When John Quincy Adams fell for the woman who would become his wife, his mother worried about the effect it might have on his political dreams, while the future bride’s American ex-pat father worried that Yankees made poor husbands. Louisa Catherine Johnson, as she was then known, was young, charming and a wonderful hostess—but she was also British-born, to a British mother.
Despite the warnings, the two were married in the United Kingdom, and the American papers made their position clear—as the Boston Independent Chronicle declared on September 14, 1797, “Young John Adams’ Negotiations have terminated in a Marriage Treaty with an English lady…”
As Adams’ mother had foreseen, Louisa Adams was forced to spend much of her husband’s time in office defending not just their union, but also her loyalty to the Union. She and Adams lived overseas for years before returning to the United States in 1801, after the birth of her first son. Louisa Adams did not step foot on American soil before her 26th birthday—the same age as the second foreign-born first lady, Melania Trump, when she came to the United States nearly 200 years later.
Louisa Adams was sophisticated and urbane, and spoke French as though it were her mother tongue. At first, Adams struggled to adjust to her new home, finding the Adams family home in Massachusetts provincial and boorish: eventually, however, she grew to love the United States.
John Quincy Adams had ambitious political aims, but lacked the charisma many believed was a necessity. Louisa Adams saw herself as his “diplomate,” organizing social events and entertaining the ladies of Washington D.C. in order to raise his social status. She was the dominant hostess of the day, holding balls and Tuesday evening soirées to keep her husband in the limelight. And despite claiming an active disinterest in politics, she watched Congress debates, read newspapers assiduously, advised her husband, and did whatever she could as part of her “campaigne.”
To an extent, it worked: In 1824, Adams was elected president, but under circumstances many found uncomfortable. Despite being selected by the House of Representatives, he had lost the popular and electoral vote to Andrew Jackson. But because nobody had received a majority of votes in the electoral college, the House of Representatives had to choose between the top two candidates. Adams made a deal with the speaker of the House, Henry Clay, in which he promised the congressman Secretary of State if he brought with him a voting block of southern-Midwestern states. Clay’s coalition secured the White House for Adams. Louisa Adams did not approve of the deal and did not attend her husband’s inauguration in 1825.
For the four years of Adams’ presidency, virtually every aspect of his life was placed under media scrutiny—and his wife was no exception. Louisa Adams was painted in the press as a foreigner and a Tory of aristocratic birth. For the next years, she took particular pains to describe herself as “the daughter of an American Republican Merchant.” It was a challenging political time: America’s fledgling political system lent itself to factionalism. Louisa Adams was horrified as she realized the nation’s voters were swayed not by rational reasoning, but by their emotions.
These tensions came to a head when Adams bought an expensive billiard table. He had hoped to leave it at the White House at the end of his time as president, and so sought reimbursement to turn it into government property. The papers went wild, claiming his well-heeled wife was using public funds to buy “gambling furniture” to remind herself of the castles of Europe’s “rich and great.” Rumors swirled that the Adams lived like European royalty, with her at the helm; that her skills as a hostess were the product of ostentatious foreign wealth and even that the First Lady was embroiled in a curious sex scandal involving the Russian Czar.
Shortly before her husband sought reelection, Adams became the first ever First Lady to defend herself in print. In June 1827, she published an anonymous, but transparently autobiographical, treatise in the pro-Adams paper, Mrs. A.S. Colvin’s Weekly Messenger, in which she referred to herself in the third person. Adams explained how her father had slid into bankruptcy, leaving her with no assets to bring to her marriage: “She lost the little property forever which she expected to bring to her husband, and became a beggar, with the appearance, of what was infinitely worse to her proud spirit, of having palmed herself upon a family under the most odious circumstances.”
She dismissed the charges of impropriety and reiterated the American citizenship she had been born with. Her husband’s campaign and diplomatic activities across the world, she stressed, had come at the cost of her health, her infant daughter’s life and their domestic happiness—but whatever the cost had been, as an American, she supported her husband’s political ambitions.
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Perhaps in an attempt to cast off the image of herself as glamorous and out-of-touch, Adams described herself as “a woman of unassuming manners”—someone who loved to read and knit, and hated politics. Despite continually worse health, including migraines that left her reeling and delirious, she described how she had made appearances as the first lady “to show her deep sense of respect due to the public.” Finally, she said that she was impervious to further critique—”so long as she has the happiness to show that Mrs. Adams is the daughter of an American Republican Merchant.”
The press did not respond kindly to her article, and particularly not to her description of herself as “unassuming” and “detesting politics.” It was very quickly noted that Rachel Jackson, her rival, would never have turned to the public press. The description of herself as a “woman of unassuming manners” was similarly poorly received: Louisa Thomas, in her biography Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs Adams, explains how the opposition paper, the United States Telegraph, suggested she was lording her “courtly education” over Jackson’s experiences as a “plain old housewife of the Tennessee farmer.” She was derided and mocked, and in the days that followed, more salacious rumors and gossip about her extended family began to leak out.
When John Quincy Adams lost the election to Andrew Jackson in 1828, it may have come as somewhat of a relief to his wife. With her health and nerves in tatters, she suffered a further blow when their eldest son died in a suspected suicide after falling from a ship. But the years that followed were easier: When John Quincy Adams returned to the political state to campaign against slavery, she was able to become a political wife and adviser once again without the same scrutiny she had once received. For nearly two decades, they worked together in the struggle against slavery. Adams herself began to draw comparisons between the oppression of women and of slaves, and took a particular pride in reading, filing and cataloguing the many anti-slavery petitions her husband received.
When she died at 77, Adams had made a name for herself as an abolitionist and women’s rights advocate: a far cry from the cosseted European she had once been made out to be in the nation’s newspapers.