Often lost in the shadows of the family she married into, Louisa Catherine Adams had a life filled with trials and tribulations. She was the first foreign born First Lady and journeyed throughout Europe, first as a daughter of a wealthy merchant and then as the wife of famed diplomat and future president, John Quincy Adams.
Join me as I start the story of the life of Louisa Adams. In this episode, I discuss her early childhood, the volatile courtship between her and John Quincy and the first years of their marriage. Her story is remarkable and we're only just getting started.
Thomas, Louisa. Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.
“First Ladies Biography: Louisa Catherine Adams.” National First Ladies Library. (LINK)
Adams, John Quincy to Louisa Catherine Adams. February 20, 1797. Adams Papers: Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. (LINK)
Adams, Louisa Catherine to Abigail Adams. June 12, 1798. Adams Papers: Digital Edition. Massachusetts Historical Society. (LINK)
“Louisa Adams.” History.com Editors. History. A&E Television Networks. February 15, 2021. Accessed March, 2022. (LINK)
“From Abigail Smith Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 3 January 1818,” Founders Online, National Archives, (LINK)
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Welcome to Civics and Coffee. My name is Alycia and I am a self-professed history nerd. Each week, I am going to chat about a topic on U.S history and give you both the highlights and occasionally break down some of the complexities in history; and share stories you may not remember learning in high school. All in the time it takes to enjoy a cup of coffee.
Hey Peeps, welcome back.
If you follow politics at all, then you may be able to impress friends at cocktail parties by sharing that former first lady Melania Trump was the second foreign born individual to hold the role.
Who, might you ask, is the other? Well that title belongs to the wife of the sixth president of the United States, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams. Despite leaving a vast array of correspondence and primary source material, when people think of the Adams family they tend to conjure visions of John his wife Abigail or Louisa’s husband, John Quincy Adams. Relegated to a diminished role in history, much has been assumed of Louisa. But if you take a closer look, you’ll discover a woman who challenged convention. Someone who was self deprecating and singularly focused on her faults, but who demonstrated immense bravery and political acumen.
So this week I am diving into the life of Louisa Adams. Who was she? How did she meet John Quincy? And how did she navigate the notorious coldness of her husband? There is so much to unpack about her life that Louisa also gets the distinction of being the first first lady who gets herself a two part episode.
Grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
Louisa Catherine Johnson was born on February 2nd, 1775 in London to her English mother, Catherine Nuth and American merchant father, Joshua Johnson. One of eight children, Louisa had six sisters and one brother. In a rarity for the time, Louisa was born to parents who were not married. In fact, records indicate she would be ten years old before the union was finalized. It remains a historical mystery as to why the Johnsons delayed their union and all available information suggests theirs was a happy marriage.
The Johnsons enjoyed a fair amount of comfort and Louisa and her sisters were educated in a Roman Catholic boarding school while her family lived in France during the American Revolution. As a woman, her education was limited but she did learn to speak French, play the piano and learn the basics in mathematics. Her education continued at another boarding school upon the family's return to London after the revolution where Louisa and her sisters struggled to fit in.
Louisa was always a sensitive soul and her delicate nature made its appearance early in her youth when she suffered from a fainting spell at school. Too ill to continue her studies, the Johnsons sent Louisa to live with family friends John and Elizabeth Hewlett. An experience that could have further alienated and scorned an impressionable mind, Louisa was given the opportunity to flourish. Instead of being ignored, Louisa found she had a willing ear in John Hewlett; he would also aid in her education by giving her book recommendations and as Louisa later wrote, quote: “led me early to think” end quote.
But of course, the education did not last long. As was custom, if women received education at all it was geared towards making her a suitable wife. So despite her love of books and poetry, Louisa stopped her formal studies at 14 and moved towards making her debut in society; in other words, getting ready for proposals.
Louisa met John Quncy Adams for the first time in 1795. Adams, who was then serving as Minister to the Netherlands, did not make a great first impression upon his future bride. His attire was laughable, though she was impressed by his intellect. He eventually grabbed her attention, thanks to his frequent visits to the family home on Tower Hill. Though she and her sisters initially believed Adams was interested in their older sister Nancy, it quickly became apparent the young minister only had eyes for Louisa. Though, he had a hard time articulating his affections.
John Quincy Adams is known for his dedication to public service, but is also known for his less than charming character. While he seemed to be interested in marrying Louisa, he made it a point in letters to her to outline her faults and felt duty bound to explain how simple their lives together would be and that he had no money with which to give her an aristocratic life. This aloofness and coolness would continue throughout their marriage, with Adams rarely sharing kind words with Louisa unless she was ill.
Adams was also notoriously self-critical and fickle with his emotions, never feeling like he met the expectations of the family dynasty that was the Adams clan. So while John Quincy worked through his emotions, the highs and the lows, Louisa was left with her own decision to make. Not the love at first sight she had read about in novels, Louisa felt a marriage to the minister from the United States could evolve into a relationship filled with deep affection. Louisa’s father was also experiencing a financial setback and marrying a prominent american diplomat could mean security and connections that could prove helpful in his business ventures.
As biographer Louisa Thomas notes quote, “It’s likely that she also faced some pressure from her parents to make the match. Catherine openly advocated for John Quincy, and Joshua had more than the usual reasons for a father to want his daughter to find a husband. His business, highly leveraged and always uncertain, was going badly, and he was fighting over profits with his former partners back in Maryland,” end quote.
While the Johnson’s may have been eager to make the match, the matriarch of the Adams family, Abigailr, was leery. Throwing the necessity of greatness on her son, Abigail warned of the potential pitfalls of marrying a foreign born wife. In the end, Louisa’s mother Catherine decided to intervene, sending a note to John Quincy at his hotel summoning him for a meeting to finalize, once and for all, just exactly what Mr. Adams intended to do with her daughter’s honor.
While the meeting seemed to have shifted John Quincy’s approach from one of detachment and aloofness to one of commitment to marry, barriers remained. Unlike the romantic comedies we watch today, marriage in those days was less about love as it was about entering into a contract. For whatever reason, though he stated his intentions to marry Louisa, John Quincy was adamant that he would finish his tenure as a diplomat and would not marry until he had established himself in his law practice. Eager to cement their union, Louisa was unhappy with his stated delay. Again from biographer Louisa Thomas, Louisa was worried she would lose John Quincy, quote: “their bond already felt strange and fragile, and she worried that time and distance would weaken it,” end quote.
There engagement, as it were, was fraught with conflict and hurt feelings. Both John Quincy and Louisa were stubborn and occasionally ill tempered and both were quick to memorialize their sentiments in letters, only to issue apologies once cooler heads prevailed. John Quincy even offered Louisa the opportunity to withdraw from the engagement, writing to her quote, “you know his inviolable attachment to his country, and his resolute determination not to continue long his absence from it. You know that upon retirement, the state of his fortune will require privations, which will be painful for him only as they may affect you. Choose, Louisa, choose for yourself, and be assured that his Heart will ratify your choice,” end quote.
Finally, after a lot of starts and stops, Louisa and John Quincy Adams were wed on July 26, 1797 at the parish church of the All Hallows Barking. Louisa was now a diplomat's wife; but what exactly did that entail? Quickly after their marriage, John Quincy was assigned to Germany, then known as Prussia. Aristocracy permeated Europe and despite John Quincy’s misgivings, Louisa was well trained in making a good impression in the courts of the elite. She was charming and affable, making friends with the upper echelons of prussian society.
She was also pregnant. And unfortunately for Louisa, she would suffer several miscarriages before successfully giving birth to a child. It is estimated that Louisa was pregnant at least a dozen times, though she only had four children. Soon after her arrival in Berlin, Louisa began to feel the symptoms of her first miscarraige. It took several days for her to expel the fetus and her recovery was rough, both physically and mentally. Writing about her experience later in life Louisa wrote quote, “it is almost impossible to imagine a situation more truly distressing for a women of refinement and delicacy than the one into which I was thrown,” end quote. She had doctors everywhere, poking and prodding her in more intimate ways than she was used to. But in a rare show of solidarity and tenderness, John Quincy was right there with Louisa, holding her hand as she suffered the first of what would be many miscarriages.
Louisa barely had time to fully heal, before duty called and she had to prepare for an audience with the prussian monarchy. This required following european protocol which included wearing a proper gown and learning the names and titles of the royal family. But Louisa was trained for this and she made a good impression on the prussian queen.
Though she was building a solid reputation with the european courts, Louisa struggled with her mother in law: the strong, opinionated and unapologetic Abigail Adams. Theirs was a frosty relationship, with their letters demonstrating the utmost formality. Instead of addressing Louisa as daughter or some other term of affection, Abigail wrote her letters to Mrs. Adams. Louisa, always sensitive to the emotions and attitudes of others, likely struggled with a feeling of rejection from her mother in law, knowing full well the influence she held within her family.
Louisa always struggled with her health, often suffering from what were likely migraines and often falling into a sense of helplessness when she felt overly lonely or ignored. Unfortunately for her, she married a man who put country and duty above his family life. Theirs was an odd marriage; unlike the Martha’s and Abigail’s who I have discussed previously, the union between Louisa and John Quincy seemed rife with struggle and hurt feelings. Perhaps this was a sign of their passion, but I often question just how they made their marriage work, considering their differing outlooks on life.
Again from biographer Louisa Thomas, quote: “their words were infected with concern, anger, boredom, irritation, desire, humor, and intimacy. They gave us a glimpse at how they communicated, perhaps also in conversation in person. They were, then, as many husbands and wives are, married in heart and mind through their contradictions, not only in spite of them” end quote. The union, from my outsiders perspective, seemed to be tenuous and fragile at best, with Louisa even bringing up the topic of divorce in a letter to John Quincy, only to quickly reject it.
But despite their bickering and occasional caustic tone with each other, Louisa gave birth to their first child, George Washington Adams on April 12, 1801 while with her husband on assignment in Berlin. Given her delicate health, birth proved exceedingly difficult and her recovery was slow. Shortly after giving birth, Adams received word he was being recalled and finally, after four years of marriage, Louisa would finally step foot in the country of her father and husband’s birth.
Upon landing in America, Louisa found herself in a sea of strangers. While she was able to temporarily reunite with her family, a lot had changed in the years since she last saw them and her father was much worse looking than she remembered. The young Mrs. Adams also had to make the journey to her husband’s childhood home and meet her formidable in-laws. And while her father-in-law seemed agreeable, Louisa knew she met her match when it came to meeting the matriarch, Abigail. Per biographer Louisa Thomas, Abigail quote: “regarded the young woman with a critical eye,” end quote and Louisa felt the gaze. Writing about her experience later in life, Louisa admitted she did not make it easy on either of them, reflecting, quote: “in short I was in every respect any thing but what I should have been,” end quote.
While in America, Louisa proceeded to successfully give birth to two more children: John Adams the Second in 1803 and Charles Francis Adams in 1807. She did this while also supporting her husband’s political ambitions, though he tried to refute his interest, as was the custom. Just as she had resigned herself to setting up a home for the family in Boston, word came that her husband had been appointed to the United States Senate.
Becoming a political wife in DC was something altogether different and new to Louisa. In Europe, lines of class were easily defined, protocols clear. In the United States, however, Louisa found that things were never clear and one could mistakenly offend a host without ever being the wiser. Her situation was made ever more difficult by her husband’s determination to remain outside the circle of influence and frugal with finances. Again from biographer Louisa Thomas, quote: “with no carriage, she had no mobility to seek out friends of her own. With her husband determined to keep to himself and demonstrate his independence, she had little opportunity or excuse to establish herself well in the social scene,” end quote.
This feeling of isolation and never quite fitting in was exacerbated by her husband’s lack of warmth or compassion for his wife. John Quincy often made decisions impacting the whole family without regard of feeling or interest in the opinion of his wife Louisa. While family decisions were commonly decided by the men, it nevertheless made Louisa feel untethered and she was not afraid to let her displeasure be known. Their relationship was filled with bickering and slights both perceived and real. In one extreme example, Louisa, furious over John Quincy’s decision to return to Washington without her, rebuffing his overtures about missing her, writing quote: “I never was so well in my life,” end quote.
By 1809, John Quincy had resigned his post in the Senate and had been appointed minister to Russia. Again, Louisa was forced to pick up her life and transport herself across the ocean; to make matters worse, she had to do so while leaving her two older sons back in Massachusetts, unsure of exactly when or if she would see them again.
And here peeps is where we will pause the story of Louisa Adams. Be sure to tune in next week as I dive into her time in Russia and how her experiences served to provide a sense of confidence. And we haven’t even gotten to her time as first lady. There is still so much to cover, dear friends.
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Thanks, peeps. I’ll see you next week.
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