential son-in-law.
The First Family also included the President’s eldest daughter Eliza Hay, married to the prominent Virginia attorney George Hay who had also served as prosecutor in the trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr, and their only child, a daughter Hortensia.
During the first six years of her father’s presidency, Eliza Hay’s husband served in the Virginia House of Delegates in Richmond, until moving to Washington in 1822 and going into private law practice.
While Hortensia Hay would come to help her grandfather in organizing his papers before the family vacated the White House before the end of his presidency, her mother was playing a far more public role on behalf of the First Lady, specifically, and the First Family, generally.
The precise nature of the debilitating ailment afflicting Elizabeth Monroe during her husband’s presidency is indeterminable but there are references to her suffering from both severe arthritis and a condition which led to her “falling.” The latter matched certain symptoms of epilepsy. At public events she was described as youthful but always with an entourage of other women relatives, like her daughters, sisters and nieces.
Among these Eliza Hay was the most prominent, an outspoken woman with none of the grace of her mother nor submissiveness with which women of her class and era were often expected to behave. There are scant claims that she substituted for her mother on occasion but most accounts pinpoint her as receiving guests along with her mother yet assuming a role more dominant than the First Lady at social figure.
Although it was an era when the details of a President’s family life were largely considered to be private, his daughter assumed the most overt role among them, acting as a sort of modern equivalence of a spokesperson. She never held press conferences or made formal announcements, but she did make distinct verbal declarations during her interactions with members of Congress, the diplomatic corps and other officials in Washington.
Whereas the President and First Lady had only first gone to Europe as adults to fulfill two assignments of his diplomatic career, most importantly as Minister to France, their eldest child, Eliza, was only eight years old in 1794, when they first lived on the Continent. In 1803, they returned, bringing with them their infant daughter Maria who was sixteen years younger than her sister.
Eliza Hay’s entire outlook was heavily influenced by her French education and friends. She was enrolled at the elite Parisian private school of Madame Campan, the former lady-in-waiting to Queen Marie Antoinette. She also befriended many women of European royal families and would later count Queen of Holland Hortense de Beauharnois and Queen of Naples Caroline Bonaparte.
To what degree Eliza Hay coordinated the protocol established during the Monroe Administration with her father is unclear. Certainly the presidential social life which Mrs. Hay dominated suggested the same sense of American autonomy in its own hemisphere and an effort to protect the contiguous United States from being colonized by foreign countries.
Mrs. Hay and Mrs. Monroe refused to make the first social call on foreign diplomats, a snub which symbolized the prerogative of the United States government to determine its own rules in its own land.
Eliza Hay was also the Monroe presidential family member who decided that the guests at her sister Maria’s March 9, 1820 White House wedding would be limited to some four dozen relatives and close friends and that invitations would not be made to the diplomatic corps, nor would their gifts be acknowledged. Further, she agreed to attend a charity ball as a guest on the peculiar condition that her presence as the First Daughter not be acknowledged.
She could often be dismissive towards those who made polite inquiries about her husband and his well-being.
The foreign representatives were so taken aback by Mrs. Hay’s rudeness that they formally protested the President’s protocol shift from the less exclusive Jefferson and Madison Administrations. Secretary of State John Quincy Adams made it the subject of discussion at two Cabinet meetings but the Monroes insisted on adherence to their new regulations.
Margaret Bayard Smith, wife of the of the newspaper National Intelligencer editor, who often provided brief items about Presidents and their families for the paper, nevertheless also chronicled how Eliza Hay ignored threats to her own health by serving as a volunteer nurse to local residents who were suffering during a malaria outbreak.
After the presidency, Eliza Hay remained a central figure in the Monroe family, sometimes at odds with her brother-in-law on how to best seek government restitution for the large sums of personal spending which her parents had outlaid during their years of foreign public service.
Eliza Hay’s mother and husband both died in 1830, her father a year later.
Although she still had a married daughter living in the United States, this widowed White House hostess returned to France, where she seemed to have most naturally felt at home, converting to Catholicism and living in a convent.
She is buried not with her family members in Virginia, but in Paris.