Louisa Johnson Adams
(Mrs. John Quincy Adams)
By Anne Adams
Their letters attest how Louisa and John Quincy Adams loved each other but their different personalities and temperamental outlooks made theirs a difficult marriage. Louisa occasionally was so depressed she became physically ill and her husband never did seem to appreciate her creative and mental skills. Also, there are some indications that he even seems to have considered her an unnecessary inferior. It is interesting that she titled her 1840 autobiography “Adventures of a Nobody.”
Yet Louisa Adams proved herself to be an important partner in her husband’s legislative, diplomatic and political career, coping with such major events as the death of two of her children, and a frigid dangerous trek across war-torn Europe.
Born in February 1775 in London, Louisa Catherine Johnson was the daughter of a Maryland businessman who had settled in Britain before the Revolution. He moved his family to France when operating a business in England became more precarious for Americans and while there was appointed American Commissioner of Accounts. In this position it was natural to invite to his home John Adams who was the American Minister to France, who arrived with his 11-year-old son John Quincy. After the war Mr. Johnson moved his family back to London.
By 1794 Mr. Johnson was American Consul in London and as such he again welcomed to his home John Quincy Adams now a young man on his way to The Hague to be American Minister to Holland. As he became acquainted with Johnson’s daughters, John Quincy was attracted to the intelligent Louisa and when he left for his new post he was serious about their relationship.
However, it was not a great romance, but more of a devoted mutual interest that continued for some two years while their families began to encourage them to become more serious. By 1796 John Quincy was about to become American minister to Portugal and his family nudged him to marry Louisa before he left for Lisbon.
But before that could happen, the next year his father became president and his diplomatic assignment was changed to Prussia. Despite her father’s impending financial crisis, Louisa and John Quincy were married near London in July, 1797, and a few months later they returned to The Hague to began preparing to move to Berlin and Adams’ new post.
The experience of traveling to Berlin and setting up their new household was Louisa’s introduction to what would be a long and difficult period as she became accustomed to her new life as a diplomat’s wife. John Quincy grew to enjoy the formality and polish of the Prussian court and while Louisa was willing to dress well, smile charmingly and be gracious, she was happiest in her own home, allowing her husband to mingle in diplomatic circles.
Meanwhile President Adams had sent word for John Quincy to come home before he left the White House in 1801. However, before they could leave, John Quincy and Louisa had to wait for the birth of their first child, George Washington Adams in April, 1801. By autumn that year they had returned to Massachusetts and not only was it Louisa’s s first time in the U.S., it also meant she met her mother-in-law Abigail for the first time. However, it soon became evident that he Adams women were not totally compatible as Abigail discovered Louisa was not to be as involved or interested in John Quincy’s career as Abigail had been in her husband’s. Louisa simply did not have the interest in politics that was traditional or even expected in the Adams family. Still, she proved a good mother for her children as well as a stabilizing influence on her husband, occasionally softening his tendency to be an over-strict father.
The family settled in Boston where John Quincy practiced law, served briefly in the Senate and lectured at Harvard. Two sons were born there – John in July, 1803 and Charles Francis in August, 1807. Louisa enjoyed city life more than living in the country– particularly at the Adams family center at Quincy. She enjoyed living in Washington when John Quincy was in the Senate especially because her sister and her family living there offered lodging and companionship Then Adams was appointed American Minister to Russia in 1809, and five years later, in 1815, traveled to Ghent, Belgium, to negotiate the treaty to end the War of 1812. Then later that year he became American Minister in London. During this time John Quincy and Louisa were out of the country eight years, and while he was achieving a fine record of diplomacy and service Louisa was largely in the background, feeling lonely and uncomfortable. Their sons George and John had been left with family in the U.S. and only the youngest Charles Francis was with them in Europe.
The years in Russia were particularly difficult for Louisa since she spent the last months alone while John Quincy was in Ghent, enduring the isolation of a strange culture and harsh winter conditions as well as the birth and death of a small daughter. Then in December of 1814 she received word from her husband in Paris to join him there. She was first forced to sell all their possessions and she set out with seven year old Charles Francis and a few servants. They began in February, 1815 in the midst of the Russian winter, traveling by sled to Berlin. Their journey to Paris was also difficult not because of the weather but because Europe was torn by the Napoleonic wars. As Louisa’s party set out they sometimes had to travel through areas where battlefields were still scattered with bodies. By the time they got to France, her servants, fearing being drafted into the army, deserted her. Louisa found herself alone with Charles Francis and one Prussian boy who served as her escort. One writer described how she developed a technique of dealing with dangers. “Louisa borrowed her son’s toy sword, displaying it in the window of the carriage after learning that those with military hardware were less likely to be bothered by marching brigades.” (Secret Lives of First Ladies, by Cormac O’Brien, p. 43). Her tactic was generally successful though at one point she had to resort to passing herself off as Napoleon’s sister.
Eventually Louisa and Charles Francis arrived in Paris to be welcomed by a surprised John Quincy, who greeted her with delight and respect.
The next several years were more peaceful for Louisa as the family lived in London as John Quincy served as American Minister. It was a familiar environment and their children were nearby. In August, 1817 when they returned to Washington for Adams to become Secretary of State in President’s Monroe’s administration, they found that Adams and his sons had become celebrities of a sort because of all that happened to them. Louisa responded graciously, but her naturally shy husband was happiest when he returned to the family home in Quincy. After they moved to Washington where their sons went off to school. George entered Harvard, but soon he began the drinking and gambling habits that would not only cause his parents great grief but would be a lifelong problem for him. For his part John could not seem to meet his father’s strict academic expectations, and only Charles Francis seemed to be the serious scholar that his father expected him to be. He graduated in 1825 and then studied law. However, even with all his success, Charles Francis still welcomed the opportunity to become independent. For though he had spent more time with his parents than his brothers, it meant he had endured the difference of temperaments that caused them to frequently squabble. It was enough for Charles Francis to comment: “A more pitiable set I do not think I know.”
Yet despite their behind-the-scenes differences, the public saw the couple as the society leaders of Washington. Louisa became the city’s most prominent hostess since Dolley Madison and her husband had returned to their Virginia plantation, and Elizabeth Monroe did not entertain as some thought she should. One major social event Louisa arranged was a party in 1824 to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans. Biographer Margaret Bassett described it this way: “A newspaper came out with verses on the event, reporting in many stanzas the company that attended, ending each one with the refrain ‘Belles and matrons, maids and madams, All are gone to Mrs. Adams’’” (Profiles and Portraits of American Presidents and their Wives, p. 66)
Yet while Louisa had been a widely acclaimed hostess before her husband entered the White House, once he became president, her operation of the Executive Mansion was not up to her previous standards. During these years Louisa suffered from depression, which led to illness and even caused her to begin to think of herself as a political disability to her husband and his career. Despite the depression she continued to confront her husband’s touchiness and on his side John Quincy retained no harsh feelings from their quarreling. They may have argued and frequently, but the effects were not lasting and they seem to have retained their deep feelings for each other despite the dissention. As Bassett put it: “It was her misfortune that her health was at its lowest ebb in the White House, and the demands of that position, plus a season of family anxieties, bore too heavily upon her, so that her depression, fits of hysteria, and fainting spells kept the household constantly hopping to her side in alarm, an attention she relished exceedingly.” (P. 67).
There was also romance in the White House during this period and it developed when Louisa invited three of her deceased sister’s children to live in the Executive Mansion. One of these was her niece Mary. The Adams’ sons Charles Francis, John and George were either working in the White House or visited frequently, and though Mary seemed ready to accept George she transferred her affections to John and they were married in the White House in 1828.
Then their joy at the marriage turned to tragedy. It occurred when the family left the White House in 1829 and prepared to return to Massachusetts. They asked Charles Frances, then practicing law in Boston, to help them move, but it was a troubled young man who set out to join his family. His parents were not aware of his dissipated life that had led to debts, professional failures, and even an affair with a girl that resulted in her pregnancy. As he set off he was distressed not only with the problems but also the prospect of parental displeasure. Then as he traveled by ship down the coast, one night during the trip he went over the side, probably a suicide. His body appeared later along the New York Coast.
The loss of their son was a truly uniting force for Louisa and John Quincy as they delft with the grief and the emotions natural when suicide occurs. Louisa’s grief was particularly evident in her poem, “Poor George, To Him that is Gone Forever”. The verses ran: “So long in memory shalt thou live/In that fond heart enshrined./And God in pity will forgive/This weak and erring mind.”
Louisa found some comfort in returning to Washington after 1830 when the former President was elected to the House of Representatives and they again established their residence in their old home. Unfortunately just before this son John had died and Louisa and John Quincy opened their home to his widow and daughters.
Henry Adams, Louisa’s grandson, later wrote of his childhood memories of her: “Madame seemed singularly peaceful, a vision of silver grey, presiding over her President and her Queen Anne mahogany; an exotic, like her Sevres china; an object of deference to every one.”
In 1846 as Louisa returned to Washington from Quincy, her husband remained in Boston a while but she hurriedly returned when she received word he’d suffered a cerebral hemorrhage. However, he was soon well enough for them to return to Washington but it was a sign of what would come some months later. In February, 1848 John Quincy Adams collapsed on the floor of Congress and was moved to a nearby bed where he died on the 23rd. Louisa herself passed away in May, 1852.
A native of Kansas City , Missouri , Anne grew up in northwestern Ohio , and holds degrees in history: a BA from Wilmington College , Wilmington , Ohio (1967), and a MA from Central Missouri State University , Warrensburg , Missouri (1968)
A freelance writer since the early 1970s, she has published in Christian and secular publications, has taught history on the junior college level, and has spoken at national and local writers’ conferences. Her book “Brittany, Child of Joy”, an account of her severely retarded daughter, was issued by Broadman Press in 1987. She also publishes an encouragement newsletter “Rainbows Along the Way.”