Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Louisa Catherine Adams-The Fifth First Lady of the United States (Part III)

by Lauren Gilbert

Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams by Gilbert Stuart 1821-1826

Part I can be found HERE
Part II can be found HERE

As we’ve seen, Louisa Johnson married John Quincy Adams on July 26, 1797, and discovered her father, who went back to America with the rest of her family shortly afterwards, was in debt to the wide and did not pay her dowry of 5000 pounds. According to some sources, John Quincy turned the household accounts, normally handled by a wife, over to his valet and left her feeling  that he included her in his disillusionment with her father and family resulting from his being approached by Joshua Johnson’s creditors. Although they shared some interests, including reading, and were genuinely in love, theirs was a difficult union: two insecure and extremely sensitive people, one of whom considered himself the master, to teach and lead the other (John Quincy) while the other yearned to be a partner with a voice who was not afraid to stand up for herself (Louisa). On top of this, Louisa became pregnant almost immediately. By all accounts, this was a difficult pregnancy; John Quincy’s own diaries make frequent references to Mrs. Adams’ sickness. It is also pertinent to remember that Napoleon was making himself felt on the continent. They finally left for John Quincy’s posting in Berlin on October 18, 1797, requiring a difficult sea crossing and an equally difficult land journey to Berlin which took six days. Shortly after settling into a hotel, Louisa suffered the first of multiple miscarriages almost immediately after their arrival. It was a long-drawn-out and excruciatingly painful ordeal for which the doctors could do little. To his credit, John Quincy was a support and took great care of Louisa during this time, and the situation united them much more closely. They settled into lodgings, and Louisa began her recovery; John Quincy presented his credentials, was presented and immediately began participating in the Prussian court society. 

Louisa, left to herself in the lodgings, became very lonely as she received no visitors and no invitations, while John Quincy made no effort to have her presented at court. Discovering that Queen Louise was starting to think that John Quincy and Louisa were not married, John Quincy escorted Louisa to the theatre one evening when the King and Queen of Prussia were expected to attend, and Louisa drew considerable attention. Subsequently, she was presented to Queen Louise, with whom she became quite friendly. Close in age to Louisa, Queen Louise was renowned for her beauty and charm, and she was also extremely kind. Louisa’s background, between her family’s social activities and her involvement with Anglo-American circles with Mr. and Mrs. Pinckney in London, fitted her to shine in diplomatic society abroad. Her fluent French was also an advantage. Unbeknownst to John Quincy, she became a significant asset to him, especially since diplomacy was (as it still is) conducted in social settings almost as much as in conference rooms. While he was waiting for her to make a mistake and cause him embarrassment, Louisa was busy becoming a success, meeting people and smoothing his way. This would become a recurring theme throughout their marriage. In the meanwhile, John Quincy worried about her acquiring monarchical tendencies, too fond of pomp and circumstances for American tastes (especially his mother’s). Ironically, because John Quincy was the son of the American president as well as an ambassador, they were given a higher place in court protocol than may have been expected. Of course, this meant they had to entertain as well as attend court functions (which meant appropriate apparel for both) on an extremely limited budget and while Louisa continued to experience poor health. She apparently had difficult menstrual cycles and suffered multiple miscarriages which deeply pained her and John Quincy both. It was during this time that she developed the on-going health problems for which she was subsequently know, which included debilitating headaches and fainting spells.  

In February of 1801, they received news of two painful events: John Adams lost the presidency to Thomas Jefferson, and John Quincy’s brother Charles died. The bright spot came on April 12 of 1801, when Louisa delivered a living son whom they named George Washington Adams, after yet another difficult and painful labour. Although she subsequently suffered a high fever and was very ill, she was recovering when John Quincy and his family were ordered to return to the United States. They left Berlin on June 17, 1801. Louisa was on her way to America, a place she had never visited even though she was a citizen. Apparently, during the trip, John Quincy also told her all about Mary Frazier and his failed courtship, which could not have helped her feel more confident. Upon arrival, John Quincy went to Massachusetts to his family home, and she took baby George and went to see her family in Georgetown, near Washington. The visit was not very happy by all accounts: Mr. Johnson’s financial problems were known, he was in poor health, and John Quincy’s absence was noted. In October, John Quincy came to get her and George to bring them home to John and Abigail Adams’ house.

Louisa’s entrance into the Adams’ family was not easy. John and Abigail made no pretence of sincere friendliness; with her foreign upbringing, she felt equally out of place with them. Abigail in particular disapproved of Louisa as a fine lady, and Louisa had no training to be the kind of housewife that Abigail would find suitable. Abigail was also concerned about Louisa’s poor health. Louisa herself was very aware of the differences between her upbringing as an American in England, and felt the differences keenly. Eventually, her intelligence, love of reading and genuine desire for approval won over John Adams and they did develop a close friendship. Her relationship with Abigail was much more difficult, as John Quincy developed a bad habit of discussing his household issues with his mother, then informing his wife of the decisions that he and his mother made. Louisa, of course, would make known her objections, and then ultimately go along. It cannot be a coincidence that her health issues, particularly the headaches and fainting spells continued. They moved into their own home in Boston, but issues did not improve as Louisa did not know how to manage the household, especially as she was expected to participate in the work of the household. Money was, as always , short, and John Quincy kept track of every cent and never hesitated to  show his aggravation. John Quincy was extremely busy with his law practice and in May of 1801 became a representative to the state senate. Louisa was left on her own increasingly. In February of 1803, he was appointed to the United States Senate by the legislature. Louisa, pregnant again, discovered she would be going to Washington just when she was starting to feel settled. Their second child was born July 4, 1803 and named John. The family arrived in Washington on October 20, 1803. This was the beginning of Louisa’s life as a political wife.

Their children were a special bone of contention. In the fall of 1805, John Quincy decided to leave their two sons in Massachusetts, without consulting Louisa and with Abigail’s complicity, while he and Louisa went to Washington.  Louisa was upset but went along. In addition to missing her children, she was experiencing a difficult pregnancy. Because of her pregnancy, John Quincy left her in Washington when he returned to Massachusetts for the summer (now without him AND her children). Sadly, her pregnancy resulted in a still birth.  Louisa finally made it home to Massachusetts in August 1806. The next term of Congress, she and the children stayed in Boston in miserable lodgings, again without consultation with Louisa. Clearly, John Quincy had no intention of allowing Louisa a voice, even though he consulted regularly with his mother. Equally clearly, Louisa made her anger at being so treated known, but went along anyway. During the summer of 1807, Louisa was pregnant again and she gave birth to a third son after yet another excruciating labour (the baby, named Charles Francis, was breech). When John Quincy took his family back to Washington for the 1807-1808 term, she was allowed to take the new baby; the two older children again stayed behind, this time boarding with John Quincy’s aunts (Abigail’s sisters) individually (George with Elizabeth Peabody and John with Mary Cranch). Louisa submitted, but not happily, and she did not agree that child rearing by proxy was good for her children. Given the number of miscarriages she had and the difficult labours she experienced, her attachment to her living children must have been particularly intense.  

Increasing political activity stemming from tension with Great Britain took John Quincy away even more and resulted him changing parties from the Federalists to the Republicans in support of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. This resulted in his resigning his Senate seat and the family returning again to Boston in 1808, only to face social ostracism. Even John and Abigail Adams were upset about his change. He went to Washington to conduct three cases before the Supreme Court, again leaving Louisa and his children behind. She had become  pregnant again but lost the baby early in 1809 while John Quincy was away,  when she slipped and fell on ice. They had argued before he left, and conducted a bitter exchange of letters, even after the miscarriage. In July of 1809, the Madison administration offered John Quincy the position of minister plenipotentiary to Russia, which he accepted. Despite their friction, John Quincy wanted Louisa with him. He made arrangement, again with Abigail, to leave the two older boys with an aunt and uncle, while Louisa and little Charles accompanied him. There is no indication Louisa had any participation in deciding who would go with them and who would stay behind. This time, Louisa’s sister Kitty was among the party to go so at least she had a family member with her when they took ship on August 5, 1809, beginning an eighty-day voyage.  

Their arrival was difficult, as they had only the clothing they stood up in as, after they got off the ship in Kronstadt, it floated back out to sea with all of their belongings. They had to go on to St. Petersburg. The beginning of John Quincy’s mission was not going well: the drinking water had affected everyone (diarrhea), and they discovered that their luggage had been ransacked when it was finally returned. Again, as an ambassador, John Quincy and his wife were expected to be part of the social scene and, again, John Quincy was focused on their lack of money. Even though he was much more than he had been in Prussia (Louisa Thomas indicates only the president was paid more [1]).  Unfortunately, the Russian court was vastly wealthier, the social duties were heavier (almost nightly), and the entire party needed complete new wardrobes-they had to keep up with the Joneses with a vengeance, so to speak.

John Quincy’s assignment included fostering good relations with the Russians and there was no way for him or for Louisa to evade their social responsibilities. The expenses of daily living, combined with the costs of wardrobe suitable for court brought Louisa’s anxiety about her dowry to the forefront again. However, in spite of the financial hemorrhage resulting, Louisa enjoyed parties and dancing. She did not enjoy the high status she had held in Prussia (thanks largely to her friendship with Queen Louise) but did succeed in charming the Russian court and once again being an asset to John Quincy. The high-waisted flowing style we now associate with the Regency era in England was popular in Russia, and Louisa became very creative in stretching her and Kitty’s wardrobe funds as much as possible, not least in sewing their own gowns. Both John Quincy and Louisa bemoaned the exorbitant costs of living in Russia at this time, while carrying out their duties. Louisa suffered another miscarriage in February of 1810, but got back into her routine as quickly as possible. In the spring of 1811, John Quincy was offered a position on the Supreme Court. However, he declined, using the fact that Louisa was pregnant as an excuse. On August 11, after an uneventful pregnancy and labour, she delivered a little girl, who was named after her mother, Louisa Catherine. Louisa and John Quincy were both entranced with their daughter. John Quincy had sent for their sons in March of 1812, but war being declared with Great Britain, their trip was postponed indefinitely. The vast distance delayed news between the United States and Russia, and Louisa was much more experienced with separation from her family and children, so she was able to take comfort of Charles and Louisa Catherine.  Sadly, Louisa Catherine became ill and, after a long illness died September 15, 1812, the same day Napoleon rode through Moscow.
Both John Quincy and Louisa were devastated by her death. John Quincy was able to find some comfort in his work, but Louisa’s grief did not abate. John Quincy’s response was to buy her a book by Benjamin Rush, MEDICAL INQUIRIES and OBSERVATIONS, UPON DISEASES of the MIND. Not exactly a sensitive gift. She blamed herself for her child’s death and missed her two sons left behind more than ever; these feelings rekindled her anger with John Quincy. He was relieved when he asked to be part of a peace commission, which resulted in his departure April 28, 1814 and which was to keep him away for several months, leaving Louisa and Charles in St. Petersburg. Her health was never robust. Ironically, during her time in Russia, Louisa and her mother-in-law drew closer than they had ever been by letter. John Quincy’s departure left Louisa in complete charge of the household, while expecting her to maintain her social responsibilities. After years of not being allowed to handle anything, it is not unreasonable to assume that Louisa doubted her own abilities. However, she rose to the occasion and even enjoyed being in charge. Their letters indicate that they seem to have reconciled their differences at least to some extent, and showed a mutual affection. However, the prospect of yet another Russian winter, this time with John Quincy away, put a further strain on her. The peace commission took longer than anyone anticipated, but peace with Great Britain was finally concluded in December 1814. At that point, John Quincy dropped a bombshell on her: he informed her that he would not be returning to Russia and ordered her to sell everything she did not want to keep for the best price possible, and bring their son to join him in Paris as soon as she was able.  This put Louisa in position for a journey that was a defining experience in her life, and an illustration of the strength and character of this fascinating woman.

Part IV will discuss Louisa’s journey from St. Petersburg to Paris, her further career in Washington as the wife of Secretary of State and as First Lady, and our conclusion.

[1] Thomas, Louisa.  LOUISA  The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. P. 172.

Sources include:
See sources listed in Parts I and II and

Caroli, Betty Boyd.  THE FIRST LADIES from Martha Washington to Michelle Obama 4th edition.  New York: Madison Park Press (an imprint of Direct Brands, Inc.), 2009.

Heffron, Margery M. LOUISA CATHERINE The Other Mrs. Adams.  New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.

Roberts, Cokie.  LADIES OF LIBERTY The Women Who Shaped Our Nation.  New York: HarperCollins, 2008.

Thomas, Louisa.  LOUISA The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams.  New York: Penguin Press, 2016.

Withey, Lynne.  DEAREST FRIEND A Life of Abigail Adams.  New York: Touchstone/Simon & Schuster, 2001 (originally published 1981 by the Free Press).

Image: Wikimedia Commons, HERE

About the author: Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, released in 2011.  A second novel A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT is in process.  She lives in Florida with her husband, with some roses (white ones are blooming) and gardenias, herbs and pineapples.  Please visit her website at www.lauren-gilbert.com for more information.

1 comment:

  1. Well I'm not to fond of John Quincy, Nasty, selfish, arrogant, mummy's boy, mongrel seems to come to mind, He certainly didn't deserve a wife like Louise, Didn't mind his mother being a strong willed bossy woman but wouldn't have a bar of his wife being likewise. I don't think I like him very much. Hope he changes his attitude when he becomes President!.
    How long do I have to wait?


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