The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams
What admiration I have for Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of President John Quincy Adams. She was born in 1775 in London to an American father and English mother. It wasn’t until she was older that she discovered that at the time of her birth, her parents weren’t married, though to all outward appearances they were. It was a lively household of beautiful young girls, who grew up privileged, though their father was ever in debt. They were accomplished, intelligent and trained in all the social graces. Their father, Joshua Johnson was a buyer for an American firm in Maryland. Because of his unsettled financial situation, at various times the family lived in France, England and America, and the girls were multi-lingual.
The first time Louisa met John Quincy Adams, she thought he looked ridiculous because of his unfashionable dress, his stiff manner and his poor social graces. He was a young diplomat in training and was equally as well-traveled as Louisa. Despite all, he was an attractive man, and if she wasn’t sure she loved him when they became engaged, she was sure she was in love by the time they married.
Louisa was a brilliant prolific writer and because of this we have a good record of her life and that of her husband. She always kept a diary, was an excellent letter writer, and even wrote plays and fiction. She grew into an ambitious woman who was probably responsible for her husband being elected President. In the early days of the American republic, politics were conducted undercover. Men did not promote themselves or appeal directly to the public, and John Quincy considered his work to be a public duty. The real power to pick a President was in the Republican Congressional Caucus. Until 1824 the popular vote wasn’t even counted. As today, Washington was full of gossip and jockeying for power. But, politics as we know it usually happened during social occasions. Since John Quincy was uninterested in playing the political game, and Louisa was socially adept, it became her task to make sure the right people attended their dinners and parties.
Before all this Washington life, however, Louisa had plenty of training, having lived all over the world as the wife of a diplomat. One of her favorite postings was in Berlin, Germany. Her harrowing adventures fleeing across Europe from St. Petersburg to Paris in 1815, are worthy of a book unto itself. John Quincy had left her alone in Petersburg with their son Charles as he was taking part in the Treaty of Ghent. As Napoleon’s troops advanced on Russia, she made the decision to leave. She arrived safely after many close calls under the roughest of conditions. This trip changed her into a more independent self-confident woman as well as changed her relationship with her husband.
Louisa suffered numerous miscarriages as women did in those days, and she suffered from severe bouts of illness, some of them probably psychosomatic. Life with John Quincy was difficult. He was rigid, demanding and often absent. He rarely consulted Louisa on major decisions, family and public. It was a difficult life for an intelligent woman who was fully capable of being the equal of her husband. Thus, she turned to writing and poured her soul into her diaries. Despite his difficult personality, Louisa and John Quincy had a passionate marriage. She also came to love and admire his parents, John and Abigail Adams, and kept up a warm correspondence with them, especially John.
Louisa died in 1852. She did not have an easy life, and she lived through a most interesting time in history. She wrote two autobiographical books. One called “Record of a Life” detailed the early years of her marriage. The other she called “The Adventures of a Nobody.” She was far from that. And even though she was not recognized for all her accomplishments while she lived, as the author states, “She left us a voice.”
I greatly enjoyed this book and highly recommend it to all readers. It would be an excellent choice for a book reading group.