Join me as I wrap up the life of Louisa Catherine Adams.
In this episode, I explore her time overseas with her husband while he served as Minister to Russia and her efforts to get John Quincy Adams elected president.
I also cover her time as First Lady, what her thoughts were about Adams' resurgence in the House of Representatives and her legacy.
Thomas, Louisa. Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. New York: Penguin Books, 2016.
“Louisa Adams.” The UVA Miller Center. (LINK)
O'Brien, Michael. Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon. United States: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.
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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.
Last week I started the story of Louisa Adams, wife of sixth president John Quincy Adams. Her life was filled with travel, heartbreak and historical events - and all of that before she even became first lady.
So this week, I am picking up where I left off. What was Louisa’s experience in a new foreign land? How did this impact her confidence, and what did her time as first lady look like?
So grab your cup of coffee, peeps. Let’s do this.
To recap, last week I dove into Louisa’s childhood and her courtship with Adams. After marrying the longtime diplomat, Louisa accompanied John Quincy on his various diplomatic posts throughout Europe before returning to the United States. I stopped last week with John Quincy Adams being assigned minister to Russia and being forced to leave two of her young sons behind while she made the trip across the ocean.
The journey was less than ideal; baggage lost and plundered, it took the traveling party several months before they were fully settled. Though they arrived on the shores of their new home in October, the Adams home would not be considered complete until the following June.
The time in Russia also placed tension on Louisa and John Quincy’s relationship. Being back in Europe meant adhering to the various customs and traditions, including servants, of which they had fourteen, and attending the various events which required only the highest fashion. All of which cost money Adams did not have, not that he would be happy to spend it if he did. While they tried to fool the royal family by coming up with various excuses such as feigning illness to minimize her attendance, eventually her ruse was discovered and Louisa was forced to play the game and by extension, buy the fashion. And though the cost of having his wife in attendance continued to be a sore spot in their marriage, Louisa rose to the challenge and charmed the royal family, including the Tsar Alexander.
In 1811, Louisa and John Quincy welcomed their fourth and final child, Louisa Catherine Adams. She quickly became the apple of her parents eyes, with her mother writing quote, “I fear I love her too much,” end quote. Unfortunately, little Louisa did not survive long, passing away just over a year after her birth in August 1812. The death nearly destroyed her mother and even the normally stoic and unemotional John Quincy was bereft and unable to attend to his daily work. Though he eventually recovered, the same could not be the same for Louisa, who seemed to become consumed with both grief and guilt, convinced she somehow caused her young daughter’s death. Feeling lonely and without a support network, Louisa often fell ill.
But, despite her recurring illnesses, when the time called for it, Louisa was a fierce and strong woman. One of the most vivid examples of her perseverance was her forty day journey through Europe to reunite with her husband in Paris.
Adams, who had been working to negotiate peace between Great Britain and the United States, had been separated from his wife and young son for nearly a year as he worked to secure the Treaty of Ghent which officially ended the War of 1812.
Once peace was secured, it was time to bring the family back together. Agreeing to meet in France, Louisa was put in charge of packing up their home and their belongings and securing passage from St. Petersburg. While it may sound as simple as securing a ticket and packing some bags, traveling during this time period was slow, intense and filled with a million little decisions. Without the comforts of modern technology, Louisa had to map out her route, secure a carriage and ensure she had sufficient provisions for her and her son. As someone who often suffered from various ailments, she also had to make sure she had enough supplies to aid her should she fall ill on the journey. And traveling alone as a woman, without her husband, she was constantly at risk for and on her guard about potential danger or less than scrupulous individuals looking to scam her.
As explained by biographer Louisa Thomas, quote: “she would have to disregard the stern warnings of men, men who told her to wait, to get help, to turn back. She would have to spend nights upright in the carriage or in dirty hovels. She would have to stand up to innkeepers who tried to take advantage of her sex and small size,” end quote. But Louisa rose to the task, embarking on the treacherous two thousand mile journey while hoping to avoid Napoleon who was very much trying to retake his position as France’s leader as her trek was perfectly timed during the Hundred Days campaign after Napoleon's escape from Elba.
This experience provided a rare opportunity to demonstrate to herself and to others that Louisa was capable and strong. The increase in her confidence is clear when reviewing her letters and other correspondence. She became more comfortable in sharing her opinion, was less self-deprecating and even felt her experiences were worth memorializing, starting the first of her three memoir’s in 1825.
However, I think her confidence came through strongest when working to get her husband elected to the presidency. Women always had to walk the appropriate balance when it came to politics; they couldn’t be seen as too involved or too opinionated, yet they were expected to attend events and support their spouses. And specifically for Louisa and John Quincy, he had often expressed his doubts in her abilities to perform even the most basic of functions, which makes her involvement all the more surprising and interesting.
Following in the tradition of his father and other politicians of the time, John Quincy worked very hard at looking disinterested in the presidency. He would not court potential voters and did not publicly advocate for the office, leaving his wife to do his bidding for him. However, the shape of presidential politics was shifting; where before men seen as publicly vying for the office were immediately considered unworthy, it was becoming an acceptable practice to go beyond the borders of DC and establish a name for yourself with voters. By the 1824 presidential contest, a number of states shifted to a direct election of their presidential electors. Again from biographer Louisa Thomas, quote: “The older values of disinterested service held less appeal for a second generation of Americans. Personalities mattered more,” end quote. And given John Quincy was not known for his personal appeal, Louisa wanted her husband to show a different side. She pushed him, delicately, to consider venturing out to the public.
In the run up to the 1824 election, Louisa worked within approved societal boundaries and hosted a ball in Andrew Jackson’s honor due to his success at the Battle of New Orleans. Hundreds were in attendance and the event was considered the hit of the season, but Louisa & John Quincy had ulterior motives; they hoped they could convince the popular Jackson to support John Quincy’s bid for the presidency and consider a role as Vice President. And if you know anything about United States presidential election history, then you know they were not successful.
Not only did Jackson run against John Quincy, he won both the popular and electoral votes. But of course, American politics has to be different and because Jackson only won a plurality, and not majority, the election went to the House of Representatives for the final decision.
For her part, Louisa stepped up by hosting another one of her weekly tea parties with members of Congress. They may not have cared much for her husband, but they could hardly resist their hostess. Louisa felt good about the effort she put into the battle for her husband, later referring to it as her campaign. John Quincy was finally elected as president by a House vote of 13 to 7 on February 9, 1825 in one of the most scandalized elections in U.S. history.
Though she did her level best to get her husband elected, Louisa was not a fan of being First Lady. First, despite the work she put in and the counsel she gave to her husband, he all but ignored her once in office. This cut Louisa deep and it may be one reason she viewed her time in the White House with a less than positive lens. She was also weary of what it meant to be First Lady, having witnessed the turmoil experienced by her predecessor Elizabeth Monroe. Upon arriving at their new temporary home, Louisa was shocked to see its status of disrepair. It had been a decade since the British lit the house on fire, and yet the space was still very much under construction.
Trying to get congressional funding to finish the repairs, she hosted a public viewing of the mansion. Unfortunately, her plans backfired and instead of focusing on the need to repair the executive mansion, locals criticized Louisa for showing the house in the first place. If she hadn’t already learned by watching Mrs. Monroe before her, Louisa now knew she would always be judged and criticized for her actions, regardless of her intentions.
Louisa referred to the presidential mansion as a prison and scaled back her social events. Instead of hosting her lively tea parties like when John Quincy was Secretary of State, Louisa maintained the tradition of her predecessor and hosted formal Drawing Rooms every two weeks. While the parties were filled with servants with treats like ice cream and champagne, there were no dances or other fun activities usually included in her notorious tea parties.
She struggled with the social norms of the time that required her to take a back seat role, especially when she had done so much work to get her husband to where he was. She expressed her frustrations while writing to her son Charles, saying quote: “I am utterly weary of the thankless task of wasting my life and strength for those who neither care whether I live or die provided their purpose is accomplished and I have arrived at that period of life when I believe women mostly meet with the same fate,” end quote.
Louisa felt isolated in Washington, despite being surrounded by people at all hours of the day. She often wrote to her sons asking for minor comforts and began to provide her father in law, the former president, with copies of her journals to keep him updated as to the comings and goings of the political scene. Their correspondence was warm and affectionate, unlike what she usually got from her husband. Upon his passing on July 4th, 1826, Louisa was bereft. She traveled to Quincy, despite her husband’s wishes, to pay her respects to a man she was always fond of.
In spite of her own personal disagreements with the role of First Lady, Louisa nevertheless rallied once more to help support her spouse for his reelection bid in 1828. She faced new challenges this time; her place of birth became a campaign issue. Trying to fight off any negative connotations, Louisa wrote an anonymous piece for the Philadelphia Evening Post in February 1827. She tried to assuage concerns about her heritage, pointing to the work her father did during the American Revolution. Unfortunately, the article did more damage than good and only led to more attacks of Louisa in the opposition press.
And though her efforts to assist in the campaign were unsuccessful, her husband’s fate was likely sealed with his prior election. Given the scandalous fallout from his original bid just four years earlier, John Quincy experienced the same fate as his father and was voted out of office after only one term.
Shortly after leaving the white house, Louisa went through the trauma of losing yet another child, when her son George either committed suicide or fell over the side of a sea transport while coming to visit his parents. Like when she lost her daughter, Louisa was inconsolable, blaming herself for his death.
When John Quincy was elected to congress in 1830, Louisa was once again thrown into the life of a political wife. She likely assumed their lives of public service were over, but as he promised in a letter during their courtship, John Quincy was as dedicated as ever to public service. And like he had so many times throughout their lives together, John Quincy made the decision to allow the candidacy for office to go through and accept the position, without discussing it with his wife. Fed up with this lack of communication or consideration of her feelings, Louisa initially refused to join her husband in DC, but finally relented and reunited with him just before Christmas.
And while his time in congress may have been a kind of resurgence for John Quincy, Louisa only continued to experience heartbreak, losing yet another son, John Adams II, on October 24, 1834 to alcoholism. He was only 31. It seems as though the deaths of their adult children opened a soft spot for John Quincy towards his wife. Their later letters were kinder and less focused on the other’s faults and John Quincy seemed to cherish his wife a bit more as they aged together.
John Quincy Adams died doing what he loved most when he collapsed on the floor of the capitol during a vote. He was quickly rushed off the floor to a couch within the building, where Louisa was able to visit with him. There are some varying accounts as to whether or not she was in the room when he passed away. Some sources I’ve read said she was there, while others said she was not. Per a letter written to a friend, Louisa claimed she was forced out and struggled to maintain her composure at the request. Whether or not she was present, John Quincy Adams died on February 23, 1848 at the age of 80.
Louisa outlived her husband by just four years, suffering a stroke just a few months after his death that she never fully recovered from. Her health continued to decline slowly before she passed away on May 15, 1852. She was 77.
One of the most traveled women of her time, Louisa Catherine Adams was more than just the first foreign born first lady. She was a committed spouse, often putting her own needs to the side in deference to her husband’s ambitions. She was a writer, drafting three separate memoirs to document her life experiences. And though she went unrecognized as such during her lifetime, she was also an intelligent politician who knew how to charm dignitaries and congressmen alike.
And when given her personal trials, I think it is fair to say that she was also simply resilient.
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