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First Lady Biography: Louisa Adams

LOUISA CATHERINE JOHNSON ADAMS

Born:
12 February, 1775
London, England
*Louisa Catherine Adams is the only First Lady born outside of the United States.

Father:

Joshua Johnson, born 25 June, 1744, St. Leonard, Calvert County, Maryland; U.S. Consul, merchant, businessman, Superintendent of Stamps; died 1802, Washington, D.C.

*In 1774, Joshua Johnson's brother Thomas Johnson served with John Adams in the Continental Congress, and later was elected Maryland's first governor. In 1801, as President, John Adams offered him the position of Chief Justice of the Circuit Court of the District of Columbia.

Mother:

Catherine Nuth Johnson, born 1757, London, England; died 29 October, 1811, Washington,D.C.

* Extant documentation shows that the parents of Louisa Adams did not marry until 1785, two years after the family's return to London, England from Nantes, France.   At the time, Louisa Catherine Johnson (Adams) was 10 years old. Whether this was their first civil or religious marriage, or it was a second such ceremony for some reason, remains unknown. After considerable reasearch efforts by her eminent grandson, historian and author Henry Adams, even he was unable to conclude the reason for this. 

Ancestry:

English; Louisa Adams' paternal great-grandparents immigrated to Maryland from England. Her mother was born in England. One of her maternal grandfathers had been a brewer in London and one of her maternal great-grandmothers had been one of 21 children.

Birth Order and Siblings:

second of nine children; seven sisters, one brother; Anne "Nancy" Johnson Hellen (1773-1811), Carolina Virginia Marylanda Johnson Buchanan Frye (1776- 1862), Thomas Baker Johnson (1779-1843), Harriet Johnson Boyd (1781- 1850), Catherine "Kitty" Johnson Smith (?-1869), Eliza Johnson Pope (?-1818), Adelaide Johnson Hellen (1787-1877)

Louisa Adams' sister Kitty married Billy Smith in 1809; he was the nephew of John Quincy Adams, the son of Adams' sister Nabby. Her sister Eliza Johnson married U.S. Senator John Pope of Kentucky in 1810. After the death of Louisa Adams' sister Nancy Hellen, her widowed husband Walter Hellen married a second time, to their sister Adelaide. The daughter of Nancy and Walter Hellen, Mary, married her first cousin, John Adams II, in the White House, the only wedding in the mansion of a president's son.

Physical Appearance:

Brown hair, brown eyes, 5' 6"

Religious Affiliation:

practiced Catholicism in France and Anglicanism in England; baptized into the Episcopal faith in 1837

Education:


Roman Catholic convent school, Nantes, France, 1781-1783, learned to read and write in French and became so proficient in French that she forgot how to speak English, also learned to play the harp and piano, and to sing; English boarding school for girls, England, 1784-1789, her education continued with further study in, rudimentary mathematics, philosophy, embroidery, needlework, stitching, drawing. One of her teachers, a Miss Young permanently changed her way of thinking about herself and the place of women in society, teaching her to express her true views and to use direct language instead of repressing herself as most young women of her class and era were trained to do. Later, Louisa Adams pondered whether her having learned to view the world and humanity with the clarity that she had was not a mistake since women were discouraged to involve themselves in larger and public issues that were the sole purview of men. Private tutor, London, England, 1789 to approximately 1793, when her only brother was sent to study at Harvard in the United States, Louisa Adams and her sisters were pulled from boarding school and received further instruction at home. As a young woman during this time, she began to write poetry and essays extensively, later to enlarge her craft to playwriting.

Occupation before Marriage:

Joshua Johnson came to England from Maryland in 1771. With the American colonies at war with England while he was there, he moved his family to France in 1778 to the port city of Nantes. Louisa Adams grew up in great luxury and indulgence, a lifestyle she attributed to her mother's insistence. In France, the Johnsons entertained many Americans, including John Adams and his son, then-twelve year old John Quincy. Louisa Adams would long afterward consider her identity to be more French than English, in terms of her cultural interests, personal manner and worldly sensibilities.

When she returned to England with her family, she even had to relearn how to speak English. Although she had not been baptized in any faith upon her birth, as she matured, Louisa Adams worshipped as a Catholic, attending masses and strictly adhered to what the nuns in the convent of her first school had taught her. Consequently, when thrust into Anglicanism in England with no explanation of the transition, she found herself confused and overwhelmed, repeatedly fainting when she knelt to pray in the new faith. Her parents as well as other observers and associates over the years noted Louisa Adams' unusual sensitivity towards others, intensity in her quest for answers on existence, and brilliant musical and literary skill. These traits stood out all the more because Louisa Adams had an openess that was uncommon among young women of her era.

In 1795, while attending one of the many lavish parties held at the Johnson home on Cooper Row near Tower Hill in London, the young American diplomat John Quincy Adams was drawn to her because of such qualities. Engaged in 1796, Adams nevertheless had reservations, fed in part by the concerns raised by his influential mother, Abigail Adams, who reminded him how poor choices in his personal life could impact his future political prospects. In the year preceding their eventual marriage, Adams sent a series of harshly critical and blunt letters to Louisa Adams, emphasizing the importance of prudence, economy and lack of frivolity that would be required from a wife of his. When Adams further delayed the marriage due to his lack of funds, Joshua Johnson promised to pay for their passage to his next assignment, in Lisbon, Portugal. Adams consented, but just before the wedding, Louisa Adams' father took his wife and the rest of his children and fled England for the U.S., leaving enormous debt to British creditors.

Marriage:

22 years old to John Quincy Adams (11 July, 1767 - 23 February, 1848), on 26 July, 1797, London, England; shortly after their wedding, the Adamses had planned to sail to Lisbon, Portugal where he was to assume a new diplomatic mission. At the time of his marriage, Adams had served as the secretary to the U.S. Minister to Russia (1781), and to the Minister to the Netherlands(1794). Instead, he was re-assigned by his father (who had at that point been President of the United Statesfor four months) to serve as Minister to Prussia.

The wedding of the President's son to a British-born subject attracted national press back in the United States, the Boston Independent Chronicle's 14 September, 1797 edition noting that, "Young John Adams' Negotiations have terminated in a Marriage Treaty with an English lady…"

Children:

Four children; three sons, one daughter; George Washington Adams (1801-1829); John Adams II (1803-1834); Charles Francis Adams (1807-1886); Louisa Catherine Adams (1811-1812)

Occupation after Marriage:

Louisa Adams commenced her role as the wife of a public servant immediately after her marriage, when she moved with her husband to Berlin, where he served as the U.S. Minister to Prussia. Her European sensibilities, love of dancing, fluency in French all served her and her husband well, even to the point where the Prussian royal family befriended her. Despite this, Louisa Adams suffered a series of physical and emotional troubles, with miscarriages, fainting spells, fevers and extreme fatigue. This was complicated by such a shortage of funds that she was unable to entertain at a level that was commensurate with other diplomats. Furthermore, her husband was impatient with and ignored her needs, having a generally dismissive attitude towards women's intelligence.

Louisa Adams' deep sense of isolation, however, only deepened what would eventually become an enlightened view of gender equality. When his father lost his re-election in 1800, he recalled his son immediately so his successor, Thomas Jefferson, would not have the opportunity to make political hay of it. Louisa Adams then made her first voyage to the United States. At her home with her husband in Quincy, Massachusetts she found an immediate and lifelong friend in her father-in-law, former President John Adams. As to her new mother-in-law, the former First Lady Abigail Adams, Louisa Adams wrote that, "to a woman like Mrs. Adams, equal to every occasion in life, I appeared like a maudlin hysterical fine Lady…" Abigail Adams considered her European daughter-in-law to lack the substance of a sturdy American woman and judged by her thinness and poor health that she would not live long.

Louisa Adams would not have to share a home long with Abigail Adams. When John Quincy Adams began to practice law in Boston, the couple moved into the city. Shortly thereafter, in 1802, he was elected by state senate to the U.S. Senate. As the son of a former President, John Quincy and Louisa Adams had immediate entrée to the most powerful figures in Washington, D.C. when they arrived for him to begin his tenure as a Federalist U.S. Senator from Massachusetts- they dined with Thomas Jefferson, James and Dolley Madison. On an earlier visit, in 1801, they had visited former First Lady Martha Washington at Mount Vernon. It proved to be a useful introduction for foreigner Louisa Adams in the American capital and she retained a strong sense of public bi-partisanship in her creation of a social salon for political figures - despite her private defensiveness of her husband and his views. Adams' occasional support of Jefferson and Madison policy enraged his constituency and embarrassed his parents. His break with the Federalist Party came in the summer of 1807 and he resigned a year later. Newly-elected President Madison, however, offered Adams the post of Minister to Russia. Without consulting Louisa Adams, he accepted. To add insult to injury, it had been decided for her by him and his mother that the senior Adams would raise her eldest two sons, George and John at home in Massachusetts, while Louisa Adams was permitted only to take her third and youngest child, Charles. She would be separated from her two sons for eight years. She later claimed it was one of the most upsetting moments of her life.

Louisa Adams did not recall her life in St. Petersburg fondly. After a difficult transatlantic crossing at the height of the Napoleonic wars, she was grateful for the company of her sister Kitty. It was much like her time in Berlin, in that she became a personal favorite of the royal family, particularly the powerful Tsar Alexander I who frequently requested her as his dancing partner. The Adamses, however, did not have the financial wealth to maintain the lifestyle expected of them. She found the winters especially painful with the bitter cold and long, dark days. Abigail Adams agreed that the move had been a bad one and even wrote to President Madison, urging him to bring her son home; Madison let Adams decide and he chose to remain. The one great bright moment of her time there was the 1811 birth of her fourth child, the daughter she had longed to have.

The first American citizen born in Russia, the girl was named after her mother. Tragically, a year later she died, leaving not only Louisa but John Quincy deeply bereaved. Adams petitioned for a return home to America, to have his family reunited as Louisa wished but he was assigned to help negotiate a peace treaty at Ghent, Belgiumto bring an end to America's naval war with England. Left alone in St. Petersburg, Louisa Adams flourished, entertaining and managing better than even she expected without her husband. When he bid her to close up their home and meet her in Paris, she began one of the most extraordinary adventures of her life. With her son Charles and sister Kitty, Louisa Adams made a six-week excursion through Russia, Poland and Germany towards France in the middle of winter and war on a carriage on a sleigh bottom. Despite warnings from Germans she met along the way and the fields littered with the dead soldiers of war that she passed through, Louisa Adams pressed on, even ordering her coachman to risk their lives by proceeding over iced rivers. Nearing Paris, her Russian vehicle was surrounded by hostile Napoleonic troops and camp followers who called for her death, assuming she was Russian. Louisa Adams had her servants whisper that she was Napoleon's sister traveling incognito, and in perfect French stepped out of the carriage to rally the troops to salutes to Napoleon in her obviously perfect French. This period was followed by a joyous time: two years in the land of her birth, England, where her husband served as U.S. Minister.

Her two sons were sent from Boston to London and the nuclear family was reunited. They lived in the countryside, and Louisa Adams enjoyed attending church and a renewed emotional intimacy with her husband. From here, the Adamses returned to Washington, D.C. where he was made Secretary of State to the new President, James Monroe. During a brief visit to his parents, Abigail Adams expressed a new respect for her daughter-in-law and after her death in 1818, Louisa Adams maintained a lively and personal correspondence with her father-in-law. As a Cabinet wife, Louisa Adams followed the lead of First Lady Elizabeth Monroe in refusing to make social calls on other political and diplomatic wives and briefly earned their enmity. Nevertheless, her home became the social center of the city, where she frequently hosted large and lively open house Tuesday night receptions and dances. It also introduced her to the key political leaders of the time. This knowledge, combined with her wisdom about human nature shaped Louisa Adams into a keenly acute political commentator, a role that would benefit her husband's 1824 presidential candidacy.

Presidential Campaign and Inauguration:

Despite her frequent expressions of dislike for political life, Louisa Adams believed strongly in her own husband's ability to be President, and often seemed to do more, at least publicly, than he did in pursuing that goal. With her weekly open house reception and regular attendance at legislative sessions, Louisa Adams curried favor with Congressmen, who were to serve as the final electors in the campaign of 1824. In 1822, while she was confined in Philadelphia with her brother who was waiting to undergo surgery, Louisa Adams gathered around her a group of political figures and powerful newspaper editor. In vain, she urged her husband to join them and to campaign more openly for the presidency. She made other trips to Maryland, where she talked up her husband to influential family friends with the promise that their influence on the state's members of Congress would lead to support for her husband. She and Adams bought the former home of James and Dolley Madison on the city's then-fashionable F Street of row houses and she had it enlarged with the specific purpose of constant and large entertainments, again to give a sense of national prominence to her husband. Her most famous effort was a January 8, 1824 ball honoring General Andrew Jackson on the 10th anniversary of his successful defeat of the British at the Battle of New Orleans.

It was the Adams' camp's recognition that he and Jackson were the leading contenders in the presidential election ten months later. Jackson and Louisa Adams spent most of the party on each other's arms as hostess and her guest, and the general was as solicitous of her as she was of him. It was also an unsubtle (and unsuccessful) attempt by John Quincy and Louisa Adams to manipulate Jackson into either throwing his support to Adams or considering running as his vice presidential candidate. About one thousand guests attended and the Washington Republican newspaper even memorialized the event in seven stanzas the morning before the ball actually took place. Louisa Adams continued to canvas for her husband using the social parlor as Dolley Madison had done.

Although Andrew Jackson won the popular and electoral votes in the election, he did not take the required majority of the latter and by the rules of the time; the election outcome was decided by the House of Representative. Adams ultimately won the presidency through a deal with Henry Clay in which he suggested the Congressman might have the position of Secretary of State if he could convince a voting block of southern-Midwestern states in Adams favor during the House of Representatives vote. "For myself, I have no ambition beyond my present situation," wrote Louisa Adams, "the exchange to a more elevated station must put me in a Prison." She did not attend the 1825 Inaugural ceremony, although she was in Washington.

First Lady:
4 March 1825 - 4 March 1829
52 years old

Perhaps there was no more genuinely depressing period as a political wife for Louisa Adams than her tenure as First Lady. Acrimony stemming from the bitter election results - and many charges that Adamshad gained his office by immorally manipulating a backroom political deal - overshadowed the Administration. While she remained loyal to her husband, Louisa Adams was also deeply disappointed in him for the deal he had made to get the presidency. She also was discouraged by the increasing factionalism of the nation's political system, believing that voters made decisions based on emotions and not rational decisions. A diplomatic mission would have been better for her and her husband than the presidency, she concluded.

Secondly, Louisa Adams was also genuinely suffering from a variety of real and imagined physical ills, stemming partially from her menopause but also the fumes she inhaled from the coal-fired heat grates in the floor of her bedroom, where she spent much of her time in isolation and addicted to eating chocolate shells. Not the least of the causes of her misery was the mansion itself. She found it too large and cold, with an overwhelming sense of isolation from the rest of the city and then loneliness for each individual who lived there. She found the condition of the house to be so deplorable that she opened it up for what may have been among the first regular public tours for citizens - just to prove that she and the President were not living in great luxury as was charged. This sense was exacerbated by the fact that she felt herself now being used as a "puppet" for "political maneuver[s]" or displays and that when she complained or protested against making a public appearance that she was told it was a mistake that she was invited but it was too late to change and she had to go through with it.

Much of her anxiety during her White House tenure also stemmed from troubles involving the young people of her family. Her son George used opium to sleep and fathered an illegitimate child by a chambermaid. Her son John had been thrown out of Harvard, her son Charles confessed to being "addicted…to depraved habits" while at school there, using prostitutes at times. Two nephews and two nieces of her husband (the children of Thomas Adams) were often part of the household seeking escape from their father's alcoholic tirades. Louisa Adams was also raising her late sister's two sons and daughter. One of her nephews, left in charge of the White House while the rest of the family was vacationing, began an affair with a maid and then ran off to marry her. Her niece, Mary Catherine had a flirtatious affair with both her cousins Charles and George before finally marrying their brother John in the White House on February 25, 1828, the only time a presidential son was wed in the mansion.

Even in her role as the White House hostess, Louisa Adams felt a large degree of isolation. By following Elizabeth Monroe's custom of declining to return calls, she had less contact with other political spouses than she had when her husband held any other public positions. She organized regular dinners for thirty or more guests, but often absented herself from attending. Certainly her greatest event as hostess was in August of 1824 when she entertained the visiting Marquis de Lafayette, who was then completing a grand public tour of the United States. He and his large entourage stayed in the mansion requiring the presidential family to give up their private bedrooms and room together. Nor was the White House domestic staff large enough to serve the great Franco-American hero and Louisa Adams was required to hire extra servants.

She did break some traditions, encouraging dancing at her son's wedding and participating herself. At receptions, instead of standing apart from her guests with the Cabinet wives, she mingled. Uniquely, she was also one of only two known First Ladies, the other being Abigail Fillmore, who enjoyed providing musical entertainment for guests at the conclusion of formal dinners. An accomplished harpist, she was even painted with her prized instrument.

Few presidential relationships deteriorated as much as did that of John Quincy and Louisa Adams during their White House tenure. Adams consistently refused or ignored his wife's opinions or input even on matters involving their mutual personal well-being. It was not Louisa Adams' ideal of a "helpmate," which is what she had expected her role to be as First Lady. The couple spent many of their summers apart, with the First Lady away from her husband in Quincy, Massachusetts, in mid-Atlantic and New England spas, beaches and rivers where she indulged herself in rowing, swimming and fishing with other women friends. She also began reading the letters of her mother-in-law Abigail Adams and believed they should be published as an inspiration to all American women. The concept of "women's rights" and equality became a passion of her's and even a newspaper story of an Irish servant girl  who committed suicide after being seduced by her master caused her great anguish.

For herself, she began writing more poetry and a series of bitter, sardonic plays, often skewering her husband. In one, "The Metropolitan Kaleidoscope" she writes sadly of the repressed spirit and intelligence of a character she named "Lady Sharpley" who was clearly herself. It is not known to what extent she encouraged the enactment of her plays. She also found refuge from political life by raising her own silkworms and harvesting her own silk, which she used in her personal sewing.

Louisa Adams was nevertheless also adept at defending herself in print. When the White House asked for a congressional appropriation to cover the purchase of a billiard table for the president's family (Adams had already purchased it with his own money and was simply seeking reimbursement for the object was to be left behind as government property), anti-Adams, pro-Jackson newspapers suggested that table had been bought for the First Lady and that such "gambling furniture" was common in castles of Europe's "rich and great."  Soon enough the implications were made that the Adams lived like royalty and that during their days in St. Petersburg that John Quincy Adams had encouraged a sexual liaison between his children's nursemaid and the Czar - with the cooperation of Louisa Adams - to win points for the U.S. It was an outright fabrication and the First Lady directly addressed the story, as well as other facts about her life - including that her father was an American. Her piece was published in a pro-Adams newspaper, Mrs. A.S. Colvin's Weekly Messenger in 1828. It was not only the first time a presidential candidate's wife and First Lady was directly attacked and used by the opposition press as an issue reflecting the candidate's character - but certainly the first time that such a woman responded so boldly and directly to false charges in the national media. The bitterness caused by the 1824 election extended into the next election cycle as Jackson supporters felt that their hero had been cheated and determined to undermine the administration of John Quincy Adams and defeat him in 1828, which they did.

Post-Presidential Life:

Embittered by the defeat of her husband for a second term and believing that the nation was threatened by Andrew Jackson. "Popular governments are peculiarly liable to factions, to cabals, to intrigue. The people may often be deceived for a time by some fair-speaking demagogue, but they will never be deceived long," she wrote of the General she had formerly admired so much.

Just weeks after leaving the White House, Louisa Adams suffered one of the most significant emotional blows of her life when her son George drowned a likely suicide by jumping from a ship. The death of her son John was no less trying but he left a wife and children that moved in with his mother. In fact, Louisa Adams would take a renewed joy in life by helping to raise her two granddaughters.

In 1830, two years after her tenure as First Lady ended, Louisa Adams resumed a central role in the social and political life of the capital city when her husband was elected to Congress as a "National Republican," a strong anti-slavery party to become known as the Whig Party, a position he held until 1848. Although Jackson's successor, Martin Van Buren was a Democrat who her husband often defied in Congress, she was a welcome guest at his official dinners with the former President. She was especially close to the short-lived Whig President William Henry Harrison, a friend to her husband.

It was through her husband's intense struggle against slavery as one of the nation's most overtly abolitionist figures that Louisa Adams had a sense of redemption for her own existence as a woman who had promise to make great contributions yet who lived in a world where that was not encouraged of her gender. She made a direct correlation between the repression of African-American slaves and American women and in that context assumed the role of Congressman Adams' most passionate aide. During the fight for the "right of petition" in 1842, Louisa Adams began reading, filing and cataloguing the many anti-slavery petitions with which he was flooded. A large number of them came from women's organizations. At the same time she had begun a closer study of the Bible and came to the conclusion that it did not seek to justify the subordination of women at all. Soon enough she began one of her intense correspondences, this time with the famed abolitionist and women's rights advocates, the sisters Angelina and Sarah Grimke, the latter having authored Letters on the Equality of the Sexes and on the Condition of Women which Louisa Adams had read and believed to be important.

When the former President was felled by a stroke on the floor of Congress and died in a nearby chamber shortly afterwards, Louisa Adams was notified in time at home and came to his side before he died. Despite her deep ambivalence about the cost of her husband's devotion to public life to her family, Louisa Adams remained the strongest defender of his record and reputation. She quite rabidly disliked the slave holding President Zachary Taylor when he evoked her late husband's name, for instance, because she believed him to be disingenuous and exploitative.

During the warm weather months, the widowed First Lady made an annual trip to the Adams house in Quincy, Massachusetts, occupying the master bedroom alone. As the large family’s matriarch, she made a deep impression on her grandson Henry, who later became a renowned historian. He recalled that she was: “…a little more remote than the President, but more decorative . . . her delicate face [was]…one of severe stress and little pure satisfaction. Louisa was charming, like a Romney portrait, but among her many charms that of being a New England woman was not one. Try as she might, the Madam could never be Bostonian."

As a presidential widow, Louisa Adams continued to live on at her F Street residence during the fall, winter and early spring. She suffered a stroke in 1849 and lived for three more years. Although she did not write a book for publication about her life, she did author several autobiographical writings: "Adventures of a Nobody," "Record of a Life, or My Story," "Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France, 1815."

Death:
15 May, 1852
Washington, D.C.
77 years

*Upon the death of Louisa Adams, both houses of Congress adjourned in mourning, making her the first woman whose death was so acknowledged by the federal government.

Burial:
United First Parish Church
Quincy Massachusetts

When both were finished, Louisa wrote to Abigail Adams (November 11, 1816): "Our Portraits are most striking likenesses and should they reach America are to be exhibited at Philadelphia."