Books: “Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams”

April 9, 2019

Louisa Adams - portrait

LOUISA JOHNSON ADAMS

A participant on Quora asked recently for “interesting facts” about John Quincy Adams—the sixth president of these United States and the son of the second president. When I last checked, none of the respondents had mentioned JQ’s wife, Louisa, who was at least as interesting as he was.

Louisa Adams’ story is raised from undeserved obscurity in a biography by namesake Louisa Thomas. Louisa Johnson was born in London in 1775, to an American father, a merchant, and a British mother to whom her father was not married. She was the first spouse-of-a-president who was not born either in the United States or in one of the original thirteen colonies. The next such spouse was Melania Trump.

Louisa Adams - JQ portrait

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

Louisa’s father, Joshua, moved his family to Europe during the American Revolution, handling the affairs of his trade business from that end while a partner tended to matters in Maryland. While Louisa along with six sisters and a brother lived comfortably for a time, Joshua Johnson was eventually ruined and carted most of his brood back to the States, leaving Louisa behind, virtually penniless, in the care of Quincy Adams—at the time the American ambassador to the Netherlands. Thereafter, she would almost constantly feel the chill of an insufficiency of funds, even when she was hobnobbing in the glittering courts of Europe.

Louisa Adams.jpg

$10 gold coin commemorating Louisa Adams

Louisa and Quincy Adams met when he became a frequent visitor at her family’s home, the visits prompted by the fact that Thomas Johnson was serving as U.S. consul-general. Although his wife was English, Johnson was determined that his daughters should marry Americans, who were in relatively short supply in London. This biography includes some entertaining accounts of the emotions and machinations this situation inspired among the Johnson daughters when the unattached Quincy Adams came to call. Ultimately, John Quincy and Louisa married in 1797, and her parents beat it back to America shortly thereafter. It’s worth nothing that Adams’ parents, John and Abigail, were reluctant to bless the match because Louisa, though an American, had been reared in England.

Louisa Adams - CFA

CHARLES FRANCIS ADAMS

Louisa’s life thereafter was disrupted by frequent and sometimes serious illnesses and, in addition, by several miscarriages. The couple would have four children, including the noted diplomat and writer Charles Francis Adams and a girl, Louisa Catherine, whose death in Russia when she was only a year old haunted the mother for the rest of her life.

When the elder Adams became president in 1797, he appointed Quincy ambassador to Prussia. President Adams lost the election of 1800, so Quincy and Louisa and their family relocated again, this time to Massachusetts. Quincy practiced law, which was not the love of his life, and in 1803 he was elected to the U.S. Senate where he served until he resigned in 1807. In 1809, President James Madison appointed him minister to Russia and that was a pivotal occasion in Louisa’s life. At her husband’s insistence, she had to leave their two older sons behind in Massachusetts, and she was never reconciled to that separation.

Louisa Adams - Tsar Alexander

TSAR ALEXANDER I

Although Louisa became a favorite of Tsar Alexander I, life in St. Petersburg was a trial, not only because of the death of her daughter, but also due to the weather, her own poor health, and her struggle to keep up with the glitter of the Russian court on the limited means she had.

In 1814, President Madison appointed Adams head of a delegation to negotiate a treaty to formally end the War of 1812 between the United States and Great Britain. The British wouldn’t accept Russia as a mediator, so the negotiations moved first to Ghent in Belgium and then to London. This move set the stage for the most dramatic and daring episode on Louisa Adams’ life, as her husband told her to come west with their son, but left her on her own to manage the trip.

And she did manage the trip, arranging for a carriage, driver, guard, and supplies, and traveling for forty days over frozen ground, through forests, past vagrants and bandits, among the bodies on spent battlefields, arriving intact with her little boy.

The family remained in London for two years until President James Monroe appointed Quincy Adams secretary of state. The move to Washington was a mixed bag for Louisa. She was very successful as a hostess, and she liked to poke her nose into the nasty political discourse of that period, but she also suffered from depression and physical ailments.

The family returned to Massachusetts when Quincy was not reelected, but in 1831 he became the only former president ever elected to the House of Representatives, and he served there for 17 years until he died at the Capitol building. Louisa died in Washington in 1852, and her death marked the first time both houses of Congress adjourned to acknowledge the death of a woman.

In telling this story, Louisa Thomas vividly portrays the contradictory personalities of the Adams couple.

He was a social misfit; she was a charming hostess and a skilled gossip.

“He was tender with Louisa, and she felt it,” Thomas writes at one point. “Still, there were distances between Louisa and John Quincy that were difficult to bridge. She wanted to be needed; he wanted to be alone, She could be flighty, he could be intransigent or remote. She had once called herself ‘the spoilt child of indulgence.’ He had been schooled by his parents in stoicism—although his strong feelings sometimes opened a vent, with eruptions of anger and frustration.”

Quincy Adams let on to his wife in various ways that he wanted her to know her place. For her part, she wrote, “When my husband married me, he made a great mistake if he thought I only intended to play an echo.” There were plenty of contradictions: She claimed to have no part in her husband’s career, but she listened to his speeches and gave him advice about what to cut. She resented his obsession with his responsibilities and felt useless and neglected, but when he mused that he might give up public life, she urged him not to—knowing at last, perhaps, that it was what kept his heart beating.

Louisa was smart, witty, and well-read, and she often felt that her life was pointless; she titled an autobiography “The Adventures of a Nobody.”

 

 

 

 

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4 Responses to “Books: “Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams””

  1. shoreacres Says:

    If I hadn’t found the rest of her life intriguing, I would have been hooked immediately when I read the title of that autobiography. But, having made my own solo journey through West Africa due to somewhat different circumstances, I’m eager to read more about that part of her life. I enjoyed the post tremendously, and have the book on my to-be-read list, along with the autobiography.

    • charlespaolino Says:

      I don’t know if it’s available, but Louisa Adams also wrote a book describing that trip from Russia to England.

      • shoreacres Says:

        It is available — and when I was looking, I noticed that it’s also been made into a play!

      • charlespaolino Says:

        Wow, that’s interesting! It would make a good movie, because it’s astounding that she and her son survived that trip unharmed.
        When Patricia Nixon was sprucing up the White House, one of the things she did was replace replica portraits of JQ and Louisa with the original Gilbert Stuart works.

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