Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Louisa Catherine Adams: The Fifth First Lady of the United States (Conclusion)

by Lauren Gilbert

In Louisa Adams’s day, women seldom (if ever) made extensive journeys on their own. When John Quincy had to go to Paris for a peace commission to end the war between Great Britain and the United States, he (rather surprisingly) left her in charge of everything, and she had been enjoying that freedom even though she was tired of the long separation. Then came his instructions in a letter which she received January 20, 1815, to sell everything she did not want to keep and bring their son to meet him in Paris. Breaking up a household and preparing for a 2000 mile journey from St. Petersburg to Paris, in the dead of winter, would have been a daunting task for the most seasoned individual. For Louisa, taking on this task and completing it to John Quincy’s approval must have been almost overwhelming. However, she rose to the occasion, sold what she deemed appropriate, packed up the furniture, books and other items to be stored until shipment to them was possible, selected the carriage (a Russian carriage, complete with runners for use on snow) and prepared accordingly for her journey.

St Petersburg as Louisa would have seen it

On February 12, 1815, she left St. Petersburg with her seven-year old son Charles, his nurse (hired that day) and two servants. The journey required passports for Russia, Prussia and France. Not only was she travelling with her party in winter, she went through areas ravaged by the Napoleonic wars. Louisa made all of the decisions, including the route and stops. Later in life she wrote “Narrative of a Journey from St. Petersburg to Paris in February, 1815,” describing the trip, based on her diaries. 

It was a very hazardous trip, between the weather and the war. The risk of robbery or worse was high. She endured many sleepless nights, afraid to sleep while her son and servants did. The destruction and death resulting from the war was agonizing to see. Despite her health, she kept her head and continued into France, to be greeted on the road by a group of Imperial Guards who were on their way to rendezvous with Napoleon. Seeing her Russian coach, they assumed the party was Russian and an enemy. Louisa had the presence of mind to show her passports and establish she was an American. After an exchange of cheers “Vive les Americains” and “Vive Napoleon”, the Imperial Guard allowed her to continue on her way, escorting her and her party to a post house where it was arranged for her to spend the night and advice about her travel the next day given. Her health issues plagued her but she carried on in spite of them, finally arriving at the meeting place, the Hotel du Nord in Paris, on March 23, 1815. She and Charles were reunited with John Quincy after an eleven-month separation and a journey of forty days.

The Insurrection of the Decembrists
at Senate Square, St Petersburg, on 14th December, 1825
by Karl Kolman (1786-1846)[Public Domain] 
via Wikimedia Commons

Both Louisa and John Quincy were serious diarists as well as letter writers, and noted their reunion. Sadly, their recollections do not agree: he remembered his wife and son arriving shortly after he returned to his rooms from a play, while she remembers that he was out when they arrived.

Sources indicate that John Quincy did not record any information about her journey. Indeed, he took his wife and son sightseeing the next day, and swept her into his social rounds as if nothing extraordinary had occurred. While John Quincy apparently regarded his wife's journey as insignificant, Louisa should have felt justifiable pride and a feeling of self-confidence in accomplishing a difficult journey, handling every aspect on her own. Interestingly, when the family left Paris May 16, 1815 for England, travelling to Dover under John Quincy’s guidance, her fatigue and fragility again affected her, and caused delays in their journey. One source speculated that managing on her own in St. Petersburg and on the journey to Paris exhausted her strength. However, it seems equally possible to me that she behaved in a manner that met John Quincy’s expectations. 

When John Quincy and Louisa reached London on May 25, the two older sons George (age fourteen) and John II (almost twelve) were at the hotel; the boys had not seen their parents for six years. John Quincy was assigned as minister to the Court of St. James, so the reunited family had a chance to get used to each other again. They rented lodgings from May to July, searching for more comfortable housing that they could actually afford.

US Passport issued by Adams in London, 1815
By Huddyhuddy (Self-scanned)
[CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikimedia Commons

Finally, Louisa looked at a house named Little Boston House in Little Ealing, which turned out to suit their family well. John Quincy’s diplomatic duties were not particularly onerous, involving mostly correspondence and reports. Unfortunately, in October, an infected hand and inflamed eye seriously disabled him, as he was in great pain, could not hold a pen or write, and could not read. Louisa cared for him, managed the staff, took care of the boys, went into London when necessary and entertained visitors. She also kept information for John Quincy’s use, helped him with his correspondence and managed her own. In early 1816, John Quincy was apparently able to resume at least some of his public functions and Louisa was presented to Queen Charlotte in one of the queen’s drawing rooms. Unlike her previous experiences at their earlier diplomatic posts in Berlin and St. Petersburg, Louisa did not seem to enjoy the diplomatic scene very much, at least in part because they held a lower status and because their residence outside of London made entertaining (including returning invitations) difficult. They also knew that many of the invitations received were a matter of protocol more than anything else. They did make friends, and sources indicate that Louisa enjoyed the parties and hectic schedule. All in all, this was a time of contentment for the family.

Charles Bird King portrait of Louisa Adams.jpg
Louisa Adams by Charles Bird King
[Public Domain] via Wikimedia Commons

On November 1, 1816, James Monroe was elected president. There were rumours that John Quincy would be appointed Secretary of State, and Louisa, at age 42, was once again pregnant, and this pregnancy was yet another difficult one. On April 16, 1817, after much speculation, John Quincy received the letter indicating he had been appointed as Secretary of State and that his appointment was confirmed by the Senate. Given Louisa’s condition, there was concern about her making the voyage. Despite the risks, she accompanied John Quincy and their sons when they took ship for America, departing June 15, 1817. Sadly, she miscarried on the voyage. They landed in New York City on August 6, 1817. Louisa once again was a political wife but this time was a bit different: she had more experience, she had more self-confidence and she had more ambition for her husband.

Rather than get into a detailed discussion of John Quincy’s career from Secretary of State to the Presidency in 1825, and on to the House of Representatives in 1830, I am going to focus on Louisa’s role as political wife. First of all, it is important to understand that, at this time, appointment to the position of Secretary of State was an indication of a future presidential candidate, which John and Abigail Adams would have recognized and would have become clear to Louisa in short order. As the wife of the Secretary of State, everything Louisa did had to be done with an eye to the future. It did not help that John Quincy was not interested in running a campaign; he apparently felt that, if the electorate felt he deserved the presidency (as he himself felt he did), they would reward him by voting for him.

Louisa did not see much of John Quincy, as he was overwhelmed with State Department work, including everything from foreign policy to the standardization of weights and measures. She was, however, involved with the social aspect of life in the capitol. They got off to a bad start by not initiating calls, which generated criticism and a boycott of Louisa’s parties by other wives. Elizabeth Monroe, the president’s wife, let her know of their error. Louisa was also a keen observer of how things got done and the impact of an emotion or a personal appeal. She and John Quincy made a virtue of not initiating calls as an indication of humility.

Louisa returned calls, hosted dinner parties, and observed other hostesses. Her upbringing and her experiences as a diplomat’s wife fitted her for her role as the wife of the Secretary of State (and future president) and his campaign manager. It took time, but she gained acceptance among the other political wives. She was invited to more functions, and her invitations to her own dinners and parties were increasingly accepted, increasing her sphere of influence. She watched Mrs. Monroe, and was influenced by Dolley Madison’s style of entertaining. Louisa was still considered by some to be too foreign, but was greatly admired as a charming hostess who kept the conversations going and the guests circulating.

Louisa had grown increasingly close to John and Abigail Adams, and had taken over her husband’s correspondence with his parents. She and John Quincy were grief-stricken when Abigail died at the end of 1818.
Abigail Adams
[Public Domain]
However, she was a great comfort to her father-in-law, who had lost his “dearest friend” [1]. Her sons were away at school and she wrote to them frequently as well. She read constantly on a wide range of subjects from poetry to religion to the classics to A Vindication of the Rights of Women by Mary Wollstonecraft (she liked Mary Wollstonecraft’s work).[2] Her earlier reading gave her a sound base for her on-going studies. She was very intelligent and somewhat introspective, and her letters to John and to her sons, as well as her journals, reflect the range of her thoughts.

Her periodic bouts of illness (which included erysipelas, a bacterial skin infection that involves an extremely painful rash) caused her to miss parties, and were exacerbated by John Quincy’s autocratic tendency to make decisions concerning their sons without consulting her. Things began to turn around when she took her brother Thomas Johnson to Philadelphia for medical treatment in June 1822. She had many friends in Philadelphia and, as her brother’s health (and her own) started showing improvement, she began socializing again. Philadelphia had been the original capitol, and was the second largest city in the United States and still attracted many important people, many of whom visited Louisa. Louisa was able to resume her activity on her husband’s behalf, and became a conduit of information in her letters to him. They corresponded regularly and warmly. She worked hard on his behalf, and tried to compel him to campaign for himself (which was largely unsuccessful). She returned to Washington in October of 1822.

An increasingly tense political situation arose with three contenders for the presidency: Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams. The election in 1824 did not result in a clear winner based on a majority of the electoral votes, so the House of Representatives had the responsibility to pick the president. John Quincy finally got active in the fray, while Louisa continued her activities. On February ninth, 1825, the House of Representatives voted and John Quincy Adams became the fifth president of the United States. Louisa did not attend the inauguration of March 4 due to ill health. Shortly after, John Quincy and Louisa moved to the White House. Unlike today, they did not move into a clean, furnished and staffed White House; the new First Lady was not greeted and prepared. The White House needed cleaning, decorating and repairs, and Louisa had to use her own instincts and experience.

Layout of the White House 1807
by Benjamin Henry Latrobe
Library of Congress [Public Domain] 
via Wikimedia Commons

John Quincy’s presidency was a difficult period for them both. A particular issue that was fraught with pitfalls for them both was the subject of slavery. Both considered themselves against slavery, yet found it a difficult subject as Louisa’s family had owned slaves, the White House was built by slaves and slaves were common in Washington D.C., and John Quincy’s family in Massachusetts had also had a female slave in residence (according to an 1820 census-John and John Quincy are on record as non-slave owning presidents, but another family member or guest may have owned her) [3].   It was a painful, difficult and contentious matter personally and politically. John Quincy was (again) extremely busy, and Louisa spent more time on her own, more isolated than in her previous positions. Louisa continued writing and began an autobiography she initially called “Record of a Life” in which she ruminated on her marriage, as well as writing poetry. It was a difficult period, as John Quincy’s agenda was repeatedly stymied by Congress, and Louisa’s health appeared to deteriorate. (The effects of multiple miscarriages were undeniable, and the erysipelas was unabated.)

First Lady Louisa Adams.jpg
Louisa Adams by G.F Storm
Library of Congress [Public Domain]
via Wikimedia Commons
Another blow struck when John Adams died July 4, 1826. This was a devastating blow to John Quincy, personally and financially. Although he inherited the bulk of the estate and was executor, the costs of administering the terms were very high, much of which John Quincy had to pay out of pocket, which he decided to do in spite of Louisa’s objections and concerns. This left them basically having to support his brother Thomas and family. The whole situation angered and worried her greatly [4].  John Quincy was in Massachusetts, and was caught up in estate business, assisted by his two older sons George and John. Louisa joined John Quincy in August. Neither of his older sons lived up to John Quincy’s expectations, and during this time George’s health declined and Louisa went to Boston to care for him there. They returned to the Adams’ residence in Quincy later. The difficult relationship between her sons (especially George) and their father was painful for Louisa, and this combined with the tensions of the estate caused a rift between John Quincy and Louisa. She left for Washington, made it to Boston, and became ill again. John Quincy and Louisa were back in Washington in October, but the situation within the family did not improve, and tension remained between the couple. John Quincy’s mood was exacerbated by his political difficulties, and Louisa was unable to help with these. In spite of her health, Louisa continued to entertain and attend social functions.

JQA Photo.tif
John Quincy  c1860
National Archives [Public Domain]
via Wikimedia Commons
John Quincy ran for re-election in 1828, and lost to Andrew Jackson. At once disappointed and relieved, John Quincy left the White House. Their personal relationship improved, and their family expanded with grandchildren. Tragically, George (who had not been doing well) died when he went overboard from the steamboat on which he was travelling to join his parents on April 30, 1829. His body was not found for a month. George’s death was a blow that John Quincy and Louisa bore together. John Quincy and son John went to Massachusetts to wrap up George’s affairs. In May of 1830, the family as a whole moved back to Quincy to stay, permanently she thought. This was not to be. In September of 1830, he was nominated for the House of Representatives for the Plymouth district. There is no indication he discussed it with Louisa. He won handily, and was very pleased. Unfortunately, Louisa was not and initially refused to return to Washington. However, she did go.

Their son John and his wife and children lived with her, and son Charles also married and had children. She was not under the same constraints as a congressman’s wife that she had been as First Lady. John Quincy remained in office as a Representative for the rest of his life, winning re-elections, and was active in his career. They spent the summers in Quincy, and winters in Washington D.C. for the Congressional terms. However, in 1834, she stayed in Washington D.C. to take care of her brother Thomas and son John who were ill until July when she went to Quincy without him. In October, they were notified that John and his wife were both ill. John Quincy went to Washington himself as Louisa was ill. Sadly, John died at age 31 on October 23, 1834. This dealt Louisa a cruel blow from which she barely recovered. She wrote her diary and in 1836 her narrative of her journey from St. Petersburg to Paris.

John Quincy was active in the House, fighting (among other things) the notorious gag rule passed in 1836 that prevented the discussion of slavery. Louisa was present February 26, 1837 when John Quincy introduced a petition to prohibit the slave trade in Washington D.C. which released a storm of conflict in which she was swept up. At about the same time, she also began reading about women’s rights and was sympathetic with much of what she read. In 1840, she began writing her autobiography, which she called “The Adventures of a Nobody.” (A depressing and misleading title, as she was certainly not nobody.) John Quincy continued his service in the House, fighting slavery and in 1844 seeing the revocation of the gag rule. He was the oldest member of Congress, and his health began to decline. On February 21, 1848, he collapsed on the floor of the House, was carried to the speakers room, and he died the next day. Louisa had been called and had been with him but had been sent home. She was not with him when he died on February 23, a source of bitterness. They had been married almost 51 years. She had a stroke March 18, 1849. She had a limited recovery and passed away May 15, 1852 at the age of 77. She was finally buried in Quincy, where their only surviving child Charles had both his parents’ bodies interred together.

For earlier installments of the life of Louisa Catherine Adams, see Part IPart II and Part III


[1] John and Abigail referred to each other as “My Dearest Friend” in their voluminous correspondence-see Lynn Withey, DEAREST FRIEND.

[2] Thomas, Louisa. LOUISA The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. P. 281

[3], “So Palpable a Stain” by Louisa Thomas.

[4] Thomas, Louisa. Op Cit pp. 343-345.


See sources listed previously in Parts I, II and III. “So Palpable A Stain:The Adams Family and Slavery in Washington, D.C.” by Louisa Thomas, April 25, 2016.

Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. XXXIV July-Dec, 1903. “Mrs. John Quincy Adams’s Narrative of A Journey from St. Petersburg to Paris in February, 1815 With an Introduction by Her Grandson, Brooks Adams.” New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1903. Pages 448-463. “Louisa Adams, Social Charmer” by Shannon Selin, post date not shown.

The Beehive. “Abigail’s Window” by Sara Georgini, Adams Papers, July 30, 2016.


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 for more information.

1 comment:

  1. John Adams appreciated his Abigail, pity his son didn't take a leaf out of his fathers book.
    John Quincy strikes me as a boring sort of bloke compared to John.
    Louisa certainly had a lot to put up with and with the typical English stiff upper lip did!.
    Thanks Lauren I've enjoyed these four posts enormously.


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