When Louisa Catherine Adams died in 1852, four years after her husband John Quincy Adams passed away, both houses of Congress adjourned in mourning—the first time that a woman was given that rare honor.
The tribute was well deserved and hard earned. During 51 years of marriage, Louisa was the quiet strength behind John Quincy’s remarkable career as a public servant. Despite frail health and many personal sacrifices, she worked tirelessly to further his political ambitions and protect his reputation. Her warmth and social charms did much to soften perceptions of Adams, whose manner was often cold and abrasive.
A life lived in world capitals
Born in London in 1775, Louisa was the daughter of an American merchant father and a British mother, and the only foreign-born first lady in U.S. history. During the American Revolution, her family took refuge in France, returning to London after the war, when her father was named the first U.S. consul.
She married John Quincy Adams, then a brilliant young diplomat, in 1797 and over the next 20 years, accompanied him on his assignments to Berlin, St. Petersburg, and London. Her European sensibilities, fluency in French, and musical talent endeared her to foreign diplomats, royalty and her famous father-in-law, John Adams. But the role of a diplomat’s wife was a difficult one for her. During their stay in Russia, she endured a long and much-regretted separation from their two oldest sons. She lost a daughter in infancy. Unfamiliar with Russian culture and strained by limited funds, she struggled to meet the demanding social expectations of an extravagant Imperial Court.
An unforgettable journey
The defining adventure of her life is recounted in her memoir, Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France, 1815. John Quincy had traveled to Belgium months earlier to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent. When he wrote and told Louisa to join him in Paris, she quickly settled their affairs and embarked on a six-week, 2,000-mile journey in the dead of winter, accompanied by a handful of servants and her 7-year-old son, Charles Francis, who would grow up be a celebrated American diplomat in another war.
Traveling in a carriage with detachable runners designed for snowy roads, the group crossed a Europe still scarred by Napoleon’s disastrous invasion of Russia and jittery about his recent return from exile in Elba. At one point, Louisa wrote, their coach “entered on a wide, extended plain, over which, as far as the eye could reach, were scattered remnants of boots, clothes, and hats or caps, with an immense quantity of bones bleaching in all directions.”
Throughout the journey, Louisa showed courage and resourcefulness. In France, they had a terrifying encounter with undisciplined French troops who were en route to meet Napoleon. When the soldiers threatened to kill her traveling party, she followed the advice of an officer and saluted in perfect French, repeatedly shouting “Vive Napoleon!” and eventually earning safe passage to Paris.
At home in the nation’s capital
Following John Quincy’s diplomatic service, his career took the Adamses to Washington, D.C. Louisa became a renowned hostess, holding weekly receptions at their F Street home while John Quincy was secretary of state and regularly organizing dinners for 30 or more guests while he was president. Most notably, in 1825 she hosted a White House reception for the Marquis de Lafayette—a champion of liberty and a military hero during the American Revolution—who was touring the United States.
Their years in the White House were emotionally draining for Louisa. She and John Quincy were burdened by having to financially support numerous dependent relatives and by the personal difficulties of their own adult children, culminating in the probable suicide of their son George. Louisa was also stung by the harsh criticism and ridicule that John Quincy endured at the hands of his political enemies.
The final chapter
When John Quincy failed to win re-election to the presidency, Louisa hoped they would return to private life. Instead, her husband was elected to the House of Representatives in 1830, and they remained in Washington for the rest of their lives. During this period, Louisa became a passionate supporter of women’s rights, a cause she equated with the repression of African-American slaves. She corresponded with the Grimke sisters, who were outspoken abolitionists and feminists. And during John Quincy Adams’s fight to repeal the gag rule in Congress, Louisa served as his aide, reading, filing and cataloguing the thousands of antislavery petitions sent to Congress, many of them submitted by women’s organizations.