Louisa Adams, First Foreign-Born First Lady

Louisa Adams by Charles Bird King, circa 1821-1825. A native of London, Louisa Adams was the first foreign-born First Lady of the United States.

Louisa Adams by Charles Bird King, circa 1821-1825

Louisa Adams, wife of John Quincy Adams, was the first foreign-born First Lady of the United States. A native of London, Louisa was literate, a fashionable dresser, and had Continental polish and charm from many years spent in Europe. Most importantly, she understood how to use her social skills to make up for her husband’s inadequacies. In 1815, Louisa Adams made a dangerous journey across Europe to join her husband in Paris, in which she encountered the effects of the Napoleonic Wars firsthand.

Born in London

Louisa Catherine Johnson was born in London on February 12, 1775, to an American father – Joshua Johnson, a Maryland merchant residing in London – and an English mother, Catherine Nuth. The second of eight children, Louisa grew up in London and in Paris, where her family took refuge from 1778 to 1783, since her father sided with the Patriots during the American Revolution. In consequence, Louisa spoke French fluently.

Louisa got to know John Quincy Adams in 1795, when he was on a temporary diplomatic assignment in London and her father was the American consul in the city (they had met twice before, when they were children). It was not a particularly romantic courtship. When Adams was unexpectedly promoted to the post of American minister to Portugal, he had to choose between marrying Louisa earlier than they had planned, or postponing the wedding for three years. At first, he opted for the latter. To Louisa’s suggestion that he might place their happiness before his career plans, he replied:

My duty to my country is in my mind the first and most imperious of all obligations; before which every interest and every feeling inconsistent with it must forever disappear. (1)

Louisa’s father interceded and the couple was married on July 26, 1797, at the Church of All Hallows by the Tower in London. Instead of Portugal, Adams was posted to Prussia. He and Louisa lived in Berlin for four years. In 1801, they moved to Massachusetts, where their three sons were born: George in 1801, John in 1803 and Charles Francis in 1807.

A diplomatic wife

In 1809, Adams was appointed the first ever United States minister (ambassador) to Russia. Louisa and Charles accompanied him to St. Petersburg. Young George and John were left to be schooled in the United States, under the care of Adams’ parents. Adams made this decision without consulting Louisa, who was understandably distraught when she found out.

As discussed in my post about Dorothea von Lieven, diplomatic wives could be invaluable aids to their husbands’ missions in early 19th century Europe. Though not as politically interested or as involved as Dorothea, Louisa Adams was a great help to her husband in Russia. Her cordiality compensated for his lack of social graces, and she became a favourite of Tsar Alexander and his wife. The Adams’ marriage, though not overwhelmingly happy, could be considered a success. Adams wrote in his diary on July 26, 1811:

I have this day been married fourteen years, during which I have to bless God for the enjoyment of a portion of felicity, resulting from this relation in society, greater than falls to the generality of mankind and far beyond anything that I have been conscious of deserving. Its greatest alloy has arisen from the delicacy of my wife’s constitution, the ill health which has afflicted her much of the time, and the misfortunes she has suffered from it. Our union has not been without its trials, nor invariably without dissensions between us. There are many differences of sentiment, of tastes and of opinions in regard to domestic economy, and to the education of children, between us. There are natural frailties of temper in both of us; both being quick and irascible, and mine being sometimes harsh. But she has always been a faithful and affectionate wife, and a careful, tender, indulgent, and watchful mother to our children, all of whom she nursed herself. I have found in this connection from decisive experience the superior happiness of the marriage state over that of celibacy, and a full conviction that my lot in marriage has been highly favored. (2)

Some of Louisa’s episodes of ill health were occasioned by pregnancies and miscarriages. When Adams wrote the above passage, Louisa was eight months pregnant with their daughter, also named Louisa, who was born on August 12, 1811. Sadly, the little girl died a year later, on September 15, 1812.

In Napoleon’s footsteps

In April 1814, John Quincy Adams was summoned to Belgium to take part in the United States negotiations with Britain to end the War of 1812. When the Treaty of Ghent was completed, he moved to Paris to await official notice of his new appointment as the US minister to Great Britain. He wrote to Louisa, inviting her to join him.

On February 12, 1815, Louisa Adams began a harrowing 2,000 mile journey from St. Petersburg to Paris with 7-year-old Charles, a governess and two servants. Retracing, in places, the route Napoleon’s Grande Armée had taken during its retreat two years earlier, Louisa found signs of the Napoleonic Wars everywhere.

The season of the year at which I travelled, when earth was chained in solid fetters of ice, did not admit of flourishing description, but the ways were rendered deeply interesting by the fearful remnants of men’s fury. Houses half burnt, a very thin population, women unprotected, and that dreary look of forlorn desertion which sheds its gloom around on all objects, announcing devastation and despair. (3)

At Kustrin we found a tolerable house, but were not allowed to go within the fort. To my utter astonishment I heard nothing but the praises of the gallantry of Napoleon and his officers, and great regret at the damage done to this beautiful fortress; and learnt that from thence I should travel over the most beautiful road in the world which had been completed by his order, and that it would all have been finished in the same way if the Allies had not driven him away. The desolation of this spot was unutterably dismal; and the guarded tone of the conversation, the suppressed sighs, the significant shrug, were all painful indications of the miseries of war, with all its train of horrors. The Cossacks! the dire Cossacks! were the perpetual theme, and the cheeks of the women blanched at the very name. (4)

At Hanau, she observed, about a mile before the town,

several small mounds marked with crosses on the sides of the road, like graves. We 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 in a field which appeared to have been newly ploughed. My heart throbbed and I felt a sensation of deadly sickness with a fear that I should faint, guessing where I was…. (5)

By the time Louisa reached Strasbourg, she was exhausted.

My health was dreadful and the excessive desire which I felt to terminate this long and arduous journey absolutely made me sick. I had been absent a year from my husband and five long, long years and a half from my two eldest-born sons, whom I had left in America with their grandparents. War had intervened and free communication, in addition to the accustomed impediments from the climate, had conduced to add to my anxieties. Every letter had brought me accounts of the loss of near and dear relatives whom I never more should see…and nothing but the buoyant hope of soon embracing those long separated and loved, sustained me through the fatigue and excitement to which I was necessarily exposed. (6)

While Louisa Adams was making her way across the continent, Napoleon escaped from exile on Elba. He too was headed for Paris. Once in France, Louisa’s little group, in its Russian carriage, found themselves in the midst of Imperial Guards hastening to join the Emperor. Mistaking them for Russians, the soldiers threatened to tear Louisa and her party out of the carriage and kill them. Louisa presented her passports to an officer. He told the troops she was an American going to meet her husband in Paris. The soldiers shouted, “Vive les Americains!” They wanted her to cry “Vive Napoléon!”, which she did, waving her handkerchief out the carriage window. (7) The undisciplined troops accompanied Louisa to the next post house, with orders to fire if the carriage went any faster than a walk. “In this way we journeyed; the soldiers presenting their bayonets at my people with loud and brutal threats every half hour. The road lined on each side for miles with intoxicated men, rife for every species of villainy, shouting and vociferating: ‘Á bas Louis dix huit! Vive Napoléon!’” (8) A rumour spread that she was one of Napoleon’s sisters hurrying to join him.

Louisa Adams reached Paris on March 23, three days after Napoleon. (For more about John Quincy Adams and Napoleon, see my earlier post.)

A political wife

First Lady Louisa Adams, engraving by G. F. Storm of a painting by Charles Robert Leslie

First Lady Louisa Adams, engraving by G. F. Storm of a painting by Charles Robert Leslie

On May 23, 1815, John Quincy and Louisa Adams left France with Charles for a two-year stay in London, which they both loved. Their sons George and John, whom Louisa had not seen for six years, joined them. In 1817, they returned to the United States, where John Quincy became secretary of state. Louisa applied herself to advancing his career.

Though she was by nature timid, Louisa Adams delighted in society and enjoyed entertaining. She regularly gave dinner parties for members of Congress. In early 1820, she started hosting Tuesday night “sociables,” to which women were also invited. These were large parties – the first attracted some 200 guests – complete with food, card-playing, music and dancing. As we see at her sociable in Napoleon in America, Louisa often provided entertainment herself. She had a good singing voice and played the harp and the piano.

In addition to being a regular source of fun during the Washington winters, Louisa’s sociables served the political purpose of winning friends and allies for her husband. Introducing a social innovation, Louisa added a subscription aspect to her gatherings. Guests were invited not to a single occasion, but to a whole series of sociables. Those accepting the invitation were expected to attend only that set of parties throughout the season. Though other Cabinet families imitated her, Louisa’s events remained the most popular. The Adams’ home on F Street ranked with the White House as a social centre.

Massachusetts Congressman Elijah Hunt Mills described one such gathering in December 1820:

On Tuesday evening I went to Mrs. Adams’s, where I found forty or fifty people of different sexes collected from all parts of the Union, and crammed into a little room just large enough to contain them when standing up in groups. I went about half-past eight, made a bow to Mrs. Adams, had a few minutes’ conversation with her husband, drank a cup of tea, conversed an hour with whomsoever I could find in the crowd, took some ice-cream, and returned home about ten o’clock; and a more unsocial and dissonant party I have seldom been in, even in this wilderness of a city. On Thursday I dined at the same house, and as the party consisted mostly of people with whom I am well acquainted, I passed the time very pleasantly. … Mrs. Adams is, on the whole, a very pleasant and agreeable woman; but the Secretary has no talent to entertain a mixed company, either by conversation or manners. He is, however, growing more popular, and, if he conducts with ordinary prudence, may be our next president. I have not yet been to any other parties, nor do I feel any inclination so to do. (9)

Giving a sense of the political value of the sociables, John Quincy Adams wrote in February 1821:

My wife had this evening her weekly tea party which was very numerously attended. Among the company was Henry Brush of Ohio…. In the course of the evening he told me, commencing rather abruptly the conversation, that he had made up his mind that I was the most suitable person for the next Presidency…I told him that I was obliged to him for his good opinion, but that four years was too long a term to look forward for candidates on that occasion….. (10)

Louisa Adams and the Jackson Ball

Despite his protests, John Quincy Adams wanted the presidency. Louisa Adams fully supported his quest. In the run-up to the 1824 presidential election, they calculated that hosting a grand ball for Andrew Jackson, on the 10th anniversary of his victory at the Battle of New Orleans, would be a coup. Louisa threw herself into preparations. She cleared the furniture out of two stories of the house. She took doors off their hinges and rearranged the rooms, turning John Quincy’s library and study into a ballroom. She had pillars installed to prop up the second floor, where dinner would be served. She wove garlands and wreaths, designed patterns to be chalked onto the dance floor, and hired members of the Marine Band to play. To guide the way to the house, bonfires were lit for two blocks around.

At half past seven…the guests began to arrive in one continual stream so that in one hour even the staircase…began to be thronged. [Louisa and John Quincy Adams] took our stations near the door that we might be seen by our guests and at the same time receive the general. (11)

Even the curmudgeonly Elijah Hunt Mills wrote, on January 9, 1824:

I went last night, for the first time this season, to an evening party at Mr. Adams’s. It was a party given, as you know, in honor of General Jackson. He was kind enough to insist on my going in a carriage with him. We arrived about eight o’clock, and such a crowd you never witnessed. Eight large rooms were open, and literally filled to overflowing. There must have been at least a thousand people there ; and so far as Mrs. Adams was concerned, it certainly evinced a great deal of taste, elegance, and good sense. I wandered, or rather pushed my way, through all the rooms, gazed on the crowd, came round to the supper-room about half-past nine, and left there about ten. Many stayed till twelve and one. I am good for nothing, to describe such a scene in detail; but it is the universal opinion that nothing has ever equalled this party here, either in brilliancy of preparation or elegance of the company. (12)

Unfortunately, Jackson himself decided to enter the 1824 presidential campaign. He won a plurality of the electoral votes, but not enough to prevent the election going to the House of Representatives to make the final decision. The House elected John Quincy Adams president, after Henry Clay (the third leading candidate) threw his support behind Adams. Louisa was too ill to attend her husband’s inaugural ball.

For Louisa Adams’ life as First Lady (1824-1829) and afterwards, see her biography on the National First Ladies’ Library website.

Louisa Adams died of a heart attack in Washington on May 15, 1852, at the age of 77. She is buried beside her husband in the United First Parish Church in Quincy, Massachusetts.

You might also enjoy:

John Quincy and Louisa Adams: Middle-Aged Love

When Louisa Adams Met Joseph Bonaparte

John Quincy Adams and Napoleon

The New Year’s Day Reflections of John Quincy Adams

The Inauguration of John Quincy Adams

John Quincy Adams’ Swimming Adventures

John Quincy Adams’ Report Upon Weights and Measures

John Quincy Adams and the White House Billiard Table

How to Make Small Talk in the 19th Century

  1. Worthington Chauncey Ford, ed., Writings of John Quincy Adams, Vol. 2 (New York, 1913), p. 109.
  2. Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. 2 (Philadelphia, 1874), pp. 282-83.
  3. Brooks Adams, ed., “Mrs. John Quincy Adams’s Narrative of a Journey from St. Petersburg to Paris in February, 1815,” Scribner’s Magazine, Vol. 34 (July-December 1903), p. 453.
  4. Ibid., p. 454.
  5. Ibid., pp. 457-458.
  6. Ibid., p. 460.
  7. Ibid., p. 461.
  8. Ibid., p. 462.
  9. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 19 (Sept. 1881), p. 28.
  10. Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. 5, p. 305.
  11. Catherine Allgor, Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government (Charlottesville and London, 2000), p. 180.
  12. Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 19 (Sept. 1881), p. 40.

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Mrs. Adams is, on the whole, a very pleasant and agreeable woman; but the Secretary has no talent to entertain a mixed company, either by conversation or manners.

Elijah Hunt Mills