Louisa Catherine Adams: First Lady of the United States
Louisa Johnson came from a family with deep roots in America. Her uncle Thomas Johnson was a signer of the Declaration of Independence, served as governor of Maryland, and as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Joshua Johnson, Louisa’s father, was a wealthy business owner who had moved his family from Maryland to England in 1771. Louisa Catherine was born in England to Joshua and Catherine Nuth, who was British, on February 12, 1775. With the outbreak of fighting between the American colonies and Great Britain, the Johnson family moved to France while Louisa was still very young. It was there that young Louisa would spend her formative years. Once the Revolutionary War was over and the United States was an independent nation, President Washington appointed Joshua as a United States consul, and the Johnson family returned to England.
Louisa, the second child in a large family, enjoyed a life of privilege as a young lady. By the standards of the day, she was well educated. In France she attended a Catholic school, an elite boarding school, and her father provided private tutors to help her with her studies. Rare for a young society lady of the day, she developed a love of literature and had an inquisitive and independent spirit. She also had a passion for fine art, music, and the theater. Her love of music stayed with her for the rest of her life, as she played the harp and piano well into her later years.
Marriage to John Quincy Adams
Serving as the U.S. minister to the Netherlands, John Quincy Adams was already a world traveler and seasoned diplomat at age twenty-seven. As son of the vice president of the United States and ambassador to the Netherlands, Adams was considered quite a catch for any young lady. In 1794, Adams was in London and delivered some documents to the residence of Thomas Johnson. Johnson invited him to stay for dinner and there Adams made the acquaintance of the nineteen-year-old Louisa. Adams was no stranger to affairs of the heart, having fallen in love with a young girl named Mary Frazer just to have the romance ended by his overly protective mother, Abigail. John and Louisa began a formal courtship that was anything but a storybook romance. Even though John’s mother was an ocean away, she disapproved, believing a European wife would lead her son to ruin. Louisa wasn’t head over heels in love either; as she once put it, she had to be “coaxed into an affection.”
After a long, stormy courtship, Louisa and John were married on July 26, 1797, in London. John Adams senior and his wife Abigail were not able to attend the wedding as Mr. Adams was now the second president of the United States and up to his neck in political chaos back in America. Though Abigail didn’t approve of Louisa, fearing she was too frail and would drain her son’s bank account to support the extravagant lifestyle she had grown accustomed to, President Adams felt that his son had made a wise choice.
They say opposites attract and sometimes this is true; however, in the case of John Quincy and Louisa, these differences would cause conflict much of their lives. She was a shy and gentle woman while he was stubborn and aloof. Unlike his father, John Quincy found Louisa’s intelligence and outspoken broadminded attitudes disturbing; he preferred a more servile wife that tended to her domestic duties. And about the time of their marriage, Louisa’s father went bankrupt, which added more financial stress to the young couple. Financial difficulties would always be a source of problems for the couple. John Quincy remained in public life till his dying day (literally), and though he was of great service to his country, the pay was low and his assignments often required lavish entertaining that was seldom covered by his expense account.
Life in Berlin
Not long after their marriage, President Adams posted John Quincy as the U.S. minister to Prussia. It was there that the couple’s troubled attempts at raising a family began. Her first pregnancy ended in a miscarriage, which would be an on-going problem. Louisa eventually gave birth to four children between 1801 and 1811. She found her roles as wife of a diplomat and mother both mentally and physically exhausting. Her husband was of little help, as he was absorbed in his career and was away from the family for long periods. With the end of President Adams’ only term as president, his political foe Thomas Jefferson became president. Jefferson recalled diplomat Adams back to America thus, in 1801, Louisa arrived in America for the first time.
America at Last
John Quincy resumed his law practice, which he didn’t enjoy, and was soon elected to the Massachusetts State Senate. Seeking higher office, he ran for the U.S. House of Representatives and lost, but was elected into the U.S. Senate in 1803. Louisa was with him part of the time while he served in Boston and then in Washington, D.C. She found it difficult to conform to the ways of Boston and rural Massachusetts but found Washington more to her liking.
When her father died, bankrupt, Louisa was very upset with his death. This was about the time of the birth of John Quincy II, and the baby helped distract her from the passing of her father. While in Washington, Louisa lived with her widowed mother and sister Nancy, which was a welcomed change from life in Massachusetts. John Quincy’s Senate career went poorly, however, and he left to teach at Harvard. Since Louisa was pregnant at the time, she stayed behind in Washington, where she suffered another miscarriage.
Minister to Russia
James Madison became president in 1809 and appointed John Quincy as minister to Russia. Without consulting her, he accepted the position in St. Petersburg, Russia. Also without talking to Louisa, he made provisions for their two oldest sons, George and John II, to remain behind in the United States with relatives. Louisa was upset when she heard that she would be moving to Russia without her two sons. Being torn from her children was an “agony of agonies”; even worse, she felt she had sinned in acquiescing to her husband’s will and deserting her sons at a time they most needed their mother. The Adams family began the six-thousand-mile journey to their new home in Russia with their two-year-old son Charles, sister-in-law Catherine “Kitty” Johnson, and nephew and secretary William Steuben Smith in early August.
The family arrived in St. Petersburg after a difficult journey of over two months. She found the city cold, with little affordable housing and fresh water. “I do not like the place or the people,” she wrote her mother-in-law, Abigail. She begged to be sent home in 1810, but her husband refused due to the expense. Once settled in, Louisa began the task of being an ambassador’s wife. It was here that her refinement, polish, and fluency in French made her popular at the royal court. The ruler of Russia, Czar Alexander, took a liking to Louisa and often requested her as a dancing partner at official gatherings. John’s wages were poor, which forced the family to live a rather meager lifestyle, perpetually short on money. Then a daughter was born in 1811 after two additional miscarriages. Adding more distress to John and Louisa’s already troubled marriage was the death of their daughter at less than a year of age.
While the Adamses were in Russia, the United States was at war with Great Britain in what became known as the War of 1812. John Quincy was called away from his post in Russia to Paris to negotiate the treaty with Great Britain. After being away for nearly a year, he sent word to Louisa to join him in Paris. He had a new assignment in London as minister to Great Britain and would not be returning to St. Petersburg. After wrapping up the family’s affairs in St. Petersburg, she began the long journey to be with her husband. Along with her eight-year-old son, she had the assistance of an elderly nurse and two servants she had just hired. If traveling in the dead of winter in an unheated carriage wasn’t bad enough, the long trek was made even more dangerous by the unfortunate timing of the escape of Napoleon Bonaparte from his prison in Elba. The two servants she had hired, fearing conscription, deserted her and she had to hire a fourteen-year-old Prussian boy to guide them. With Napoleon free, Europe teetered on war. The travel was harrowing, with the constant threat of robbery, mobs of angry Napoleonic loyalists hostile to travelers in a Russian carriage, being stuck in mud and snow, and being lost on occasion. After forty long days, the party finally arrived in Paris on March 23, 1815.
Her husband’s new position in London was welcome news as she could return to her childhood home; there she felt comfortable in familiar surroundings. The trip did prove to John and her mother-in-law that Louisa was much stronger than expected, having successfully navigated the demanding ordeal of traveling across a hostile continent. After six long years apart, John and Louisa were reunited with their two sons in London. This became one of the happiest times of her life with her family all together and living in a place that felt like home.
Secretary of State
The stay in England was cut short as John was called back to America to be the secretary of state under President James Monroe in 1817. John and Louisa both realized that the position of secretary of state was a steppingstone on the road to become president. Louisa would become her husband’s political advisor, helping attain the goal of becoming the president of the United States. Adams view of his wife was also changing; he was more willing to accept her for who she was. Louisa’s grace in social situations was a counterpoint to John’s rigidness and frequent rudeness to people. Though she was naturally shy, she was able to smooth out John’s rough edges and help him overcome his personal failings.
Louisa gained valuable experience as a White House hostess when she substituted in this role for President Madison’s wife, Elizabeth. Mrs. Monroe was often ill and was not able to fulfill her role as hostess. In January 1824, the Adamses hosted one of the grandest balls in the history of Washington. The occasion was the tenth anniversary of General Andrew Jackson’s victory at the Battle of New Orleans. Jackson was one of Adams’ contenders for the presidency. Nearly one thousand guests were invited, and the ball turned out to be an important occasion to reintroduce John and Louisa to the Washington social elite. In addition to advancing John’s political career, this and other social occasions would give Louisa valuable experience in hosting large parties and navigating the political waters of Washington.
First Lady of the United States
The presidential election of 1824 was very close, with Adams and Jackson winning the top two positions in number of electoral votes. Since neither candidate possessed enough votes to win the election outright, it was thrown to the House of Representatives to decide. Through some dubious negotiations, which became known as the “corrupt bargain,” Adams emerged as the president and the third-place candidate, Henry Clay, became the secretary of state. The victory would turn out to be a hollow one, as the Jackson political machine went into motion quickly to cripple the presidency of John Quincy.
The pressures of the presidency on John had spilt over into their personal lives and the couple’s relationship began to decline. By 1826 the two were barely speaking to each other and taking separate vacations. John’s already obstinate personality had deteriorated as the constant haranguing from the press took its toll. She advised him to “put a little wool in your ears…and don’t read the papers.” John had many good ideas to move the country forward, such as road and canal projects, expanded federal agriculture and education opportunities, and many more. Unfortunately, his political opponents were very strong, and he was nearly a lame duck president when he entered the office.
The time as first lady was a disagreeable time for Louisa. She had grown weary of the constant demands placed upon the president’s wife and came to hate the White House. “There is something in the great unsocial house,” she wrote, “which depresses my spirit beyond expression and makes it impossible for me to feel at home or to fancy that I have a home anywhere.” She retreated into her own personal world as much as she could, reading prolifically, writing plays and poetry, and working with her hobby of raising silk worms. A tragedy struck the family toward the end of their time in the White House when their son George died under shadowy circumstances. Louisa placed part of the blame for their son’s death on John. His harsh treatment of the troubled young man may have been a contributing factor to his possible suicide.
Lasting one term as president, as his father had done, John Quincy and Louisa left Washington for retirement in Massachusetts. Retirement for John Quincy was short as he was elected to the United States House of Representatives from Massachusetts. During this time their relationship improved as the position of congressman didn’t come with the pressures that a president faced. Louisa called her husband “the president” while he called her “Mrs. Louisa C. Adams.”
The couple celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary in 1847 at their home in Quincy, Massachusetts. John, at eighty, was still a congressman and collapsed on the floor of the House of Representatives, dying two days later with Louisa by his side. Louisa would live on another four years, dying on May 15, 1852, at age seventy-five. To honor her passing, Congress adjourned for the day to show respect and attend her funeral—the first time this was done for a woman.
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West, Doug. Louisa Catherine Adams: A Short Biography: First Lady of the United States. C&D Publications. 2019.