Adams, Louisa Catherine Johnson

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ADAMS, Louisa Catherine Johnson

Born 12 February 1775, London, England; died 15 May 1852, Washington, D.C.

Daughter of Joshua and Catherine Nuth Johnson; married JohnQuincy Adams, 1797

Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams was the second daughter of an Englishwoman and a Maryland merchant residing in London. During the American Revolution, Adams' father, strongly pro-American, moved to Nantes, France, where Adams became bilingual, a great asset in the diplomatic world in which she later moved. In 1783 the family returned to London and the Johnson home became a meeting place for many Americans in London. It was there that John Quincy Adams (1767-1848) met, courted, and married her in 1797. Much of the Adams' life was spent in Europe at John Quincy's diplomatic posts: Prussia (1797-1801), Russia (1809-1814), and Great Britain (1815-1817). John Quincy was also a U.S. senator, secretary of state, president, and member of the House of Representatives. Throughout her marriage Adams played a secondary role to her husband's career, and her writings express the anger and frustration her subordinate role engendered. Although Adams wrote a number of works, only one has been published. Her unpublished writings can be read only on the microfilm edition of the Adams Papers.

The first of Adams' autobiographical works, Record of a Life or My Story (1825), is a detailed account of her childhood, courtship, and experiences in Prussia. Written for her children, the story is episodic and strongly stresses the idyllic quality of her childhood. Highly dramatic episodes are recounted in the greatest detail, and Adams is always at the center of attention. The description of her courtship emphasizes her feelings of inadequacy as the future wife of John Quincy Adams. Her extreme sensitivity to events and people, especially to her father, are most evident in these recollections. Ill health and struggles with her husband's small salary made her life at the Prussian court difficult and she sorely missed the domestic warmth she had known as a child. Despite her extraordinary memory and talent for description, this is essentially a family memoir. Even events at the court are written about from a personal point of view; the wider world of politics and history are not included.

In 1836 Adams wrote a dramatic and compelling history of a trip she and her seven-year-old son took in 1815. The Narrative of a Journey from St. Petersburg to Paris 1815, was published in 1903 by Scribner's Magazine. Adams followed the route of Napoleon's retreat from Moscow through a countryside still recovering from the ravages of war, and as she approached Paris, Napoleon returned from exile, plunging all of France into further turmoil. Had it not been for Adams' cool head and great courage, both she and her son might well have been killed. She wrote of the trip with great intensity and the narrative includes vivid descriptions of people and places; the self-centeredness of her other writings is absent here. Of all Adams' works this is the one most deserving of a modern publication.

Adams' third memoir is The Adventures of a Nobody began in 1840. The title of this work aptly sums up her feelings about herself. The long narrative, in part diary entries, records her married life until 1812. Adams appears here as an appendage to her family who isn't even in control of the domestic arrangements; all decisions concerning the upbringing of the children were being made by John Quincy. In sharp contrast to the picture she gives of her father, her husband is depicted as a cold and distant man. The details of life within the Adams family and at the Russian court are fascinating, but are unfortunately marred by a querulous tone. Adams seems to be trying to erase emotionally distressing episodes from her memory by sheer repetition.

Adams kept a remarkable diary during the years 1818 to 1821 for her aged father-in-law, whom she dearly loved. During this time John Adams resided in Massachusetts, while Adams herself was in the midst of the Washington political and social scene. Her comments show her to have been a keen observer and possessor of a very sharp wit. The endless "visitings," the importance of protocol, and the boredom of women's restricted lives in the 19th century are vividly portrayed in this diary and Adams' underused talents are never more in evidence. In spite of poor health during this period, she carried out her extensive social duties and coped as best she could with a very difficult family.

Adams' poems in both French and English are derivative and attract the reader by the sensitive feelings they portray rather than by originality of form or content. Several plays, written for family amusement, and a few prose compositions complete her works. None are of more than family interest.

Adams lived, by her own admission, a tormented and frustrated life. She fiercely resented the self-absorbed, remote man with whom she lived, while at the same time admiring him for his patriotism. She thought herself a failure as a mother and a wife. She wrote, like so many other women in the 19th century, to relieve feelings too pressing to contain. Her position in the Adams family is absolutely crucial in understanding the succeeding generations of Adamses. Very little has been written about her and what was usually glosses over her life with platitudes. Adams deserves an honest and comprehensive biography.

Other Works:

Diary (22 Oct. 1812-15 Feb. 1814, The Adams Papers, Reel #264). Diary (24 Jan. 1819-25 Mar. 1819, Reel #264). Diary (19 Jul. 1821-19 Aug. 1821, Reel #266). Diary (17 Aug. 1821-27 Sept. 1821, Reel #267). Diary (12 Apr. 1843-28 Aug. 1843, Reel #270).

Poems, dramatic compositions, prose reflections, a commonplace book, translations of poems and a prose composition can be found in The Adams Papers, Reels #264, 268, 270-74.

Bibliography:

American First Ladies: Their Lives and Legacy (1996). Klapthor, M. B., Maryland's First Ladies of the White House: Mrs. J. Quincy Adams (1825-1829), Mrs. Zachary Taylor (1849-1850) (1987). Minnergerode, M., Some American Ladies: Seven Informal Biographies (1926). Whitton, M. O., First FirstLadies 1789-1865: A Study of the Lives of the Early Presidents (1926).

Other reference:

ANB (1999). Biography of the First Ladies of the United States (film,1998). Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society (April 1974). Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams: The Ambiguous Adventure of 'a woman who was' (dissertation, 1992). Louisa Katherine Johnson Adams: The Price of Ambition (1982).

—JOAN R. CHALLINOR

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