We have always considered John and Abigail Adams as the most famous couple of the Revolutionary generation—each of them smart, observant, and a superb letter-writer. What were the odds that their brilliant son John Quincy would marry a woman who was as bright, as interesting, and as able a writer as Abigail? John Quincy and Louisa haven’t acquired much of the acclaim that John and Abigail have, but they are an equally fascinating couple.
Although Louisa Adams has begun to attract attention, especially with the publication in 2013 of the two-volume edition of her Diary and Autobiographical Writings and the appearance of the late Margery M. Heffron’s abbreviated biography, Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams, in 2014, we still know much less about Louisa Adams than we know about her husband, John Quincy Adams, who has been blessed with a recent spate of biographies, this one by James Traub being one of the best. For that reason Louisa Thomas’s smoothly written life of Louisa is bound to seem newer and more remarkable than Traub’s life of John Quincy, no matter how ably written, complete, and fair-minded it is. Although we have as yet no studies of John Quincy and Louisa as a couple, juxtaposing these two books gives us an excellent picture of what an intriguing and complicated marriage they had.
This Adams marriage was very different from that of John and Abigail. Whatever problems the senior Adamses had with their relationship, they paled next to those experienced by John Quincy and Louisa. John Quincy was harder and more stern than his father and lacked much of his father’s redeeming warmth and humor. John Quincy had great difficulty expressing his feelings; even offering simple words of consolation to a friend who had lost a child was a struggle. As a lover, husband, and father he was always dutiful, but even by the patriarchal standards of his era often very difficult. He almost never consulted his wife on matters involving her and their children. It was not surprising that Louisa at one point toyed with the idea of divorce.
In some respects the couple was ill-matched, something John Quincy actually acknowledged in his diary in 1811 on the fourteenth anniversary of their marriage. Louisa was raised in England amid comfortable circumstances, and was unprepared for the puritanical and egalitarian climate of her husband’s New England, never mind the challenge of milking cows. She lacked Abigail’s self-confidence and was full of self-doubt and often of self-pity. Yet she was as perceptive about people as Abigail and possessed a greater sense of irony than her famous mother-in-law. Most important, as Thomas makes clear, she had an acute capacity for honest self-scrutiny, expressed in her several autobiographical writings.
Unlike Abigail, Louisa kept diaries and wrote several memoirs. “Record of a Life,” begun in 1825, dealt with her education, courtship, and marriage, and a continuation of that memoir, “The Adventures of a Nobody,” written in 1840, covered the years from 1797 to 1812. She claimed no pretentions to being a writer and wrote her journals merely for the education and amusement of her children. She did claim, however, to have a good memory and the ability “to discover the difference between a man of sense and a Fool, and to know that the latter often do the least mischief of the two.”
In some respects John Quincy had a more distinguished political career than his father. He is certainly one of the greatest statesmen in American history and probably the most extraordinary secretary of state the nation has ever had. More than any other political leader he formulated the fundamentals of foreign policy that governed American thinking through much of the nation’s history. He was one of the delegates who signed the peace with Britain that ended the War of 1812. In 1819 he negotiated the Transcontinental Treaty with Spain that acquired the Floridas and defined the southwest border with New Spain all the way to the Pacific. In 1823 he drafted the Monroe Doctrine that has guided American policy toward the Western Hemisphere ever since.
Especially appealing to modern eyes was his political activity after he lost reelection to the presidency in 1828. In 1831 Adams entered the House of Representatives as a Massachusetts congressman and spent the last seventeen years of his life fighting, almost single-handedly at times, against what he called the “slavocracy.” Few politicians in American history have ever devoted so much of their lives to public service and as successfully as he.
Born in 1767, Adams was extremely precocious, but that only encouraged his parents to constantly admonish him to keep up his studies and do his duty, not just to God and his family but to his country. At age thirteen Adams was mature enough to become the secretary to the newly appointed United States minister to Russia. He began keeping his diary, which through his life totaled some 15,000 pages in fifty-one volumes. In 1794 President Washington appointed the twenty-seven-year-old Adams minister to Holland. Washington told young Adams’s father that he believed his son in “as short a period as can be expected” would be “found at the head of the Diplomatic Corps.” In 1795 John Quincy was sent to London to oversee the formal ratification of the treaty with Britain that John Jay had negotiated. There is where he met the Johnson family and Louisa Johnson, his future wife.
Joshua Johnson, a Maryland merchant, had been living in London since 1771, and by 1795 had a wife and seven daughters and one son. Adams was smitten by the Johnson family and especially Louisa, and spent many evenings visiting and listening to the daughters playing and singing. But he hesitated to declare his intentions. He did not feel he had sufficient funds to marry, and Louisa was used to more luxury than he thought he could afford or that was even necessary. Adams finally agreed to a formal engagement, but he wanted to wait for the marriage until he could return to the States and resume his law practice. Louisa reluctantly agreed.
But shortly before he was to return to Holland the lovers met, and Louisa complimented Adams on his dress. Instead of being pleased by the praise, Adams turned on her and declared that no wife of his could ever take the liberty of interfering in his dress. Louisa was stunned. She realized that he would try to change her, but she was never to try to change him. She broke away from him and told him he was free to find someone more compliant. The couple later made up, but as Louisa later recalled, she had felt within her “a secret and unknown dread of something hidden beneath the rosy wreath of love.”
When Louisa received a letter from Adams she was terrified at having to respond—with good reason, since her early letters were stilted and childish; her favorite subject was how much she hated to write. She had spent the first twenty years of her life, as Traub says, drawing on an image Louisa herself used, “like a happily caged songbird,” and she found it difficult to adjust to the expectations of someone like John Quincy. She increased her reading and practiced writing, asking her governess to vet her letters, in order to lessen the distance between her and her betrothed. When Louisa told him that she and her father planned on visiting him in Holland, Adams thought they were trying to force him to accelerate the marriage.
With his condescending letters and suggestions that she should never criticize him though he could criticize her, it was a wonder the engagement continued. When Adams learned that he was not to go back to the States after all, but to become minister to Portugal, he finally realized that he should marry and take Louisa with him. Having little confidence in her ability to master the etiquette of a diplomat’s wife, he lectured her on how she should behave, mainly telling her that in social circles she should never express any opinions about anything whatsoever. Moreover, she would have to “suppress some of the little attachments to splendor that lurk at your heart, perhaps imperceptibly to yourself.” She replied angrily and John Quincy had to ask for a truce, something his parents, as Traub points out, who had grown up in the same world and knew each other intuitively, never had to do.
When Adams suggested that he might have to go to Portugal by himself after all, Louisa blamed herself for the change of opinion and anxiously wondered whether she really did want to live in luxury. In self-defense, she accused him of being overly ambitious, which, because it was true, infuriated him. His manner made her angry, which temporarily helped to bolster her confidence. Her letters grew in style and wit, and she began to find a voice. At the same time John Quincy’s parents were bombarding him with queries about his prospective bride. She was pretty and she was accomplished in music and dancing and speaking French, but was she really and fully American? John Quincy replied that if he waited until some woman met all of his parents’ requirements, he would be “certainly doomed to perpetual celibacy.”
Finally, in the summer of 1797, Adams agreed to come to London to get married if Louisa still wished, telling her that his duty to his country would always come first. She accepted his terms, and they finally wed. Then they discovered that their expectations had to be radically adjusted. John Quincy’s father, who was now president of the United States, had switched his son’s appointment from Portugal to Prussia. And the dowry of £5,000 that Joshua Johnson had promised was not to be. His mercantile business was falling apart, and he and the rest of his family fled to the States, leaving the newly married couple to deal with the dunning creditors. Louisa was humiliated, and she spent a good deal of time in her later writings trying to justify the behavior of her father, whom she had worshiped.
It was a tumultuous time to be an American diplomat in Europe—a world at war, with the neutral United States caught in the middle. Representing the new nation would not be easy: when Adams and his wife reached the gates of Berlin, the officer in charge had never heard of the United States. It was a harder time for Louisa. Not only was she without female companions (her seventeen-year-old maid was more frightened than she was), but her pregnancy ended in a miscarriage. (Through her life she eventually had three more miscarriages.) But once the Prussian queen welcomed her at court, her life changed; and as she became a lively and pretty fixture at court, she became an important asset to Adams’s diplomacy.
Not that Louisa became involved in politics. “Mr. Adams,” she recalled, “had always accustomed me to believe, that Women had nothing to do with politics; and as he was the glass from which my opinions were reflected, I was convinced of its truth, and sought no further.” That Abigail Adams’s son should have such views may seem startling to some, but Thomas makes clear that Abigail herself was no modern feminist. Abigail had political opinions and offered advice to her husband, but she always believed “her proper place was in the home” and “never questioned her supportive role.”
But of course the more Louisa dazzled at the Prussian court the more suspicious and fearful John Quincy became that she was becoming corrupted. When at the queen’s insistence she tried to put on some rouge, Adams stopped her, took a towel, and wiped it off. Although Adams became more caring and tender than he had been during the engagement, he still was often remote and intransigent. “She wanted to be needed; he wanted to be alone,” writes Thomas.
In 1801 Louisa finally gave birth to a child, named George Washington Adams (much to the chagrin of John Adams, who expected the first male child to be named after him), and the couple and the baby soon left Berlin and returned to the United States. For Louisa it was no return; she had never lived in the United States. When the family docked at Philadelphia Louisa wanted to go to Georgetown and see her parents. John Quincy saw his need to see his parents as superior, and thus he sent his ill and weak wife and child off alone to Washington, D.C., while he went on to Quincy—a move that Traub condemns as indecent. (Indeed, Traub is often harder on John Quincy’s treatment of Louisa than is Thomas, who is keen to avoid any anachronism in her account.)
Meeting her in-laws, John and Abigail Adams, was difficult. “Had I stepped into Noah’s Ark,” Louisa recalled, “I do not think I could have been more utterly astonished.” She expected the Adamses’ house to be elegant; instead, she beheld a farm. Abigail was especially tough on Louisa. She saw a pale, flighty, sickly, spoiled English child, unable to carry out the household tasks expected of a New England wife and mother. When Louisa asked Abigail to help her find a cook, her mother-in-law replied that there was no chance of finding one in Massachusetts: “We do not have any such person.” If it hadn’t been for the warmth that her father-in-law extended to her, Louisa would have found Quincy impossible.
Actually, John Quincy had a harder time adjusting to life in the United States than Louisa. He disliked the law and yearned to participate in politics, even though his principles always trumped politics. He became a member of the state senate, lost a race to be a congressman, and then in 1803 the Massachusetts legislature elected him to the US Senate. Following the birth of a second son, named John, the family was off to Washington, D.C., where Louisa’s widowed mother and five of her sisters lived.
Adams entered national politics with a well-developed understanding of human nature and political reality that resembled his father’s. “To form principles of government upon too advantageous an estimate of the human character,” he said, “is an error of inexperience.” This had been the problem of the French revolutionaries, he contended, and it was still the problem of the American Jeffersonian Republicans. Yet Adams was one of the few Federalist senators who voted for Republican measures. He supported the Louisiana Purchase of 1803 and Jefferson’s Embargo of 1807. Finally, the Massachusetts Federalists had had enough of his nonpartisan behavior, and in 1808 they placed someone else in his Senate seat. In 1809 President Madison rescued him by appointing him minister to Russia. Much to Louisa’s regret, the couple left their two older sons, George and John, in Quincy and took to Russia only their two-year-old, Charles Francis. Louisa never got over this abandonment of her two older boys.
The six years the Adamses spent in St. Petersburg were a trial. The cold winters were interminable, the expenses were enormous, and the court balls and parties were endless. Adams hated the social life, and the success of the American legation, according to Thomas, was redeemed only by the presence of Louisa and her sister Catherine, who had accompanied her to Russia; they charmed the court in a way the unsocial minister could not. In 1812, at the very time Napoleon entered a deserted Moscow, the Adamses lost their thirteen-month-old daughter, devastating them both. The couple quarreled, and Louisa even contemplated suicide.
In April 1814 John Quincy departed St. Petersburg for Ghent to help negotiate the end of the War of 1812. He left Louisa in charge of all affairs—a responsibility that warmed her heart: she thought he would never trust her. In December 1814 Adams wrote that the war was over and that he had been appointed minister to Great Britain. She should close up their household in Russia and travel with their seven-year-old son Charles and meet him in Paris. Thus began her greatest challenge—a journey of forty days in the dead of winter covering nearly two thousand miles. It’s a great story and one superbly told by the late Michael O’Brien in his Mrs. Adams in Winter (2010). The trip by carriage was often terrifying, passing through devastated battlefields with ragged and disbanded soldiers. At one point Louisa’s only guard was a fourteen-year-old boy.
The ordeal of the journey changed her, as both Traub and Thomas acknowledge. She was now more confident of her talents and her position in the marriage. Soon Adams was called back to the United States to become secretary of state in the Monroe administration, which meant in Abigail’s mind that her son had become “an heir apparent” to the presidency. Louisa’s relationship to Abigail warmed, and she became Quincy’s major source of what was happening in the nation’s capital. Thomas claims that after Abigail’s death in 1818, the former president began talking in his letters to Louisa the way he had once talked to Abigail. She in turn revealed to her father-in-law her inner life—her confusions and frustrations, her triumphs and hopes—in ways she could not communicate to her husband. The elder Adams told her that “your journal is a kind of necessary of life to me. I long for it the whole week.”
Louisa went further than Abigail had in seeking to have some part in her husband’s public life. She was not content to be a mere adviser. She wanted her husband to be president, and she immersed herself in parlor politics as much as a wife could in order to bring that about. Since Adams regarded himself as “a man of reserved, cold, austere, and forbidding manners,” he needed all the help he could get. Louisa became a superb social hostess and crucial to John Quincy’s becoming president in 1824.
Because Andrew Jackson had won a plurality of the popular vote but not a majority of the electoral vote, the election was thrown into the House of Representatives. In the House Adams gained the presidency through the support of Henry Clay, whom he then appointed secretary of state. His administration was thus crippled from the outset with talk of a “corrupt bargain.” Since, as Traub says, Adams was “archaic even in his own time,” his presidency was a disaster. It was as if the nation could not wait for 1828 so that it could elect Jackson as the rightful president.
Louisa lost her enthusiasm for entertaining, especially as populist hordes threatened to overwhelm the White House. Feeling vulnerable and lonely, she began writing her autobiography, which became a story of the corruption of innocence. The innocence was her youth with her family; the corruption began with her marriage. She felt that John Quincy blamed her for her father’s misfortunes, although Thomas argues that Louisa knew that was false. She seemed determined to punish both herself and her husband and concluded that her marriage to John Quincy was regretted by both of them. Her sense of neglect was offset by her repeated bouts of illness, especially that of her “dear friend,” erysipelas. When she was sick her husband and family did tend to pay her more attention than when she was well, which Thomas suggests may have encouraged her repeated sicknesses.
John Quincy, struggling with what he told his diary was an “uncontrollable dejection of spirits,” failed at reelection in 1828, and thus, by serving only one term as president, suffered the same fate as his father. But leaving the White House seemed to revive both John Quincy and Louisa. At the same time, however, the lives of their two older sons fell apart. In 1829 George, aged twenty-eight, committed suicide, and five years later John, aged thirty-one, died of alcoholism. Louisa blamed their deaths on not taking them to Russia in 1809; when they were children and needed her, she was away. Being an Adams was not easy. Both of John Quincy’s brothers were failures and both had also struggled with alcoholism, one of them dying at age thirty.
Apparently without telling his wife in advance, John Quincy stood for election to Congress in 1830, where he became the scourge of the slaveholding South. His passionate stand against slavery took courage: he suffered many death threats. Louisa was furious at first that she had not been consulted, but she soon came to realize that she actually enjoyed following politics. She became fiercely proud of her husband’s antislavery position. She resumed her writing and began thinking about women’s rights and responsibilities. Her instinct for equality clashed with her long acceptance of the conventional notion that women had no part in public life. She talked about the “chains of wedlock” and said there were men who made marriage a “badge of slavery.”
Despite John Quincy’s hatred of African-American slavery, he had no objection whatever to women’s inferior status. When a local women’s group in 1838 thanked him for defending the right of women to petition Congress, he responded that his public suggestion of women’s equality was simply to honor the memory of his mother, and only his mother. He remained convinced, he said, of women’s “imperfections,” and he knew only too well “the frailties incidental to their physical and intellectual nature.” It was as if he had never learned anything about his wife of over forty years after all. Great men don’t always make great husbands.