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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JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

A man of about my grandfather’s vintage was telling me that he once owned a house in Brooklyn and the candy store on the first floor. When I asked what had become of the property, he brought his hands together in a loud clap and said, “Mr. Hoover.” The implication was that he had lost the house and store as a result of the Great Depression and that the Great Depression was Mr. Hoover’s fault.

The history of the economic calamity of the 1930s is complex, and while Herbert Hoover’s approach to it is open to criticism, it is simplistic to argue that he was responsible for the losses suffered by millions of people. Unfortunately for Hoover, most Americans who can identify him at all are likely to describe him as the president who failed to solve the Depression. And that means that most Americans have forgotten — or more likely have never known — that Hoover was a great public servant and, in several instances, an American hero. As Casey Stengel said, you could look it up: Hoover organized the evacuation of Americans from Europe at the outbreak of World War I; he organized the delivery of millions of tons of food to Belgium after it had been invaded by Germany; he ran the commission that made sure American food supplies were conserved so that there would be enough to supply U.S troops in Europe during the war; he ran the administration that fed millions of people in Central Europe after the war; he oversaw the government response to the Great Mississippi Flood in six states in 1927; he organized a program that fed school children in impoverished occupied Germany after World War II; and under presidents Truman and Eisenhower he headed two commissions that successfully recommended reorganization and efficiencies in the federal government.

JOHN QUINCY ADAMS

Hoover had his failings and even his dark side, but the country’s ignorance of  his accomplishments — to say nothing of  his long career as an engineer and businessman — is out of whack.

Hoover is not alone in this. John Quincy Adams’ legacy has suffered a similar fate, as Harlow Giles Unger explains in a biography of the sixth president that will be published in September. Adams’ presidency was a dud, but he otherwise led one of the most outstanding public lives in the history of the country. He was the son of brilliant parents — Abigail and John Adams — and they expected big things of him. Unger reports, in fact, that John Adams, the second president, expected his son to eventually follow  him into that office, after getting a classical education and learning and practicing law. John Q. grew up in the midst of the American Revolution; in fact, he and his mother were eye witnesses to the Battle of Bunker Hill.

Defining events in his life, though, were successive trips to Europe with his father, who was engaged in diplomacy. Those trips led to a career in diplomacy for the younger Adams who was not excelled by anyone serving in that capacity before or since. He later served as secretary of state in the administration of James Monroe and again did outstanding work, including his authorship of what became known as the Monroe Doctrine. He was, Unger argues, one of the most important experts on foreign affairs in American history.

ABIGAIL ADAMS

John Quincy Adams was elected to the presidency without campaigning for the office, and in a certain sense he wasn’t elected at all. The wildly popular war hero Andrew Jackson won more popular votes in the election of 1824 but not enough electoral votes to carry the day. Henry Clay threw the election into Adams’ lap by instructing the Kentucky delegation to vote for Adams, who had not won an electoral vote in that state. When John Q took office, he named Clay secretary of state, which was a much more powerful office then than it is now. Although it would have been out of character for Adams to have conspired with Clay in order to gain the presidency, that’s how many Americans read it, Unger writes, and it got Adams’ administration off to a poor start.

Adams had an ideal that would  sound odd to Americans today: he believed that principle was more important than party. Tell that to John Boehner and Nancy Pelosi. Adams carried this idea to extremes, going to the mat first with his own Federalist party and then with the opposition Republicans on one issue or another. As a result, he really had no party, while Andrew Jackson was building the new Democratic party into a meaningful force. He also gave no thought to even conventional patronage when he appointed his cabinet, and so he was, as Jimmy Durante used to say, “surrounded by assassins.”

The short version is that Adams’ presidency didn’t amount to much, and he left office in a significant funk after losing the election to Jackson. But he was invited to run for Congress from a district in his native Massachusetts, and so he became one of three presidents to hold public office after leaving the White House. (The others were Andrew Johnson, who was elected to the U.S. Senate and William Howard Taft, who was appointed chief justice of the United States.)

Adams spent 17 years in the House of Representatives and it was, as Unger recounts in dramatic fashion, a wild scene. Adams hated slavery, which he had first seen up close when he traveled to Poland as a teenager. The House leadership didn’t want the subject broached in the chamber and passed rules to prevent the word “slavery” from being uttered or petitions against slavery from being presented. Adams fought furiously against this procedure, violating the rules repeatedly, and demanding over and over to know, “Am I gagged? Am I gagged?” He eventually became a highly respected figure in the House, even by those who disagreed with him, and reputedly was one of a handful of the best who ever served there.

SS Amistad

During this period, Adams also got involved in the legal case of a group of more than fifty African men and women who were being transported as slaves from one port in Cuba to another when they seized control of the ship, the Amistad. The ship was taken into custody in American waters, and the Africans on board sued to keep from being returned to bondage.

Adams gave a seven-hour argument before the U.S. Supreme Court which, although most of the justices were hard-nosed southern slave holders, ruled unanimously that the Africans should be set free.

In recounting Adams’ career, Unger provides a close look into the life of the distinguished and patriotic Massachusetts family: the relationship between John Q. Adams and his redoubtable parents, and between John Q. and his wife, Louisa, who at times lost patience with the demands her husband’s public service made on family life.

Unger’s book brings this good and great man back to life at least on the printed page. It was a life that deserves much more attention than it gets.