Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs Adams by Louisa Thomas

Penguin Press New York 2016

ISBN: 9781410488145 (hb)

ISBN: 9780399563133 (pb)

ISBN: 9781101980828 (eb)

RRP $25 (pb) $50 (hb)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson

It says something about US presidents and their families that there have been only two foreign born US first ladies – US first lady Melania Trump and, some two centuries earlier, one other who was the wife of the sixth president of the United States, John Quincy Adams. Her name was Louisa Adams, born in 1775 to London based American merchant, Joshua Johnson, and his English wife Catherine.

For the most part, history had forgotten Louisa Adams. But in publishing Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Louisa Adams, another Louisa – US journalist and historian Louisa Thomas – has brought Mrs Louisa Adams to life in ways those who knew her publicly two centuries ago would never recognise. As Thomas explained to Marcia Franklin for Idaho Public Television, a host of biographies written of Louisa Adams’ husband John Quincy completely ignore his wife.

Thomas’ biography is a complex and compelling read and, remarkably, gets into the mindset of Louisa Adams, her age and her experiences through the vast collection of writings she left behind, writings that include a thousand letters, diaries, three memoirs, novels, poems, three plays and miscellaneous other snippets.

The nature of these writings is also significant. Thomas was astonished to find the voice behind Louisa’s pen was direct and carried the emotions she felt as she wrote; it is acerbic, vivid, irreverent and funny. It might be described in places as being like a modern download. A whole personality exposed. Her reactions to trials, self-doubt, sudden anger, delights and aspirations and much more are laid bare on the page. She is not writing, as so many famous men have done, to help future biographers mould her portrait. As Louisa came to realise in later life, writing was her way of not accepting her fate in silence but of underscoring her existence by recording that she was “one who was”.

Strangely, this Louisa Adams part of the Adams family collection had been largely ignored among the Adams papers where interest in historical figures like second US president John Adams, his wife Abigail and their son John Quincy Adams overshadowed historical interest in the foreign-born Louisa. Added to this, as can be seen in Thomas’ intricate portrait, was Louisa Adams’ self-effacement in titles she gave her memoirs written as a record for her family – “Record of a Life”, “Narrative of a Journey” and “The Adventures of a Nobody”. As Thomas opines, “The only history Louisa could claim was personal history, but even there, she sometimes wondered whether she had the right.”

In spite of kicking back in private at the suffocating restrictions placed on wives and women generally, Louisa bowed to a consciousness of the menial place of women. Her husband had told her on marrying that his priorities were, in order, his country, his family, his books and only then she would have her share.

Louisa Thomas has produced more than a biography of an intriguing personality given a rather adventurous life with a husband she barely knew at the time they were married. By resisting any attempt to overplay Louisa Adams’ historical importance, and by allowing Louisa Adams’ voice to take the reader with her, Thomas has achieved something much more important. She has created a psychological and emotional experience not only of Louisa Adams and her life but also that of many middle-class and aristocratic women in early nineteenth century Europe and America.

Having begun, like so many young wives thrust into managing households, quite ignorant of the most basic tasks, Louisa soon overcame not only her understanding of practical organisation but adapted skilfully in unexpected situations, from playing politics at European courts and snatching at moments when she danced at balls and felt like a “belle” to surviving dangerous journeys even while extremely unwell. The number of her miscarriages, writes Thomas, is impossible to determine but she suffered many, starting with the first months of her marriage. Her body also tended to break down if she was feeling – as Thomas puts it – “lonely, stressed, useless, or excluded”. Attacks of erysipelas and migraines came on frequently as well.

When they eventually met after some years, Abigail Adams was not at first impressed with her young daughter-in-law who knew nothing about farming and seemed of a frivolous nature to her puritan mind. Abigail’s comfort at the time was that Louisa would not live all that long. But Louisa would surprise her, and even become a favourite of aging John Adams as he and Louisa exchanged letters.

Over her married life, Louisa Adams also grew more confident in expressing her own views to her husband – hence their many conflicts in spite of their genuine physical attraction for one another. They had a dynamic marriage that included many periods of estrangement. For all that, Thomas notes that some of their letters to each other are at times rather raunchy. And Louisa grew in her knowledge through reading and the variety of settings she found herself in as she followed her diplomat husband.

Fundamental to their spates of disunity was Louisa’s determination to have a personal voice, in spite of her husband’s misogynistic and puritanical demands. In a letter to her husband, at the age of 70, she wrote:

Now I like very well to adopt my husband’s thoughts and words when I approve them but I do not like to repeat them like a parrot, and prove myself a nonentity … When my husband married me, he made a great mistake if he thought I only intended to play an echo.

Aged 28, John Quincy Adams came into the 20-year-old Louisa Johnson’s life in November 1795.  As US Ambassador to the Netherlands, he had returned from The Hague to London as the ratification and formal exchange of a treaty between the United States and Britain was being wrapped up. A staunch republican, Quincy Adams found the aloofness of British officials grating and the months he spent in London at this time were full of professional irritation and boredom during a cold and long winter.

Louisa’s father Joshua Johnson, as American consul in London, regularly entertained distinguished guests – especially Americans when in London. Lonely and lured by the warm Johnson family home, John Quincy Adams found himself following up his first visit, night after night, enjoying the company of the Johnson daughters, seven in all. Their one brother was then at Harvard.

It was out of character for Quincy Adams to devote himself to such pleasure. The Adams family ethic was Massachusetts puritan; one’s place must be earned by virtue and merit. European aristocracy was alive with dissipation. London was a temptation to the ills of monarchical Europe. When in Berlin, as a young wife, the Queen insisted Louisa improve her pallor with rouge only to have Adams see it as the corruption and paint of brothels and command Louisa to wipe it off.

At the age of 14, John Quincy Adams had been sent to Russia by his father to learn the ways of diplomacy and politics as secretary to the American emissary. His mother had written that he had been raised for his country and that she had “devoted him to the publick”. Thomas writes: “His parents’ goal for him was nothing less than greatness.”

They were a marriage of opposites. Louisa, raised in England and schooled for a time at a convent in France, had all the social charm of a salon culture; John Quincy Adams with his puritan American republican constraints and his duties looked on physical attraction as a diversion from his work. Thomas writes: “He wanted to be with her and wanted to run from her.”

Adams delayed over the nuptials and in letters to Louisa while they were engaged revealed his distrust of happiness, his unease at being seen to be ambitious which he thought “craven”, even un-American, his worry she would be impressed by titles while he worked in Europe and that he could not afford nor wanted the luxury life she was used to. He also worried she was not an American.

The young couple, for all that, were married on 26 July 1797 with the occasion celebrated by a ball. It would be, however, the last ball held by the Johnson family who were at the time also packing for a return to America. Joshua had become bankrupt and Louisa’s dowry of £5000 would never be paid. This would further entrap Louisa, mentally, in a feeling of bondage. Within a month or so of their marriage, the couple embarked for Germany. They would not arrive in the US until September 1801.

Louisa is a riveting read and Thomas keeps the pace, never letting the vast collection of her subject’s writings overwhelm the storyline. At times it is like reading a novel. Events of Napoleonic Europe and post revolutionary America never take over but remain as supporting action to the unfolding story of a remarkable woman and her marriage.

The account which Louisa herself recorded in “Narrative of a Journey” of her 2000 mile journey from St Petersburg to Paris in the winter of 1815 is not only an account of a vulnerable group – young mother, old nurse, small boy and a couple of roughneck protectors – in a well built carriage, skating then riding over the rough terrain of war torn countries during 40 days. It is also an insight into the ordinary world left barren and perilous by the Napoleonic ravages.

At every stage, Louisa was on her own as far as decisions to be made to ensure their safety, bluffing her way past ragged and hungry small gangs of soldiers, passing Leipzig and the ghoulish remains of its battle in 1813 that left over 100,000 dead, wounded or missing in three days, using the help of her banker in Berlin to suddenly replace her bodyguards, gaining the assistance of a convoy to enter Paris as Napoleon prepared for the Battle of Waterloo, his supporters ready to kill the occupants of a Russian carriage. Her husband, long since removed to Paris with diplomatic work showed no anxiety in his diaries of the time, going to the theatre on the night they were expected to arrive.  As Thomas writes: “[I]f he worried about his wife’s safety on the road he did not say so. They had been apart for eleven months.”

While playing their parts at the periphery and centre of great public moments in history, Louisa and John Quincy Adams were increasingly bound together as if by an unbreakable twine. This in spite of moments when an older Louisa had fleeting thoughts of divorce and her husband bitterly ignored and deserted her at difficult stages. Two centuries later, Michelle Obama as the wife of another former US president, captured the ambience of such a long lasting partnership saying: “You have got to know that there are going to be long periods of time when you cannot stand each other… there were times that I wanted to push Barack out the window.”

John Quincy Adams had certainly earned his diplomatic positions, particularly as an avid student of political history and the great studies of political movements. He understood Europe from an early age. But his deep-seated reserve about social interaction made him an unusual personality in the world of networking and ambition.

In the Washington political scene, it was Louisa who made the contacts to get her husband the presidency. It was Louisa who campaigned for him while he took the attitude, almost, that the office should be conferred on him for his merit alone. And yet, when he achieved the presidency it was Louisa who was expected to play the role of little wife, maintaining her silence, sorting out the shabby décor of the White House and being seen at her husband’s side. She did not thrive as first lady and John Quincy Adams did not win a second term.

In fact, when John Quincy Adams later returned to politics as a member of Congress, Louisa came to realise the life of a Congressman’s wife had more freedom than the wife of a President. Thomas writes: “The political machinations exhausted her, but they also exhilarated her … Politics, she finally admitted to Charles [her son], were her ‘bread, meat and dessert’.”

And while Louisa’s opposition to slavery never matched her husband’s front on stand against it in the Congress, she was his strongest ally as John Quincy Adams stood defending himself on the floor of the house for an entire day after a vote to expel him for daring to challenge a house ruling forbidding debate on petitions against slavery. Thomas records: “One who watched him withstand the attacks by the proslavery faction said it was like seeing ‘the sting of so many musquitoes upon the hide of a rhinoceros’.”

Louisa was correct in her view that “women were the shadows in the history of men”. One of the most telling parts of the Louisa Adams story is of her receiving a legacy from her brother Thomas. This was a woman who once wrote, “It is the consciousness of my nothingness that causes liberty.” Yet, in 1843, when left $10,000 by her brother, Louisa aged 68 came into her own money for the first time in her life. She drew up a will, which was not witnessed by her husband, and wrote at the top of the page: “in my own right… the possession in my own name of a Legacy of Ten thousand Dollars”.

Louisa Thomas’ Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Louisa Adams is an invaluable contribution to US history. Without knowing Mrs Louisa Adams as intimately as Thomas has drawn her, it is not possible to have a rounded knowledge or understanding of not just John Quincy Adams and his ilk but the life and times they lived through.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History