Book Reviews

Thomas, Louisa Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams 2016. 500 pp. Penguin Press ISBN 9781594204

In this biography of Mrs. John Quincy Adams, Louisa Thomas provides a front-seat, panoramic view of world-changing history within the scope of a woman’s personal story, a woman with hopes and dreams and, yet, a destiny, perhaps, she would not knowingly have chosen. It can appear that during this time, free men largely selected their paths—sometimes highly sacrificial paths—and women simply accepted theirs. If that is so, many women garnered superhuman strength along the way as Mrs. Adams seemed to do.

John and Abigail Adams expected their son to marry an American much like himself. Louisa Catherine Johnson was only “negligibly” an American. Though her father had taught his children they were Americans, Louisa had never seen the United States when she met John Quincy.

Louisa was born in London, England, on February 12, 1775, to Joshua and Catherine Johnson. Her mother was a charming, vivacious English woman and her father a wealthy American merchant and patriot. Johnson had lived many years in London as a buyer for an Annapolis firm. Before Louisa’s birth, he and his family had briefly lived in Maryland, but Louisa had only lived in England and a few years in France while the American Revolutionary War was raging.

In 1790, Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of State, named Joshua Johnson the American consul in London. The family lived in a beautiful mansion on Tower Hill, near the Tower of London. By this time, Johnson had become a partner in an American trade firm called Wallace, Johnson, and Muir. Because Johnson was much admired as an American patriot with numerous political connections, most high-placed Americans made their way to the Johnson home whenever they were abroad. Louisa met John Quincy Adams in 1795, a diplomatic minister to the Netherlands, at dinner in her parents’ home. At this first meeting, Louisa was twenty years old, and John Quincy was around twenty-eight.

            The two young people were not at all alike. She was bright, happy, stylish, and light-hearted. He was often grave and serious. Louisa had only heard about the hardships of the American Revolution, but John Quincy had lived them as a child. He was brought up by duty-conscious parents to love country above all else except God, and a strong sense of commitment hung about his character. Despite their differences, they were drawn to one another and married on July 26, 1797, in a fine wedding given by her parents.. A dark problem loomed, however. Louisa’s father’s firm had gone bankrupt shortly before the wedding, and he had not told the couple. He could not pay the dowry. In this period, a breach of the marriage agreement would have allowed Adams to obtain an annulment, and Louisa feared John Quincy might think her dishonest. Although he did not indicate any such thought to her, she never fully recovered from the disappointment. The dowry, a custom of the upper classes, was in large part, the wife’s way of feeling she had contributed to the support of her family. Because she brought no money into the family when she married, Louisa spent much of her life feeling she had little right to a say in family affairs.

The same year as the wedding, President John Adams appointed his son Minister of Prussia. Louisa and her new husband moved to Berlin where she had to be presented to the Prussian court. Louisa was a huge success, quickly learning the acceptable protocols. Queen Louise and Countess Pauline Neale particularly liked her. One would expect John Quincy to be thrilled by this development, but he was not. He was a thorough believer in republics and in republican virtues, disliking anything to do with royalty and courts. Still, he had to be diplomatic as his mission was to improve U.S. standing among the Europeans and to encourage Prussia to be neutral in disputes between England and France in order to keep Europe out of U.S. affairs. Louisa was a huge asset even though her husband and his parents feared she would become too enamored of court life and not embody the principals of her country. John Quincy, in fact, did not believe women should have any part in politics and that royalty and courts were a corruption as evidenced by the very fact that women were involved in them.

Thus began Louisa and John Quincy Adams’s life together, a life filled with duty and adventure both at home in the United States and abroad in the courts of Europe. They found themselves living in cultures and environs as diverse as Prussia, rural Massachusetts, Boston, Washington D.C., Russia, Paris, and London. During these heady times, Louisa also suffered miscarriages, the death of a little daughter, separations from her sons, loneliness, self-imposed tensions with Abigail, and physical separations from her husband. Occasionally, she had to meet danger head-on. In a particularly dramatic instance during the Napoleonic Wars, she was forced to cross treacherous territory between Russia and Paris with only her young son in tow.

During her life, Louisa was to be a congressional wife, the wife of the Secretary of State, the daughter-in-law of one President, and the wife of another with all the rewards and hardships of those positions. She faced continued tragedy as she grew older, losing her beloved parents, Abigail, and then John Adams to whom she had grown particularly close, addressing him as Father. She and John Quincy lost their eldest son to suicide at age 28, their second son at age 31, and even outlived the second son’s wife and two daughters. Their third son and wife, however, provided sunshine. They had seven children, all of whom lived to become prominent citizens.

When John Quincy Adams collapsed on the House floor in Washington D.C. in February of 1848, once again a congressman after leaving the Presidency, Louisa was to have little say in his treatment. As he lay dying in the Speaker’s room, congressional members decided that the women should leave (perhaps believing watching his death would be too difficult for them).  Louisa was sent home. She was grief-stricken at not being allowed to stay. Louisa was to live three more years after her husband’s death. After she died, her son Charles, her only remaining child wrote in his diary “…her going leaves a blank which nothing can replace (455).”