Louisa Catherine Adams waited at the doors. She was easy to overlook – small and slight and nearly fifty, with shadows beneath her large, dark eyes. But that night, January 8, 1824, she stood where she would be seen, and all attention was on her. She was mighty, wielding the power of high fashion, a pleasant face, and a good meal (Ruth 3:3). A savvy woman.  

She had cleared eight rooms of her house in Washington. Fifty-four bonfires were lit lining the road. Chandeliers were hung, doors taken off their hinges, and pictures of eagles and flags chalked on the ballroom floor.  

Newspapers reported it as a glorious occasion, claiming 1000 guests came. “As splendid an assemblage of beauty and fashion as we have ever witnessed,” wrote the Richmond Enquirer.  All the members of Congress (except two who had been obnoxious to her husband), were in attendance. The diplomatic corps and all the leaders of Washington society were present.  

It was the tenth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans, and the ball was to honor Andrew Jackson, whose presidential candidacy was surging.  It was his day, but it was Louisa’s night to assist her own husband’s future presidential aspirations.  

John Quincy Adams did not like to think a ball could help him become president. He had served his country since he was a boy, shaped by the Revolution of 1776-79. He has stood on a hillside and watched the battle of Bunker Hill. 

His mother—Abigail Adams–was made of iron, the quintessence of a patriotic American woman. She handled the family farm for five years alone while her husband, John Adams, the second president of the United States, was in Europe seeking financial aid for the infant nation. John Adams led the first American dynasty; he was instrumental in American intellectual and political life. 

As an adult, John Quincy Adams had been America’s ambassador to Holland, Prussia, Russia and England.  He had served as a senator from Massachusetts and negotiated the treaty to end the War of 1812 (with Britain).  In 1824 he held the post of Secretary of State in the administration of James Monroe, the normal stepping stone to the presidency.     

Having done his duty at every possible opportunity, he felt he deserved the presidency and did not want to beg for it, campaign for it, ask for it, maneuver for it, or hold social occasions to win it. This was not ego or arrogance, it was a simple fact. He deserved it.  He did. 

He feared ambition, thinking it selfish and beneath him. In his mind, the integrity of the republic depended on that very disinterest. John and Abigail Adams, his parents–exceeded only by George Washington–had done as much as anyone to invent the United States. John Quincy had grown up in their shadow, and he believed what they told him–that if the republic were going to last, it would be up to the second generation–meaning it would be up to him. 

The United States was showing signs of trouble. Slavery was already tearing at the fabric on the infant nation; sectionalism was arising;  commercial interests were exerting themselves.  Fewer and fewer had studied Seneca or Tacitus.  

The politics of ingratiating himself to leaders was highly distasteful to John Quincy Adams.  Knowing that people were drawn to his wife – not him – he endured and encouraged their social life, even though he would have preferred to stay home with his books. 

As a young English lady in London society, Louisa and her sisters had entertained a steady stream of visitors by singing and playing the harp. After the Revolutionary War broke out, the Johnsons moved to Nantes, France, until it was over. 

Later, the courts of Europe where John Quincy and Louisa lived when he was the American ambassador taught her when to compliment and when to gossip. What to watch for and what to overlook.  While John Quincy studied laws and treaties, she studied people, wrote letters, and read books. By befriending royalty, by whispering with whatever dignitary she was seated with at supper, by being the one the king asked to dance to open a ball abroad, she made herself an asset for John Quincy Adams. 

Louisa Johnson Adams was born February 12, 1775. The Revolutionary War would begin within a few months of her birth, but 3000 miles away. Louisa’s father was a proud, patriotic American merchant; her mother was vivacious, charming, socially ambitious and English.  

The courtship of John Q and Louisa was both spirited and contentious.  He was winter, she was spring. She wanted to be needed, he wanted to be alone.  In 1798, when they married, he made it clear he was committed to his country. Through the marriage it was clear–she was about second place in his life . . . behind the nation, and his studies and books. In marrying him, he was also committing her to his country.  She would leave both the Johnson family and her native Britain to become an Adams and an American.  

She tried at once to conform and resist at the same time.  After their wedding, they moved to Berlin, where he was tasked with negotiating a treaty; she with fitting into a royal court as a republican who had never been in a republic, representing a nation she had never seen.  She would first step foot on American soil as a new mother when she was 26. 

Navigating Quincy, Massachusetts, the hometown of the Adams family, and the finer points of society in Washington–not to mention her relations with the Adams family–would turn out to be harder than dancing with a king. There was a model of American womanhood (Mrs. Abigail Adams), and Louisa knew it was not her. She often felt misunderstood and unsure of where to call home.     

For six years she endured St. Petersburg, Russia, because her husband was the American ambassador.  These were long years of loneliness while surrounded by the wealthy with whom she had little capacity to converse.  Buffeted by the grief of missing her two oldest sons (John Quincy refused to bring them), and a daughter died there. 

Then Louisa made a 3000 mile journey in a miserable stage coach across war-torn Europe (devasted by the Napoleonic wars) while her husband was ungallantly working and waiting in Paris.  Her grit and might showed on this journey, because she had to: 

  • Know what to do when her heavy coach bogged down on rutted roads
  • Disregard the stern warnings of men who told her to wait, get help or turn back
  • Decide whether to order the carriage over a river’s thin ice
  • Spend nights upright in the carriage or in dirty hovels
  • Stand up to innkeepers who tried to take advantage of her sex or small size
  • Pass through scenes of brutal destruction, rape and plunder 
  • Deal with suspicious guards and drunken soldiers
  • Overcome her fear and she did, showing her might.   

Showing grit and determination, drawn from her by the journey, she made it to Paris. 

They enjoyed a patch of domestic tranquility, before going to Washington (which had not existed when she was born).  It was here that pursuing power occupied her.  Achieving that, she endured four years of sadness in the White House. John Q was stymied as a leader; Louisa was isolated; their children struggled. Within a few years, she would bury two sons. 

When she was born in England, her king ruled the American colonies. When she first reached the United States shores, federal power passed peacefully to the opposition for the first time. On the day that her daughter died in St. Petersburg, Moscow was set on fire by Napoleon. When she traveled across Europe through the wreckage of war, she converged on Paris the same time Napoleon did, newly escaped from Elba. When she died, America was only a few years away from civil war. 

Wherever she lived, she was always pressing her nose against the glass, not quite sure whether she was looking out or looking in. 

She was the daughter-in-law of John Adams, the second president of the United States (1797 – 1801) and the wife of John Quincy Adams, the sixth president of the United States (1825-1829).  But Louisa could only claim some personal history, which she started to write three times (wondering if she had the right to write anything).  Each time she named her memoirs shy titles: Record of a Life, Narrative of a Journey and The Adventures of a Nobody, showing the deep sense of insecurity that comes from being a sinner.  She lived longer than all of her children except one.  Only one outlived her. 

But she did something extraordinary with her self-doubt – she explored it.  While the rest of the Adames spoke for the ages, she would only speak for herself.  But that became her habit, even her strategy as she defined herself as not like them.

In her very title The Adventures of a Nobody we see her questioning where she fit, while demanding that she did. Her status in her marriage. Her value in society.  She looked breakable, but endured, and endured some more.  While former Presidents John Adams and John Quincy Adams had a strong bodily presence, Louisa saw herself to some degree as having no body.  But any woman who could stand beside a president and raise a family and survive the non-affection of her husband, and the death of most of her children may have been delicate, but was also mighty.   

Source:   Louisa, by Louisa Thomas: Thorndike Press, 2016 is a superb book. The author has done her homework. Available in large print which means you can read it while on the treadmill.  Excellent prose!  Highly readable. Brings you inside the life and mind of these two fascinating people.