Adams, Louisa Catherine (1775–1852)

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Adams, Louisa Catherine (1775–1852)

Wife and political partner of John Quincy Adams who wrote about crucial national and diplomatic events of early republican America, everyday life in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and her 50-year alliance with America's preeminent ruling family. Name variations: Louisa or Catherine. Born Louisa Catherine Johnson on February 12, 1775, in London, England; died in Washington, D.C., on May 15, 1852; daughter of Joshua Johnson (an American merchant) and Catherine (Nuth or Young; an Englishwoman) Johnson; had private tutors or attended various private schools in France and England; married John Quincy Adams, on July 26, 1797; children: George Washington (1801–1828), John II (1803–1833); Charles Francis (b. 1807); Louisa Catherine Adams II (1811–1812).

Family moved to France (1778); moved back to England (1782); Louisa met John Quincy Adams (1795); joined him on diplomatic mission in Prussia (1797–1801); family sailed to America (1801); became a senator's wife (1803–08); joined husband in diplomatic mission to Russia (1808–15); journeyed alone from St. Petersburg to Paris (1815); went on diplomatic mission to England (1815–17); returned to America as wife to secretary of state and to campaign for husband's presidency (1817–24); organized the Jackson Ball (1824); served as first lady (1824–28), then retired to Quincy, Massachusetts; returned to Washington as U.S. representative's wife (1830); death of John Quincy Adams (1848).

On November 12, 1808, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, wife of the newly arrived American plenipotentiary to Russia, was presented in a formal ceremony to Alexander I and Elizabeth of Baden , the emperor and empress of All Russias. Though beset with a "fluttering pulse," Louisa Adams performed the ritual well and enjoyed "fifteen minutes of affable chat" with the royal couple. After they withdrew, Adams, in all her heavy and elaborate court dress, was conducted to a more informal meeting with the empress mother, Sophia Dorothea of Wurttemberg . Thinking that the lady before her was an American provincial, Sophia asked Louisa what she thought of St. Petersburg. Diplomatically, Adams extolled the charms of the city, but mentioned that she had also seen London, Paris, Berlin, and Dresden. "A mon Dieu!" exclaimed the royal lady, "Vous avez tout vue! (You saw everything!)" "She appeared to regret it very much," wrote Adams later, "the Savage had been expected!"

Louisa Catherine Adams was one of the most well traveled and, in the opinion of some, most sophisticated American women of her time. Born in London, England, on February 12, 1775, to Maryland merchant Joshua Johnson and Englishwoman Catherine Nuth Johnson , Louisa was the second daughter in a family that would consist of eight girls and one boy. Though her mother's origins remain uncertain, Louisa's paternal uncle was the governor of Maryland and her father a patriotic American. With the Revolution only a few months away, American politics shaped Louisa Catherine Johnson's life from its start.

Joshua Johnson moved his family to Nantes, France, in 1778, when London proved a difficult place for an American businessman. Louisa began school there, mastering the French language, a skill that would stand her in excellent stead in her future career as a diplomat's wife. The Johnsons moved back to England in 1783 and set up a fashionable London household. As befitted the daughters of a wealthy merchant, Louisa and her sisters received extensive training in languages, fancy work, and music, the latter accomplishment of special interest to the young Louisa, whose early talent blossomed into a virtuosity commented upon by observers throughout her life.

The Johnson home also became a meeting place for Americans in England and diplomats from all countries. John and Abigail Adams dined there when John served as minister from America, and in 1795, their son, 29-year-old John Quincy, on a diplomatic mission from The Hague, also came to dinner at the Johnsons'. He was quickly drawn into their lively household, attracted by the delightful Johnson girls, who sang and played upon the pianoforte. The family assumed his interest lay in the eldest daughter, Nancy Johnson, but three months after his arrival, John Quincy bestowed "decidedly Publick" attentions on 20-year-old Louisa Catherine.

Their courtship—romantic, stormy, diffident—lasted two years, including a long separation when John Quincy returned to The Hague. He took this opportunity to prepare Louisa to be his wife by instructing her on the "republican" way of thinking, with its stress on duty and sacrifice: "every interest and feeling inconsistent with it must disappear." For the most part, Louisa accepted these dictates; when she resisted, John Quincy reproved her for such a show of "spirit."

On July 26, 1797, the pair married at Tower Hill in London, and then prepared to embark for Berlin to begin John Quincy's assignment as plenipotentiary to the Prussian Court. In the meantime, having seen at least one of their daughters safely married, the Johnson family sailed for America. Within days of their departure, Joshua Johnson's business collapsed, an event precipitated by his mismanagement and extravagance. While still on their honeymoon, the young couple fended off creditors, John Quincy remaining "rigourous, inflexible"; he paid "not a shilling." Louisa Catherine never got over the shame of her father's bankruptcy and the appearance of having "palmed herself off" on an unsuspecting John Quincy. As she viewed it, this tragedy blighted her marriage and turned "every sweet thing into gall." Beginning a pattern of emotional distress followed by physical collapse that would continue throughout her life, she became depressed and then ill.

Shortly after this calamity, Louisa and John Quincy, along with his brother, Thomas Boylston Adams, sailed for Prussia. Suffering from the effects of her first pregnancy, Louisa miscarried the child on shore, thus beginning a death-defying reproductive history that would include 15 pregnancies—ten miscarriages, four live births, and one stillbirth. Once recovered, however, Louisa proved an ideal diplomatic companion. Fluent in French, charming, with a zest for "occasions," she became a great favorite in the highly cultivated court, compensating for her quiet, bookish husband.

When the Adamses finally sailed for America in 1801, they had a solid treaty with Prussia in hand and had established a firm and favorable diplomatic position for the United States at the court. In addition, after four miscarriages, Louisa had given birth to her first child, George Washington Adams. But even in possession of the heir to the Adams' dynasty, Louisa felt uncertain and unwelcome when she met her husband's family in Quincy, Massachusetts. To her, the rural life of 18th-century America was completely alien: "Had I stepped into Noah's Ark I do not think I could have been more utterly astonished…. Even the church, its forms, the snuffling through the nose, the Singers, the dressing and the dinner hour were all novelties to me." In the face of her mother-in-law Abigail, a woman Louisa called "the equal of every occasion in life," Louisa felt herself deemed "a fine Lady" who would "not suit." Only old John Adams made her feel wanted: he "took a fancy to me and he was the only one." Their relationship developed over the years, and their correspondence after Abigail's death is one of the liveliest and most affectionate in the Adams' family papers.

The young Adams family moved to Boston, so that John Quincy could begin his law practice. Louisa became a Boston hostess and enjoyed being the mistress of her own house. Another son, John Adams II, was born in 1803, adding to her contentment. Law bored John Quincy, however, and seizing the only respectable outlet open to an Adams he ran for and was elected senator in 1803. For five years, Louisa shuttled between her husband in Washington and her children in Quincy. She suffered a stillbirth alone in Washington and, with John Quincy present, the birth of another son, Charles Francis, in Boston in 1807. The physical and social crudeness of Washington and its politics alternately disgusted, amused, and intrigued Louisa. She immediately disliked President Thomas Jefferson, granting him only "a kind of sneaking greatness," and disapproved of the increasing democratization of the young republic.

The summer of 1809 proved, in both Louisa's and John Quincy's hindsight, to be a crucial turning point in their lives and careers. President James Madison appointed John Quincy Adams plenipotentiary to Russia. John Quincy considered it "the most important work of any I have ever … been engaged in." For Louisa, it marked a disaster in her life and the lives of her children. Apparently without consulting her, John Quincy decided that only little Charles Francis should go to Russia with them and that his two older sons should remain in America for the duration of his appointment, which he expected would be about three years. Recalling the event in her autobiography Adventures of a Nobody, Louisa claimed that she fought both John Quincy and Abigail for her sons, but "not a soul entered into my feelings and all laughed to scorn my suffering, crying out that it was affectation." They even prevented Louisa from pleading her case before John Adams, fearing the family patriarch would side with her. So Louisa Catherine set sail for St. Petersburg accompanied by her sister Kitty and her youngest son, whom she later described as "the only one of my children I never deserted." The eventual six-year separation of young George Washington and John from their parents, insisted Louisa, caused their troublesome adolescences and early deaths.

Heartbreak aside, Louisa Catherine once again shone at court, winning special regard from the emperor and empress and obtaining crucial access to the inner circles of power. As John Quincy became more absorbed with his books, Louisa Catherine assumed increasing responsibility for attending the social functions that were the lifeblood of an aristocratic court. The two were overjoyed when Louisa Catherine gave birth to a daughter, Louisa Catherine II, in 1811. However, the child lived only a year and her death drove her parents into deep and separate depressions. John Quincy retreated into his study and Louisa wrote.

In 1815, John Quincy was called to Ghent to negotiate the peace treaty that ended the war of 1812. While there, he received word of his new post in London, the "plum" assignment of the corps, and sent Louisa instructions to join him in Paris. Galvanized by quitting the place that had brought her so much unhappiness, on her 40th birthday Louisa packed up the house, sold the furniture and, accompanied only by her maid, seven-year-old Charles Francis, and a couple of rascally servants, she set out to cross the frozen Russian battlefields in an historic 40-day carriage ride. Along the way, she dealt with thieves, retreating armies, and angry mobs with a strength and bravado that amazed her family.

Reunited with all their children in England, Louisa Catherine and John Quincy spent two idyllic years before returning to America so that John Quincy could take up the post as secretary of state under President Monroe. Louisa and John knew this post to be the stepping-stone to the nation's highest office, but, acknowledging her husband's reluctance and awkwardness in campaign and social situations, Louisa assumed almost the entire burden of "smiling for the Presidency." Using her hard-won political savvy, she turned social calls—"The torments of my life"—into a science, in one morning delivering eleven such calls, covering six square miles. John Quincy took her job as seriously as his own. An amused Louisa wrote his father that he made out her calling cards every morning with all the intensity with which he pored over his state papers. Louisa became famous for her Tuesday evening soirees, and her crowning achievement was the ball she gave to celebrate Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans, an event unparalleled in Washington's social annals for many years.

However, no single candidate received a majority vote in the electoral college. The election of 1824 was therefore thrown to the House of Representatives, which would select a president from the top three candidates: Jackson, Adams, and William H. Crawford of Georgia. Although the celebrated Jackson had received the most popular votes and the most electoral votes, the lower house elected the second highest electoral vote getter as president. John Quincy Adams was, therefore, constitutionally and legally elected the sixth president of the republic, but under a cloud.

After the election, Louisa's job as "campaign manager" ended, leaving her gloomy and depressed. Her White House years were anticlimactic, and she increasingly grew tired of the "Bull bait" of politics. After John Quincy's ignominious defeat in 1828 to Andrew Jackson, she eagerly prepared to quit Washington for the peace of Quincy. But she was not to have a quiet retirement. The Adams' eldest son George Washington died (a possible suicide) on his way to escort his parents from the White House. Five years later, John Adams II also died, after a long, wrenching battle with alcoholism. Fortunately, Charles Francis, while not exhibiting the Adams scintillation, was turning out to be a solid, if stolid, citizen.

On top of these two losses, John Quincy decided to return to Washington as a congressional delegate to serve in the House of Representatives in 1830. Outraged by his "grasping ambition" and "insatiable passion for fame," Louisa reminded John Quincy of the price they had both paid for his political involvement. She stood by his side, however, as he became the only ex-president ever to return to elected office. She lauded his stand against the Gag Rule in Congress and saw him achieve personal popularity. Though sorrows marred her later years, her intellectual life flourished. Throughout her life, she had written poems, plays, and journals. In 1825 and 1840, she wrote two memoirs, Record of My Life and The Adventures of a Nobody, that provide fascinating portraits of European diplomatic life and the Washington political scene, as well as insight into the thoughts of an intelligent, sensitive woman of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. She sustained a wide correspondence on a variety of subjects, from musings on women's place in the polity with her daughter-in-law Abigail Brooks Adams (1808–1889) to discussions of abolition with Angelina E. Grimke (1805–1879).

In 1848, John Quincy had a stroke while at his desk in the House chamber and died several days later. The following year, Louisa also suffered a stroke but survived three more years, honored and respected by the Washington community. Apparently her last days were tranquil ones, and she died peacefully in her Washington, D.C., home. On the day of her funeral in 1852, both houses of Congress adjourned in her memory, making her the first woman ever to receive that honor.


The Adams Papers. Published by the Adams Manuscript Trust through the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA, Reels 264, 265.

Butterfield, Lyman H. "Tending A Dragon-Killer: Notes for the Biographer of Mrs. John Quincy Adams," in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. 118, April 1974, pp. 165–178.

Challinor, Joan Ridder. "Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams and the Price of Ambition." Ph.D. diss., American University, 1982.

Corbett, Katharine T. "Louisa Catherine Adams: The Anguished 'Adventures of a Nobody,'" in Women's Being, Women's Place: Female Identity and Vocation in American History. Edited by Mary Kelley. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1979.

Nagel, Paul C. The Adams Women: Abigail and Louisa Adams, their Sisters and Daughters. NY: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Shepherd, Jack. Cannibals of the Heart: A Personal Biography of Louisa Catherine and John Quincy Adams. NY: McGraw-Hill, 1980.

suggested reading:

Bobbe, Dorothie. Mr. and Mrs. John Quincy Adams: An Adventure in Patriotism. NY: Minton, Balch, 1930.

Challinor, Joan Ridder. "'A Quarter-Taint of Maryland Blood': An Inquiry into the Anglo-Maryland Background of Mrs. John Quincy Adams," in Maryland Historical Magazine. Winter 1985, 409–419.

——. "The Mis-Education of Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams," in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society. Vol. 98, 1987, pp. 21–48.

Nagel, Paul C. Descent From Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family. NY: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Shepherd, Jack. The Adams Chronicles: Four Generations of Greatness. Boston: Little, Brown, 1975.


The Adams Papers. Published by the Adams Manuscript Trust through the Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston, MA.

Catherine A. Allgor , Assistant Professor of History, Simmons College, Boston, Massachusetts

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Adams, Louisa Catherine (1775–1852)

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