A Spouse Divided

To the historian Henry Adams, his grandmother Louisa was an exotic creature of delicacy and charm decidedly out of place among the founding family of American Adamses. Her dour husband, John Quincy Adams, was the sixth president of the United States; her peevish father-in-law, the second. Unlike them, Louisa Adams had been born in London, and rather than grim or frizzled, she looked as though she’d stepped out of a pretty painting by George Romney. Presiding over the breakfast table, among the teacups and the silver pot, Louisa Adams revealed nothing of her inner life, and for a very long time her grandson little suspected that she, like him, suffered from self-doubt, self-recrimination, and more than a smattering of rebelliousness.

That inner life is the subject of Louisa Thomas’s pellucid, utterly enjoyable biography Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, which shows how this unusual woman would eventually believe, as she once wrote, that “under all circumstances, we must never desert ourselves.” Louisa Adams was no radical, but she cultivated a voice, a strong one, and she came to value what she thought, what she had done, and who she was.

Still, Louisa is not an argumentative biography, and Thomas does not turn Adams into a poster child for forgotten, overlooked, or suppressed womankind. For despite the great legacy of the women’s movement, which crucially reappraised women’s lives, particularly those women who had gone unheard, in recent times a defensive tone has crept into some of these books; they idealize or quash the complexity of the individuals being resurrected. But in her biography of Adams, Thomas wonderfully creates an in-depth portrait that’s more a strong-minded Artemisia Gentileschi than a dull George Romney.

Thomas, formerly an editor at Grantland, uses her background in journalism to fine effect, moving the narrative forward efficiently but without breeziness. Nor does she get lost in the weeds of the Federalist politics that shaped the career of John Quincy Adams, whose heroic hour came after he ignominiously left the presidency in 1829. By then, he had been married for thirty-two years to Louisa, née Johnson, the daughter of an Englishwoman and an American merchant, Joshua Johnson, who had been appointed consul in London by Thomas Jefferson.

Theirs was a rocky start. Louisa’s father compulsively lived beyond his means; he was on occasion threatened with debtor’s prison, and he hastily took his family back to America to flee his creditors just after Louisa married John Quincy, who was then minister in the Netherlands. Johnson could not cough up the dowry of five thousand pounds sterling that he had promised, thus providing John Quincy with legal grounds to abandon the bride. An honorable man, John Quincy would not do this, but Louisa for the rest of her life felt deeply compromised.

After this inauspicious beginning, the couple left for Prussia, where John Quincy was now posted by his crusty dad. John Quincy loved his country, his parents, and his books, generally in that order. Over time his priorities would change, although not much, which made navigating the arcane protocols of the Prussian court quite difficult for his bride. John Quincy could not have cared less. He considered the ceremonial balls to be both frivolous and corrupting. But the job of a diplomat was diplomacy, a matter better left in this case to the diplomat’s wife. Louisa Adams graciously attended the rounds of dinners with aristocrats and ambassadors, which she had to reciprocate on a tight budget—and with a cook who was often drunk. She also could not risk offending anyone, particularly the queen of Prussia, who gave her a box of rouge—“paint”—which Louisa audaciously daubed on her cheeks one night. Noticing the unnatural blush, John Quincy unceremoniously wiped it off her face with a towel. He was not an equable man. Nor was it an equable marriage.

Louisa Adams suffered at least four miscarriages between 1797 and 1800 and a countless number afterward. She was also subject to cramps, tremors, and fainting fits—she sometimes wielded illness to escape her family or to snag the attention of her husband—but she could dress for a dance even after being bled and blistered and dosed with laudanum. Then, in 1801, after the birth of their first child, George Washington Adams (the Adams family was nothing if not patriotic), John Quincy was called back to America, where for eight years Louisa, as an outsider, coped with a heart in turmoil, or so her grandson Henry Adams later surmised. Although she made no outward show of discontent, her fiercely republican in-laws little tolerated her satin shoes. To her tart mother-in-law Abigail, Louisa “appeared like a maudlin hysterical fine lady, not to be the partner of a man, who was evidently to play a great part on the theatre of life.”

Portrait of Louisa Adams, ca. 1823. Charles Bird King.

When Thomas Jefferson routed the Federalists, John Quincy seemed to forswear politics, although he soon entered the Massachusetts state senate and then the Senate in Washington. Louisa followed him—often wives did not accompany their husbands to the capital—and while she claimed to have nothing to do with his career, she became adept yet again at maneuvering through the shoals of public life. But, as Thomas makes clear, Louisa Adams “was not the power behind the throne.” Nor did Louisa Adams consider herself effaced by her husband, at least in matters of public policy. “She took her subjugation for granted,” Thomas writes, “though it sometimes made her angry.”

This was particularly the case after John Quincy accepted a post as minister plenipotentiary to the court of Czar Alexander in 1809. Presumably it was not Louisa’s choice to leave behind her two oldest boys in the care of American relatives and bring along only the two-year-old Charles. Her biographer finds in this dilemma Louisa Adams’s lifelong “struggle with her desire to submit and her desire to revolt.” What’s more, the sad later careers and early deaths of these two elder sons seem, in retrospect, to add poignancy to Louisa’s unremitting regret. But she remained resilient—and never more so than when she undertook a two-thousand-mile journey from St. Petersburg to Paris in 1815, where her husband had gone to negotiate a treaty to end the War of 1812. Accompanied only by Charles, two male servants, and a nurse, Louisa, then forty years old, intrepidly traveled in winter on the paths that Napoleon, looting and burning all the way, had recently traversed.

That remarkable forty-day journey is the subject of Michael O’Brien’s evocative and beautifully written Mrs. Adams in Winter (2010), a biographical study of Louisa Adams and, not coincidentally, of her marriage. Both O’Brien and Thomas come to the same conclusion: John Quincy could be a hard father and a vain, self-critical man largely ignorant of people’s feelings. But as Thomas writes, if John Quincy was a half-indulgent husband, Louisa was a half-indulgent wife. As Louisa once succinctly told him, “I can neither live with you or without you.”

The Adamses returned to the United States after James Monroe appointed John Quincy secretary of state, and Louisa was not shy about wanting John Quincy elected president in 1824 or about her covert electioneering campaign; she hosted dinners, including a triumphant ball in honor of John Quincy’s rival Andrew Jackson, and she encouraged her reticent husband to confer with power brokers and newspaper editors. But she had to be discreet; “the suspicion that a woman violated her sex by involving herself in affairs of state,” writes Thomas, “was persistent and deep rooted.” She listened from the galleries to congressional debates and made a point of knowing what was what, even though she frequently denied that she did; she loved politics, she later admitted. But during John Quincy’s unsuccessful bid for reelection, she was made miserable by the brutal smear campaign against both her and her husband—for pushing a national agenda, he was called a monarchist, and she was labeled a British opportunist who had palmed herself off on the Adamses.

Retirement from public life, however idyllic, was brief, for in 1830 John Quincy entered the House of Representatives in one of the most successful postpresidential terms in American history. Of course, Louisa could not know that, and she was furious, railing against “the grasping ambition which is an insatiable passion swallowing and consuming all in its ever devouring maw.” She could have been talking about her own ambition, not just her husband’s.

Also, for the first time, Louisa confronted the issue of slavery head-on. Louisa’s father had owned slaves, and in Washington, as Thomas drily notes, “slaves built the federal offices, staffed the boardinghouses, drove the carriages, served the dinners.” And though John Quincy may not have always empathized with members of his own family, “he was often the only one among them who stopped to consider the humanity of blacks,” and in later life fought boldly for justice and human rights. Unlike him, Louisa did not lean toward abolitionism; on the contrary, she considered abolitionists reckless and wanted the whole subject just to disappear. But her biographer will not oblige her, and while she does not airbrush Louisa’s views, she does not excoriate them. Louisa Adams was not a victim, and is certainly not the victim of her biographer. Thomas is generous, fair-minded, and quick to acknowledge that Louisa, on the subject of slavery, was no “heroine”; Thomas also shows how Louisa, who had real reasons to fear for John Quincy’s safety, wrestled with her bigotries. Her Louisa thus leaps from the page as contradictory, observant, ambivalent, self-pitying, strong, and human.

After the death of Abigail Adams, Louisa began exchanging frequent letters with her father-in-law, who encouraged her to write to him. As Thomas says (a bit cloyingly), Louisa then developed “like a flower opening toward the sun.” She began drafting various memoirs “in the American tradition of autobiography,” Thomas claims, which “meant to encourage emulation.” (Of course, the great exception is Henry Adams’s Education.) Chronicling her journey from St. Petersburg to Paris, Louisa says she wished to show that undertakings “which appear very difficult and arduous to my sex, are by no means so trying as imagination forever depicts.” So much, Louisa Adams concludes, for “the fancied weakness of feminine imbecility.”

The world was slow to catch up to her, but in 1852, when Louisa Adams died at the age of seventy-seven, both houses of Congress adjourned in a gesture of respect not unlike the one Thomas accords her: She’s created a real woman, not a heroine, who fully lived a public and a private life, neither of which was, nor is, very easy to do.

Brenda Wineapple is the author, most recently, of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848–1877 (Harper, 2013). A recipient of a Literature Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she is writing a book about the impeachment of Andrew Johnson.