When John Adams ceased to be president, his son John Quincy Adams was thirty-three years old and the ablest of America’s diplomats. In 1791 John Quincy was in London, helping John Jay negotiate a treaty. Although John Quincy was now too grand to stoop to hypergamy, he did manage to bring into the family a new type. Louisa Johnson was the daughter of the American consul general at London. Mr. Johnson was a feckless Marylander married to an English woman. Brought up in Europe, Louisa was “charming, like a Romney portrait,” according to her grandson Henry Adams, “but among her many charms that of being a New England woman was not one.” Louisa did not take to Boston or Braintree (“Had I stepped into Noah’s Ark, I do not think I could have been more utterly astonished”). Happily, the old President took to her. She also made John Quincy a good wife; but then great men seldom make bad marriages.
Nevertheless in a recent biography of John Quincy Adams,* Marie B. Hecht (who annoyingly refers to her subject as “Johnny”) suggests that the marriage must have been rather hard-going for the Europeanized Louisa, who once confided to her son Charles Francis that the Adams men were “peculiarly harsh and severe with their women.” Frequent miscarriages, bouts of fainting and illness were to be Louisa’s revenge. But her husband never varied from his view that “political subserviency and domestic influence must be the lot of women….” Also, to be fair, he was as hard and severe with himself as he was with others.
John Quincy disliked the idea of holding diplomatic posts under his father. Uncharacteristically, Washington himself wrote to the new president John Adams expressing the hope “that you will not withhold merited promotion from Mr. John [Quincy] Adams because he is your son.” So John Quincy Adams was posted American minister to Prussia 1797-1801. He then returned to Boston ostensibly to practice law but actually to become the president. He served as a commissioner in bankruptcy until removed by President Jefferson (who later, disingenuously, denied any knowledge of this petty act against the son of his predecessor). After service in the Massachusetts state legislature, John Quincy was sent to the United States Senate in 1803. As senator, he showed a complete independence of party, supporting Jefferson’s Embargo Act. Consequently “the Republicans trampled upon the Federalists, and the Federalists trampled upon John Quincy Adams.”
Personally, John Quincy was esteemed but not much liked. He himself liked neither political party: “between both, I see the impossibility of pursuing the dictates of my own conscience, without sacrificing every prospect, not merely of advancement, but even of retaining that character and reputation I have enjoyed. Yet my own choice is made, and if I cannot hope to give satisfaction to my country, I am at least determined to have the approbation of my own reflections.”
But presently John Quincy gave satisfaction both to country and self. After losing his seat in…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only – subscribe at this low introductory rate for immediate access!
Unlock this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, by subscribing at the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue – that’s 10 issues online plus six months of full archive access for just $10.
Purchase a trial Online Edition subscription and receive unlimited access for one week to all the content on nybooks.com.