The Strangely Contentious Lives of the Quincy Adamses

Louisa Adams; miniature painting by John Thomas Barber Beaumont, 1797
Cincinnati Art Museum/Bridgeman Images
Louisa Adams; miniature painting by John Thomas Barber Beaumont, 1797

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.

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