History

The Diary of a Somebody

The unsinkable second Adams first lady.

By From the April 2014 issue

Charles Bird King portrait of Louisa Adams (Wikimedia Commons)
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Diary and Autobiographical Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams, Volumes 1 and 2
Edited by Judith S. Graham, Beth Luey, Margaret A. Hogan, C. James Taylor
(Belknap Press, 960 pages, $175)

When, on a brisk November day in London, 1795, John Quincy Adams, then twenty-eight, came to call on the American Consul, Joshua Johnson, he entered the bustling home of a loving, affectionate family, “an establishment…large, not sumptuous or extravagant,” in the words of his future wife, but open to all, especially American visitors.

Young Adams was clearly a prize visitor: President Washington’s minister to Holland, son of Vice President John Adams, a man on the way up. After that first afternoon, you might say he never left, showing up virtually every day thereafter, staying until well after midnight. 

He had fallen in love. The pampered and beautiful twenty-year-old Louisa, second of the nine Johnson children, was not only a prodigious reader who quoted Shakespeare and Milton, but also a gifted musician, fluent in French (having been schooled in France), and a sparkling conversationalist. “Pride and hauteur,” she quips in her diary, “were my predominant failings, but they had the good effect of keeping me out of bad company.”

Portions of that diary have been published just this month as A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams, edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor of the Massachusetts Historical Society (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 388 pages). It is a highly readable condensation of the two massive volumes here discussed. The book also features a delightful foreword by Laura Bush, who, as she writes, shares with Louisa “the special distinction of being both the wife of one U.S. president and the daughter-in-law of another.”

For Louisa, at least, marrying into a political family had a touch of drama, as she records her introduction to the good-looking Yankee. It wasn’t until her birthday ball in the winter of 1796 that “Mr. A. first made his attentions decidedly publick.” But then, puzzlingly, Mr. A. backed off. He played the Reluctant Bridegroom, delaying the wedding—despite the baffled pleas of Louisa and her family—until July 1797.

Eventually, though, John Quincy had to make his move, for he had been assigned (by his father, now president) a new posting in Berlin. A pity he hadn’t listened to the Johnsons; he might have received a nice dowry. His procrastination cost him: Two weeks after the wedding Joshua Johnson’s mercantile business collapsed, and he was ruined. 

Anxious at leaving her newly impoverished family, Louisa nevertheless joined her husband, departing for Berlin on a Danish ship in October 1797. “I got on board,” she recounted, “just in Season to get to bed being very sick….” Louisa was seasick—and pregnant.

And yet, ever the storyteller, she drily notes the captain’s “eoconomy in the use of Sugar. There was a piece of white sugar candy tied to a string which was passed alternately to each who suked it and then sipped the tea.”

“The Adventures of a Nobody” was her own title for her Prussian diaries, compiled some years after the fact. She writes that, newly arrived in Berlin in November 1797, John Quincy assumed his duties as minister, and she was in bed again. Her pregnancy was to result in the first of at least four painful miscarriages in Berlin. Later, she would suffer other miscarriages, the pitiful death of her baby daughter in Russia, and later yet a stillborn son in America. But in Berlin, she worried she was letting her husband down; she “had the misery to behold the anguish of my husband’s blighted hopes.”

In fact, a day in the life of the beau monde in Berlin as recounted in these pages leaves the reader marveling that any babies made it to term. What Louisa called a “life of almost constant dissipation,” consisted of a maelstrom of morning visits, afternoon luncheons, horseback riding, teas, card games (she got “fleeced”), parties, quadrilles, opera, and balls that lasted until morning.

Her frequent bouts of ill health spared Louisa from some of these affairs, but just as often she would haul herself out of bed, don her maternity robe, and, with her fluency in French and her love of music and dancing, shortly became a favorite of the diplomatic corps and even of the royal family. This despite the fact that because of the modest finances of the new republic and her husband’s vigilant thrift, her wardrobe was “plain and simple.” Then too, though her complexion was pallid, the prim John Quincy refused to allow her to wear rouge. In spite of him, Louisa, “pale as a cadaver,” flourished at the pleasure domes of the bon ton. She could be the consummate party girl; indeed, she writes, she “became a belle.”

In 1801, John Quincy was called home to America by his father. But before departing, a blessed event at last: After four years and all those “blighted hopes,” on April 12, 1801, their first son, George Washington Adams, was born. The fact that he arrived “under circumstances so distressing; and treatment so cruel on the part of the Drunken Accoucheur” that Louisa couldn’t walk for weeks was soon forgotten: “I was a Mother—God had heard my prayer.” Such was their favor in Berlin that “the King had the ends of the Street barred up, that no carriages might disturb me….” 

This “nobody” was far from a nobody in Berlin. Or ever.

On the eighth of July, Louisa, John Quincy, and three-month-old George left for America. After the usual nightmare of a nineteenth-century sea voyage, compounded by her baby’s “dissentery,” the exhausted Louisa got her first glimpse of these shores. Arriving in September 1801, she rushed to be with her destitute family, now living in Maryland. Her beloved father, “the handsomest man I ever beheld,” was in the last throes of a terminal illness. She was never to see him again.

Afterwards, it was on to Quincy, Massachusetts, to meet the dreaded in-laws, the fearsome Adams family. Even their religion alarmed her: “It was lucky for me that I was so much depressed, and so ill, or I should certainly have given mortal Offence—Even the Church, its forms, The snuffling through the nose, the singers….” And at home: “I hourly betrayed my incapacity; and to a woman like Mrs. Adams; equal to every occasion in life; I appeared like a maudlin hysterical fine Lady, not fit to be the Partner of a Man, who was evidently to play a great part on the Theatre of life.”

Soon, however, she gamely stepped out into Boston’s social whirl. At their new home in Boston, where John Quincy, by 1806, was now both in the Massachusetts legislature and teaching at Harvard, Louisa found herself lonely, self-critical, and depressed. “There is a constitutional irritability about me of late years….” 

But then, on July 4, 1803, another son, John, arrived “at three o’clock in the morning just as the first Guns fired…. He was beautiful, and I fear I was too proud of being the Mother of two fine children….” Children, a home—this was God’s plenty. She was happily “content to live at home and nurse her tender babes.” 

John Quincy, on the other hand, had the Adams gene, which carried with it a fierce ambition to a higher calling. His election as U.S. senator in 1803 entailed a move to Washington, and, for Louisa, panic. For when the Senate was in session, “true to my fear, my Children were left behind.” “I had no right to refuse what Mr. Adams thought just…[but] my heart was almost broken.”

Happily, though, back in Boston a year later, in August 1807, she successfully gave birth. The new arrival was Charles Francis Adams, who, though sickly at first, began “to thrive rapidly and all went on prosperously—Thanks be to God!!” Charles would be the only one of her children to avoid a tragic end.

And again, her capacity for physical regeneration, conversation, and of course satire enliven the record of her sojourn in Washington, with its “Balls, Dinners, Parties and Dejeunées Dansant...in this then desert City….” Readers will delight in her wicked description of President Thomas Jefferson’s appearance and his often parsimonious entertainments, her cool re-mounting after falling from a horse, the Cherokees who came to call, and her many send-ups of foppery and humbug.

Then, in 1809, President Monroe offered John Quincy the post of minister to Russia, which paralyzed Louisa with apprehension. And, just as she had feared, upon Abigail’s orders, the two older boys were to be left behind in Quincy. She had been “grosly deceived” by those colluding to keep her boys at home. Louisa would not see them for six years.

Repeatedly, on the terrible sea voyage to Russia, “broken hearted miserable, alone,” she recounts her woes:

If it was to do again nothing on Earth could induce me to make such a sacrifice and my conviction is that if domestic separation is absolutely necessary cling as a Mother to those innocent and helpless creatures whom God himself has given to your charge….

Fortunately, her sister Catherine was permitted to accompany her, providing a measure of support. Arriving at St. Petersburg in October 1809, they found themselves lodged at a ghastly rat-infested hotel. After a move to new lodgings, Louisa summoned the energy to be presented at Court. After the triumphant presentation she gibes, “The Savage had been expected!!” 

Again she was pregnant. And again she was thrown into extravagant suppers and dancing until dawn, costume balls and masquerades complete with cross-dressers (“a most disgusting travestie”), theater, sleigh parties. Petersburg, with all its vices, was an exotic  playground, offering pleasures and adulation, but “all these honors were worth less compared with the blessing God had granted me and of which I was entirely deprived….”

 She had feared “to give birth to another Child in a strange land after all I had suffered,” but on August 12, 1811: 

My Child a Daughter the first that I was ever blessed with was born at half past seven o-clock….My Sister went and announced her birth to her Father and he soon came in to bless and Kiss his Babe—God was very merciful to me.

Soon, baby Louisa “was vaccinated for the kinepock—O she grows lovely—Such a pair of Eyes!! I fear I love her too well….”

But the year 1812 arrived ominously. Letters came telling of the death of Louisa’s mother and other family members. Her diary entries become eerily intermittent until February 11: “My lovely beautiful Babe is very very ill—Ah! The fountain of her precious existence is sapped by these constant shocks and I look at her with fear and trembling.”

On August 30, “Went into the Country with my sick Child”; on September 9, “Took my Babe back to the City in Convulsions….” On September 15, the final entry: “My Child gone to heaven.” The loss of her baby brought Louisa to the lowest point of her life. And thus the next section can fairly be called a threnody, and it is heartbreaking:

 my babes image flits forever before my eyes and seems to reproach me with her death necessity alone induced me to wean her and in doing it I lost her. Oh God thou didst know the agonies I felt e’re I could bring my self to do it Thou didst think fit to take her from me and I feel that all my wishes centre in the grave I am a useless being in this World and this last dreadful stroke has too fully convinced me what a burthen I am become… 

Now and again she puts her grief aside to comment listlessly on events beyond herself—Napoleon, the theater, astronomy, Charles’s first Russian lessons—and she reads constantly: the lives of famous women, Manon Lescaut, even a book on chemistry, but to little avail.

And then on February 12, 1815, her fortieth birthday, the old Louisa came roaring back to life. The next section, “Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France,” is the most hair-raising section in the entire collection. John Quincy had been sent to Paris to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent. Louisa hadn’t seen him for nearly a year, and she decided to pull up stakes in Russia and rush across war-ravaged Europe in the dead of winter to join him—alone, with young Charles, in a rickety carriage or sleigh. It is a story of unimaginable discomfort, absent-minded servants, questionable characters threatening in desolate places, impudent officials, weary soldiers, and filthy lodgings. Above all, it is the tale of a fragile, rugged, determined woman pulling off an adventure as daunting as those of the ragged soldiers she passed.

Readers might turn to Michael O’Brien’s fine book, Mrs. Adams in Winter, for a painstaking reconstruction of this astonishing journey, with maps and period details—a metaphor, as he says, for a life spent crossing borders.

The long final section is an epilogue of sorts. It is interesting in what it omits: Four years, 1815-1819, have passed without comment since her harrowing winter journey, which includes two years in London, where John Quincy served as U.S. minister and where her sons joined them at last, and the first two years of his term as secretary of state. Then the worst of times for this hardy soul, years that nearly broke her: John Quincy’s presidency, won after a bitter campaign. The president’s mansion was, in her words, “that dull and stately prison house.”

At times she comes across as a bit of a hypochondriac, whole days abed. But many of her illnesses were real. She suffered from a chronic chest congestion and from erysipelas, an ugly strep infection that she and John Quincy kept passing to each other. One biographer tells of an abnormally severe menopause, and of a hemorrhoid operation performed by—wait for it: Dr. Physick.

At other times, she was her old self: She was proud of her regular Tuesday evening “sociables,” to which Washington’s beautiful people eagerly came early and stayed late. Often, she displays both selves at once:

Was so ill could not rise from my bed until 5 o’clock in the afternoon grew better but still very unwell—Had a party of 20 or 30 in the evening which was less dull than I could possibly have flattered myself.

She also, to her own surprise, and to John Quincy’s, became adept at politicking. In one of her letters, she says, “I am a very good diplomate—You may laugh but it is so.” Many have suggested that it was Louisa, hostess and “diplomate,” who made John Quincy president.

The irregularity of the later entries suggests that Louisa and John Quincy spent a good deal of time apart, particularly during the presidency. She did take long retreats; as always, she read—Plutarch, Cicero, all of Shakespeare (again). She wrote plays and poetry, which she belittled as doggerel, her “Poètical abortions.”

And she was haunted by the death of her sons: George, an alcoholic, possibly a suicide; and John, too, of alcoholism. She would never stop blaming herself:

He [Charles] is the only one of my Children whom I never deserted; therefore the only one to whom I have performed my duty—To my other two I failed; and God Almighty forgive me!!

Gradually, however, she learned acceptance. She came to appreciate the Adams family, and found to her amazement that she herself was one of them. She “sincerely repented” her mutual misunderstandings with Abigail, and as to old John: “I loved him living, and I venerate his Memory.” She found a new harmony with John Quincy and tended to him until he died. In the end, it was she, “singularly peaceful,” according to her grandson Henry, who held the Adams family together.

When she herself died, in May 1852, both houses of Congress adjourned for her funeral, an outpouring that would have amazed her. But then, “a little…flattery does go a great way. So it seems I sometimes hit right.” 

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About the Author

Janet Tassel is a writer in the Boston area.