When Abigail Adams first met her daughter-in-law Louisa, wife of future president John Quincy Adams, she was not greatly impressed. Even before the marriage, Abigail “was troubled by the fear that Louisa might not be made of stuff stern enough, or brought up in conditions severe enough, to suit a New England climate, or to make a sufficient wife for her paragon son, and Abigail was right on that point,” wrote Louisa’s grandson, Henry Adams. Louisa was often sick, depressed, and weak with worry—surely a burden on John Quincy at times when he needed a pillar of support.
But John Adams, our pugnacious second president, adored Louisa from the start. He “never said an unkind word to me,” she recalled, “but ever to the hour of his death, treated me with the utmost tenderness, and distinction most flattering.” The cranky old president must have recognized a kindred soul in the sharp-eyed and often savagely witty Louisa, who wrote him letters from Washington frankly revealing that she did not subscribe to the view that the American politicians of the early 19th century made an exceedingly strong case for the virtues of representative democracy.
Both in-laws had a point about this complex woman, as this collection of her writings amply demonstrates. A Traveled First Lady presents her opinionated take on a remarkably rich life near the center of political power.
In some ways, the life recounted here is a fairy tale—infused, like many fairy tales, with the elements of nightmare. She was raised in luxury in London and France by a beloved merchant-father who went bankrupt, staining the family name after John Quincy Adams had pledged himself to her. Adams, as a diplomat, took her to the glittering courts of Europe, where she hobnobbed with royalty—and felt a haunting sense of loneliness and inferiority, in part because she could not, on a republican’s salary, keep up with the lifestyles and personal adornment of the other diplomats. There is nothing here about being the wife of a president, but much about the difficulties of being married to a loving, honorable, and reserved man who is a leading aspirant for the presidency and is pilloried in the press for failing to be the typical gladhanding pol in the age of Andrew Jackson. Throughout, she struggles to understand God’s will, as the blows of life strike her brutally: She suffers repeated illnesses and miscarriages; she must leave behind her 1-year-old daughter in a Russian grave; she lives to see her oldest son die of an apparent suicide and her second-oldest descend into alcoholism and an early death.
At times, her writings seem rambling and obtuse. She confesses that “as I know nothing of style, or composition, those who may read this memento mori, must endeavor to extract light from the chaos which lies before them.” For the most part, editors Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor stand back and give Louisa the spotlight, correcting no spelling, offering limited guidance, and leaving the reader to tease out the meaning and decipher the references.
Yet her writings glow with passion, insights, and character sketches that flirt with character assassination. She writes of Thomas Jefferson: “His countenance indicated strongly the hypocrisy of his nature and all about him his smile and his actions indicated a sort of tricky cunning, the sure attendant of a sophisticated mind devoid of a strong basis of substantial principle.” She paints a memorable portrait of a self-absorbed Jefferson keeping the White House fires low, forcing his guests at a state dinner to clamp their jaws shut lest their teeth chatter, “while the gallant President drew his Chair close to the centre of the hearth, and seemed impatiently to await our exit.”
Henry Clay, the Great Pacificator and Abraham Lincoln’s hero, is a “man made up of shreds and patches and formed”—here she crosses out “in a Brothel”—“and polished in a gaming house and whose chief talent consists in working on the weaker or baser passion’s of mankind.” Proud and dignified, she is not always an admirer of post-Federalist democracy: She laments that the House of Representatives is turning into a “Bear garden” and defiantly observes that “for my part I am very willing to show that I am the publick Servant but I will never be the Publicks Slave.”
On May 18, 1852, Congress adjourned for the funeral of Louisa Catherine Adams, an honor never previously bestowed on a first lady, much less a former first lady. She is largely forgotten today, but this volume may help readers understand why she was worthy of being treated with “distinction most flattering.”
Edward Achorn, editorial page editor of the Providence Journal, is the author of The Summer of Beer and Whiskey: How Brewers, Barkeeps, Rowdies, Immigrants, and a Wild Pennant Fight Made Baseball America’s Game.