No one had a better resume for becoming a First Lady than Louisa Catherine Adams.
Louisa: Englishwoman of High Standing
Louisa Catherine Johnson was born in England and well educated in a convent school in Paris. Her American father had relocated to England several years prior to the American Revolution.
Louisa was pretty, with a gift for languages, music and poetry. She played the harp and the harpsichord. She was well trained in the fashionable skills of charm and conversation. In essence, for exactly what she became: the wife and consort of a man of prominence.
At twenty, she met John Quincy Adams, recently appointed Minister to the Netherlands at the start of his illustrious diplomatic career.
During their two year (mostly by correspondence) courtship, Louisa had ample opportunity to sense the cold and critical personality of her intended, and one might be hard pressed (reading their letters) to wonder why she continued the relationship. Nevertheless, the couple married.
Louisa: Learning to Cope
From the beginning, Louisa Adams was relegated to the background of her husband’s life as ornament and mother; nothing like the close and loving domestic partnership between the groom’s parents, the venerable John and Abigail.
As her upbringing dictated, Louisa graced society, smiling and bowing and making suitably pleasant conversation. Her diplomat husband was happy to escort her to the party, and then disappear with his counterparts, to play cards, have a brandy, and conduct private discussions.
The coolness of their relationship in no way precluded her fifteen pregnancies, losing most babies through miscarriage. Only three survived to adulthood. And then, two of them gave their parents grief.
When the young Adamses returned to America with their infant son, George Washington Adams, she finally met her new in-laws. Abigail was distressed that her son married a delicate and pampered Englishwoman; she had preferred a hardier soul, preferably a New Englander. The women’s relationship would be strained. John Adams, however, grew to love his pretty new daughter-in-law, and she, in turn, adored the old gentleman.
In 1809, JQ was appointed Minister Plenipotentiary (i.e. Ambassador) to St. Petersburg, Russia. Without consulting his wife, he arranged for George and John II, their two older sons to remain in Boston; he and Louisa and two-year-old, Charles Francis, would go to Russia. Louisa was devastated at leaving her boys (11 and 9), and begged to remain behind until they could reunite as a family. JQ refused. The senior Adamses, perhaps remembering their own family separations, were not overly sympathetic.
Louisa would not see her older boys for five years. By that time, they were half-grown men.
Louisa: Mrs. Secretary of State
JQ Adams was a man of great ambition and expectations. His appointment in 1817 as Secretary of State to James Monroe was considered the perfect position. He was arguably the most experienced and cosmopolitan man in the country. His foreign counterparts liked him. Fortunately for both the President and his key Secretary, they got on well. Adams served a full eight years.
The family gladly moved to Washington, DC. She was accustomed to a metropolitan environment; JQA also preferred the capital city to provincial Quincy, MA.
Louisa was now past forty. Her numerous pregnancies, and five devastating winters in St. Petersburg, were beginning to take their toll on her health, which thereafter would be chronically iffy.
First Lady Elizabeth Monroe preferred a remote social role. It would be up to Mrs. JQA to take up the reins, whether she liked it or not, to become the leader of Washington society. And whether she liked it or not depended a great deal on how she was feeling.
JQ was aware that he was socially inept, with a cold and forbidding persona. He required someone to run interference, and was happy to trot out his charming and politically savvy wife to attend (and host) the various salons, take note of who was there, when they arrived and what was said – all considered superb bellweathers of how the winds were blowing.
FLOTUS Louisa Adams
When JQA became President in 1825, the expected culmination of a sophisticated life of achievement became a daily grind of misery and disappointment. His long-sought election was a four-way contest decided in the House of Representatives. Some believed it was finagled. JQA was more unpopular than ever. His Presidency was thwarted at every turn, despite the considered and progressive programs he espoused.
George Washington Adams, John Adams II, and Charles Francis Adams
Rather than presiding over a White House glittering with cosmopolitan social events, JQ presided over a tedious table, relieved in part by the brandy flask or wine decanter. Louisa Adams, chronically ailing and menopausal, no longer glittered in society. For all intents and purposes, the couple were estranged in the White House. When apart, their letters were formal and stilted. He called her “Madam;” she addressed him as “Sir.”
First Lady Louisa Adams kept to her room a good deal of the time, reading, writing poetry, and even penned a little play called The Adventures of A Nobody. Their last days at the White House were grief-filled by the misadventures of their sons. George had become an alcoholic and committed suicide shortly before the end of his father’s term. John II had also taken to drink. Even young Charles Francis seemed headed for dissipation. Then, of course, there was JQ’s bitter resentment at having been defeated for reelection by his nemesis Andrew Jackson in 1828.
It was not until after the Presidency that their mutual sorrows began to draw them closer. Some say the last decades of their fifty year marriage were their happiest.
Allgor, Catherine – Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government – Univ. of Virginia Press, 2002
Nagel, Paul C. – Descent From Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family – Oxfvord University Press – 1983
Shepherd, Jack – Cannibals of the Heart – 1980, McGraw Hill