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The Passions of John Quincy Adams

In response to:

Angry, Icy, Enlightened Adams from the June 5, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

John Quincy Adams was indeed intellectual and austere, if not haughty and cold, and certainly clueless about his neglected and needy wife Louisa, as Susan Dunn points out [“Angry, Icy, Enlightened Adams,” NYR, June 5, 2014]. But a poem written in the hand of the former president, found in the Library of Congress, shows the “Angry, Icy, Enlightened Adams” was also capable of personal passion—though he kept it private.

Adams’s muse was Anna Maria Thornton, the widow of William Thornton, the English polymath who designed the US Capitol. Adams did not think much of Mr. Thornton, the first superintendent of the US Patent Office. With typically severe precision, he regarded Thornton, who was admittedly eccentric, as a jackass.

“He is a man of some learning and much ingenuity; of quick conception and lively wit,” Adams wrote in his diary. And also “entirely destitute of Judgment, discretion and common sense.”

Anna Thornton was something else entirely. When Adams returned to Washington as a congressman, he and Louisa took a house on F Street between 13th and 14th Streets, then one of the more respectable addresses in the city. Anna Thornton, widowed since the death of William in March 1828, lived next door. With the help of her servant Maria Bowen, Anna kept up a lively social life with her many friends from her thirty years in the nation’s capital.

Anna Thornton’s diary, found at the Library of Congress, shows that she spent many social evenings with the Adamses. In 1832, Anna made a list of her principal companions: John and Louisa topped the list.

It’s not hard to see why Adams might have taken a shine to Anna Thornton. In an 1804 portrait by Gilbert Stuart, she looked to be an uncertain but perceptive and graceful young woman. She knew her husband’s faults better than anyone but was staunchly loyal to him. After his death, she paid off his gambling debts and ran a large household and country farm in Bethesda with the help of Maria and six other enslaved people. In affairs of business, Anna was said to be “the equal of a man.” She knew many people of consequence in Washington, and she also read novels and popular histories. She was the rare woman who could hold her own in conversation with the imperious Adams.

At some point, the workaholic statesman fell hard for her. In 1844, Adams wrote a poem to Anna addressed

To my friend, intellectual and benevolent friend
And next door neighbor at Washington
Mrs. Thornton

The poem began:

Oh! If the fastings of the heart
         In Words could find expression;
When dearest friends are doom’d to part;
         And Truth transcends profession;
Then should my tuneful Lyre awake
         The fondest of the slumbers;
And thrilling strains thy spirit shake
         With more than magic numbers.
But what are Words—a breath of air
         From human lips exported
In which the Heart has oft no share—
         With falsehood oft assorted—

Not all of Adam’s handwriting is legible to the untrained eye but his passion is unmistakable:

Words! Never! Never can they tell
         The soul’s intense emotion!
Can never break the bosom’s swell
         The faithful heart’s devotion.
Then Lady! Let this [illegible] lay
         Until again I meet thee;
For there a Silent Blessing [illegible]
         And still in Silence greet thee

Their friendship was beyond words, the stuff of music, swelling bosoms, and faithful hearts. Icy Adams had a bit of warmth after all.

Jefferson Morley<br /

Washington, D.C.

Susan Dunn replies:

John Quincy Adams was indeed capable of passion. In his biography of Adams, Fred Kaplan mentions that the twenty-three-year-old John Quincy became infatuated with—and lost—a young woman named Mary Frazier. “On thee thy ardent lover’s fate depends,” he wrote in a poem describing his beloved.* “It was a consuming flame,” Adams remarked years later. “How dearly did the sacrifice of her cost me.” He believed that his pain “gradually wore away,” but Kaplan comments that it “never entirely” disappeared and that the young Adams had been desperately torn “between the heart and the head, romantic spontaneity and prudential caution.”

Letters

Love and John Quincy Adams May 14, 2015

  1. *

    Paul Nagel, John Quincy Adams: A Public Life, A Private Life (Knopf, 1997), p. 65.