This month’s First Lady focus is on the lesser known of the Adams women, Louisa Catherine Adams. The wife of John Quincy Adams, Louisa was our first First Lady to be born on foreign soil as she was born in England and lived throughout Europe as her husband served in various diplomatic posts over the years. While not as famous as her indomitable mother-in-law, Louisa Adams was a strong, capable woman with her own extraordinary life.
Each month, I’ll detail the life of the first lady and their legacy. Then I’ll share what I learned while studying them, along with ways you can travel in their footsteps through historical sites and museums. I’ll also share books, podcasts, TV shows, and websites where you can learn even more about that first lady. Read all of the way through the blog post or click on the links below to go straight to those sections.
Louisa Catherine Johnson was born in London on February 12, 1775 to an American father and a British mother. Her father was a well-regarded merchant, but there are questions still remaining today about his marriage to Louisa’s mother. It seems there may not have been a marriage until they had several children, including Louisa! He was an American loyalist so he took the family to Nantes, France when the American Revolution began. Louisa was enrolled in a Catholic school there and attended lavish parties, introducing her to the world of royal courts and luxurious living.
Her family moved back to England when she was eight, living in a home on London’s Tower Hill. She and her sisters attended a local boarding school where she was thought to be haughty but it really was shyness. She was taken out of school when she was fourteen and was expected to marry an American. Conveniently, her father was serving as the American consul in London at the time, which is how she met her future husband, John Quincy Adams.
Courtship and Marriage 1795-1797
Adams was in England in his role as US minister to The Hague. In 1795, he came to Louisa’s house with John Trumbull (future painter of US Capitol art), and he was thought to be courting her older sister, Nancy. However, it was Louisa’s charm, wit, and singing voice that attracted him. He attended her 21st birthday ball, and he soon asked her to marry him. However, Louisa was doubtful of his true feelings as he was very temperamental and could be cold one minute and attentive the next. He was struggling with being torn between his attraction for her and his sense of duty to his country. Plus with his Puritan-like upbringing, an indulged, half-British young woman wasn’t exactly his idealized match.
He went back to Holland, wanting to finish his service and put some distance between them. He asked her to wait until he had established a law practice to support her, which was very embarrassing. Was she engaged or not? Even her mother was alarmed and took matters in her own hands, visiting Adams before he left to learn his true intentions. It was the first in what would be many instances where his prickly nature led to misunderstandings.
While waiting for him, Louisa was sent to a small cottage to learn how to run a household. She and John Quincy wrote letters to each other that were full of endearments but sharp in tone. She accused him of being ambitious, and he admonished her about her need for luxurious items. Adams was made minister to Portugal and wrote that he would go without her, but with her family moving to America, Louisa knew it was now or never. He came back to England, and they were married at All Hallows Barking Church near Tower Hill on July 26, 1797. Her family fled to America immediately after the wedding with her father’s business failing and his promised dowry never materializing. The shame from her family’s debt would haunt Louisa in the future.
Prussian Post 1797-1801
Adams’ appointment was changed to Prussia, so they set off for Berlin shortly after their wedding. An already pregnant Louisa was very sick on the voyage and miscarried upon arrival in Berlin. This was to be her plight over the next twenty years as she was pregnant an estimated fifteen times with just three children living to adulthood. In Berlin, Louisa grew to enjoy the lavish balls and became acquainted with Queen Luise and King Frederick William III. The king loved to dance with Louisa, which angered John Quincy as he thought the royals’ lives too extravagant. However, he soon realized that Louisa charms could prove helpful in his governmental dealings.
While in Berlin for four years, Louisa was sickly, enduring four miscarriages, but it’s also where she gave birth to her first living child, George Washington Adams (interesting name!). Immediately after her birth and while she was still temporarily partially paralyzed due to birth complications, John Quincy was recalled with Jefferson taking office. No matter her health, it was time to leave for America.
United States 1801-1809
Louisa first stepped foot on American soil in 1801, seeing her family for the first time in four years. The ship landed in Philadelphia and Louisa took George south to Georgetown to see her parents while John Quincy went north to see his. This must have been very trying for Louisa! He finally joined her in Georgetown and they soon headed to Massachusetts. Louisa was worried about meeting his famous parents but John Adams liked her immediately. Abigail, on the other hand, was very critical of her. She thought Louisa was spoiled but she failed to notice her quiet inner strength that was similar to Abigail’s that came from being a diplomat’s wife. Louisa had a hard time adjusting to the ways of puritanical New Englanders, especially when she was expected to milk cows or cook dinner. She had never had to do these chores but she learned, even if she never perfected the skills.
John Quincy and Louisa lived in Boston, but he visited his parents in Quincy nearly every weekend, leaving her alone with George. It was better when her mother and sister came to live with them after the death of her father, but John Quincy still struggled with his purpose. He was appointed US Senator in 1803, just as Louisa gave birth to their second son, John Quincy Adams II. Once again, she barely recovered before they had to move, this time to Washington, DC.
John Quincy and Louisa moved in with her older sister’s family in Georgetown, and Louisa enjoyed spending time with family and in Washington society. She wasn’t interested in politics but in the people involved, forming quick opinions such as her decidedly negative view of President Jefferson. She was occupied by her mischievous boys and didn’t go back to Massachusetts in the summer with John Quincy. She often expressed her frustration about his coldness in letters and her simmering anger is between every line. She finally went back with him in the summer of 1805 but didn’t enjoy living in his childhood home with her sister and children while John Quincy was off in Boston or Cambridge as a lawyer or professor. He spent most of his time away from the family, leaving her all alone.
When they went back to DC in the fall of 1805, just Louisa and John went, leaving the boys with John and Abigail. Louisa felt like she had to choose between her husband and her children, and she regretted leaving them. She became pregnant again and was very sick, but John Quincy still left her in DC to go back to Massachusetts for the summer. While he was away, she had a stillborn child. She finally got back to Massachusetts and her boys nine months after she last saw them, and John Quincy left her again, taking rooms in Cambridge. This pattern couldn’t have been good for Louisa’s health and must have affected the boys terribly. Louisa even told John Quincy that she “couldn’t live with him or without him.”
They must have made up because, once again, Louisa was pregnant and gave birth to Charles Francis in Boston in August of 1807. She barely had time to recover before she was back on the road to Washington, DC, leaving the oldest boys again. Adams helped President Jefferson pass his Embargo Act, which doomed Adams’ chances for reappointment so he left office ten months early. Massachusetts was no longer a refuge as everyone was mad at Adams’ politics. She suffered another miscarriage, and letters from this time indicate that their marriage had cooled considerably.
Russian Post 1809-1815
John Quincy accepted President Madison’s appointment as minister to Russia in 1809 without even consulting Louisa and made plans for them to go while leaving the oldest boys with family. She had to go along, having no say in her own children’s upbringing, and wasn’t even allowed to tell them goodbye. The boat ride to Russia was long and miserable even with her sister, Kitty, along to help. They ran into storms which caused severe seasickness and had to navigate the turbulent waters of diplomacy as they sailed through the warring seas of Denmark. After fighting various English and Danish ships and racing against the settling ice, they finally made it to St. Petersburg eighty days after they had started. They were taken at first to a small island outside of the city where they learned the ship with all of their things had drifted back out to sea. They had to enter St. Petersburg in just their thin wrappers!
Louisa was at once plunged into the Russian aristocracy’s entertaining schedule. She and Kitty soon realized that they didn’t have proper clothes to attend the numerous balls (even with the beaver hats they had bought in Denmark!), so Louisa had to spend a considerable amount of money on a whole new wardrobe. With John Quincy’s salary very limited, the expected Russian lifestyle was a huge burden. Louisa was presented to the Empress at the Winter Palace, and the descriptions of her silver tissue gown sound beautiful. She often repurposed her gowns so it didn’t appear that she was wearing the same thing over and over.
St. Petersburg soon descended into its miserable winter, and Louisa’s health continued to be an issue. It even caused her to decline invitations by the Empress Mother which did not go over well. They had no word on their children back in America as the city was trapped in ice with no easy way to send or receive letters or items. They were expected to attend balls almost nightly, and Louisa’s social graces helped the more solemn John Quincy to be viewed favorably. Czar Alexander loved to dance with Louisa and even fancied Kitty at one point.
Louisa gave birth to another child in Russia, a little girl named Louisa Catherine as well, but sadly, the toddler died at one year old. They had to bury her on Vasilevsky Island, and Louisa wrote that “my heart is buried in my Louisa’s grave and my greatest longing is to be laid beside her.” The day little Louisa died is the day that Napoleon took Moscow, burning the city to the ground. With family dying back home, including the boys’ caretakers and her mother, John Quincy and Louisa wanted the older boys to come to them but the Napoleonic Wars made it impossible.
John Quincy had been offered a seat on the Supreme Court, which he turned down without consulting Louisa. He was then asked to go to Paris to negotiate peace with Britain in 1814, and he left Louisa and little Charles Francis in St. Petersburg. Charles became Louisa’s escort and would remain very close with his mother for the rest of her life.
Months after John Quincy left, she got word that he had been named as minister to Britain and wanted her to leave St. Petersburg to meet him in Paris. Thus begins the most amazing (and trying) trip of her lifetime. She and Charles left St. Petersburg on her fortieth birthday, February 12, 1815. They had an extravagant Russian carriage with runners to pull them over the ice. They stopped at the posts on the road, exchanging horses and resting for a few hours before they headed back out. They got lost in the cold Russian wilderness, had to endure broken wheels and miserable nights in dirty inns, and traversed over cracking ice, all in the effort to get back to John Quincy.
Louisa stopped for a few days in Berlin, seeing old friends, and was sad to learn about the fate of the former king and queen who had been so kind to her. They were forced from power by Napoleon and the lovely Queen Luisa was now dead. Louisa then continued her journey, cautious as she traveled through the regions decimated by Napoleon’s armies. She encountered horrific sites on the battlefields near Leipzig and even was under threat herself once she arrived in France. Napoleon had just made a triumphal resurgence so her American passport and her fluent French were the only things saving her on the road with the soldiers.
She entered Paris on March 23rd, six weeks after leaving St. Petersburg over 2000 miles away! They spent two months in Paris before leaving for London.
British Post 1815-1817
When they arrived in London, they were overjoyed to see George and John, the sons they hadn’t seen in six years. It’s estimated that from 1805-1815, the entire family was together for only eighteen months total. That changed in London, as they moved to the suburbs and had a contented life there for a while until the lure of politics brought them back to America. Once again, Louisa was pregnant on the trip, suffering a miscarriage on the boat.
Washington, DC 1817-1825
Once back in Washington, Louisa found that social politics had changed, causing a dust up with the ladies of Washington that was so serious, First Lady Elizabeth Monroe had to talk to her. Louisa began hosting weekly dinner parties, tea parties, and sociables that were the center of entertainment by 1819. With their finances finally in decent shape, they bought the Madisons’ old home on F Street and expanded it to include a ballroom. In 1824, they held a ball for Andrew Jackson, a military hero and John’s political rival, that was so well-attended, they had to shore up the floor of the room!
Louisa had grown closer to Abigail over the years, especially with all three boys back in Massachusetts at school, and was sad when she passed away in 1818. Their shared grief brought her and John Quincy closer together for a short time. She wrote many letters to her children and worried as problems began emerging, especially with George’s mental health. He was expelled from Harvard just as he was about to graduate and the other boys were also having school issues.
First Lady 1825-1829
In the presidential election of 1824, Louisa campaigned for John Quincy herself, tirelessly hosting balls and tea parties. It worked, bringing them to the White House (after the House of Representatives voted to elect him since none of the candidates had received a majority). Andrew Jackson was his main opponent and his supporters thought John Quincy had promised the Secretary of State position to Henry Clay in exchange for support. This cast a pall over the entire presidency (often called the “corrupt bargain”).
Louisa was so sick, she didn’t attend John’s inauguration. Once she had recovered, she was appalled at the state of the White House and set to redecorate it, which was controversial. She continued Elizabeth Monroe’s example of more formal entertaining but didn’t seem to actually enjoy the parties. She was unhappy during these years, sick, without purpose, and ignored by John and her sons. She began writing her memoirs which idealized her childhood and centered on her marriage as when her life began to fail. It didn’t help that she was very worried about her children, and rightly so as George’s mental health was deteriorating. She traveled back and forth to New England, hoping to help him but often meandering in her own depression. A bright spot was when John II and her sister’s daughter, Mary Catherine Hellen, married at the White House on February 25, 1828.
When John Adams died in 1826, John Quincy had to spend time in Massachusetts settling the estate. He also was obsessed with keeping the house in the family, even if it meant financial ruin. Louisa once again did not have a say in his decisions, which caused much bitterness between them. The letters grew cold between them as she was dealing with George and John’s mental illnesses while John Quincy was trying to serve as president during an extremely challenging time. Jackson’s supporters, including his own vice president, were constantly against him. As the election of 1828 loomed, John Quincy was depressed himself and Louisa was moody and sick. With the newspapers attacking her loyalty as a British born woman, Louisa wrote a campaign biography that defended her family, but it didn’t help and was used against John Quincy. Never before had a first lady written something for public consumption. To no one’s surprise, he lost his reelection bid.
John Quincy and Louisa moved into a mansion on Meridian Hill in Washington where she recovered her health and enjoyed spending time with her new granddaughter. They sent for George, hoping it would bring him out of his depression, but he ended up dying (most likely by suicide) on the boat to Washington. Louisa was inconsolable, blaming herself and John Quincy for leaving him as a child. They eventually moved back to Massachusetts, but just as she was settling in as a New England housewife, he accepted a nomination for the House of Representatives. She had to go back to Washington, again without her consent, but she grew to love living with her son and his family.
However by the summer of 1834, it was clear that John II was dying of alcoholism. She began writing her memoirs again, and one can’t help but see her despair in the title, “The Adventures of a Nobody.” While John Quincy was thriving in his role in the House, Louisa was sick and despondent, rarely leaving the house, especially when her granddaughter died. She was constantly in mourning for the people she loved and the life she desperately wanted.
She was visiting the Capitol when John Quincy collapsed at his desk in 1848. She rushed to his side but was forced to leave him as he died. She was bereft and stayed in Washington for a while but then moved back to Massachusetts. She lived three more years before she died of a stroke while in Washington on May 15, 1852. Both houses of Congress adjourned in her honor, the first time they did so for a first lady.
Louisa Adams isn’t well-known in history, but after reading about her storied life, I think she should be! No other first lady (outside of the modern era) is as well traveled or worldly as Louisa was. I can’t imagine the wealth of knowledge she gained as a diplomat’s wife in Prussia, Russia, and Britain, much less the education she received as a child in France and in her father’s consular home. No other first lady was better prepared for a life in the elite world of politics, although not the American kind. A life spent amidst royal courts and entertaining kings, queens, and czars didn’t go over well with the hard-scrabble American public. Through no fault of her own, she was judged for this background.
Her legacy as a political wife involving herself in her husband’s campaigns continues today in our modern politics. In the 19th century, this was seen as unseemly but now, it’s expected. We often think of our current time period as being the nastiest time in American politics, but history, including the election of 1828, proves that political campaigns full of propaganda and insinuation have always been part of American history. And the election of 1828 was one of the most mean spirited in involving the wives of the candidates. Between the questions raised about Louisa’s British roots to the reports on Mrs. Jackson’s marital status (more on that next month!), this was just the beginning of the ugly politics we know today. No one was off limits.
John Quincy Adams was known as an antislavery advocate, especially in his time serving in the House of Representatives. He even took on the Armistad case, defending the enslaved Africans. Louisa didn’t believe in slavery either, but her family was southern and owned slaves once they came back to America. Some of these slaves may have lived in the Adams house for a time with the family. She also was scared of a slave rebellion and of the threats John received as an antislavery advocate. She was torn between what she knew was right and her family’s background like so many Americans.
She also was the first First Lady to write about women’s rights (not counting Abigail’s “Remember the ladies” letter). She wrote to the Grimké sisters about equality for women, probably in response to the lack of rights in her own life. So many times throughout their marriage, John made life-changing decisions without consulting or even telling Louisa. That had to color her view on the rights of women. As one of her biographers said, women were shadows in the history of men (Cook).
Louisa was sickly but was strong when she needed to be. It seems she embodied both the wilting damsel and the hard as nails woman who feared nothing. She leaves a legacy of wonder at her perseverance and sadness at her personal turmoil.
My Time with Louisa
I was captivated by Louisa’s story. It’s one of heartbreak and glamour, but ultimately, it’s one of survival. I cannot imagine the horrific loss of so many children, what that does to your body, mind, and soul. It had to have affected her for the rest of her life and made her a more sympathetic person in my eyes.
I was constantly mad at John Quincy as I read about Louisa’s life. He seemed to be an overbearing, temperamental husband who never really asked his wife what she would like to do. I know it was standard at the time but his cold calculated moves to keep her from the children seem heartless. From what I read, he, too, grew to regret leaving the two boys behind when they went to Russia. Was it his New England upbringing? Was it because he had been forced to go years without his parents as a child? Who knows, but it made me root for Louisa even more.
I was amazed at Louisa’s resilience in her travels. As someone who loves to travel, I couldn’t begin to imagine the hard roads, choppy seas, and uncomfortable hotels that Louisa had to endure for years upon years. Just the daring trip across Europe with only her son as a companion was enough to make me admire her pluck! I wouldn’t make that trip today much less through the 19th century countryside! I vow to never complain about travel woes again after reading all that Louisa went through. She is a prime example of what we women can endure.
Travels with Louisa
Louisa Adams is one of the most well-traveled First Ladies ever, even compared to modern times. She spent her first 26 years of life abroad and then tacked on another eight years abroad as a diplomat’s wife in Russia and Britain. I would love to follow in her shoes all over Europe! I have highlighted below the top places that she lived which can still be visited, but there are dozens of other cities or places I could have listed from her travels. Just take a look at the map of her six week trip across frozen and war-torn Europe in 1815!
244 F Street, NW ( demolished) – now the site of Georgetown Law School
Meridian Hill – now the site of Meridian Hill Park
The White House – the unhappy home of Louisa for four years
Smithsonian Museum of American History – I love the First Ladies exhibit where you can see Louisa’s White House china!
Adams National Historical Park – The home where Louisa tried to become a New England housewife, the park includes the two Adams birthplace homes and John and Abigail’s final home, Peacefield. Check out the virtual tours on its website.
United First Parish Church – Blocks from the national park is the final resting place for Louisa and John Quincy along with John and Abigail
No. 8 Cooper’s Row on Tower Hill – Louisa’s childhood home where she met John Quincy is now the Leonardo Royal Hotel London City. Unknowingly, I walked through this hotel’s carport last year to see the Roman walls that abut its exterior. I didn’t know that I was walking Louisa’s shoes at the time. I am sure she viewed these very same walls!
All Hallows by the Tower church – where John Quincy and Louisa were married. I was just a few steps away on my trip last year! If I had only known, I would have stopped in.
Little Boston House – This is the house in Ealing where the entire Adams family lived for two years, the only two years they were all together as a family. The house doesn’t look to still be there but you can visit the park and the larger manor house on the site.
Nantes, France – The Johnson family apartments were in a mansion called Le Temple du Gout, which you can still visit (30 Rue Kervégan, 44000 Nantes, France)
To Learn More
There are several excellent biographies written about Louisa but no historical fiction that I could find. I will keep looking!
All links are Amazon affiliate links. You can also purchase the books through my affiliate link to Bookshop.org which supports independent bookstores.
Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas – the definitive biography of Louisa, this book really delves into her troubled relationship with John using their extensive letters
Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon by Michael O’Brien – a very detailed look at her path across Europe with tons of historical facts about her life before and after the trip
American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile That Saved American Independence by Jane Hampton Cook – a nonfiction narrative about their time in Russia
A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams by Louisa Catherine Adams – a book containing letters and memoirs written by Louisa herself
Founding Son: John Quincy’s America (check out episode 2 for info on Louisa) – hosted by Bob Crawford from The Avett Brothers
John Adams HBO series (the last episode takes place when Louisa was in his life)
Massachusetts Historical Society (Louisa’s diaries and memoirs will soon be available online)
- Also where you can purchase the official White House Christmas ornament in honor of John Quincy and Louisa’s time in the White House
Louisa Catherine Adams was a trailblazer as a cultured, educated woman of the world. Her service as First Lady wasn’t even the high point in her life, which is an amazing feat. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know this complex and fascinating First Lady!