John Quincy and Louisa Adams: Middle-Aged Love
America’s sixth president, John Quincy Adams, was not a romantic man. He was pedantic, sharp-tempered, domineering and generally hard to get along with. His wife, Louisa, was more charming, with a love of society and a desire to please, however she was also moody, inclined to self-doubt and depression, and a hypochondriac. They frequently exasperated each other. Looking back at their early years together, Louisa wrote, “Happy indeed would it have been for Mr. Adams if he had broken his engagement, and not harassed himself with a wife altogether so unsuited to his peculiar character, and still more peculiar prospects. When we were married every disappointment seemed to fall upon us at once. … [O]ur views of things were totally different on many essential points.” (1)
Despite John Quincy and Louisa Adams’s differences, there was a genuine affection and closeness between them. Their marriage lasted fifty years, until John Quincy Adams’ death in early 1848. In 1822, they marked their 25th wedding anniversary. Their correspondence that summer, at the midpoint of their married life, shows something of the companionable love that bound them together.
John Quincy Adams got to know Louisa Catherine Johnson at a dinner at her family’s home in London in November of 1795. Adams was a 28-year-old American diplomat to The Hague. Educated at Harvard, he was the eldest son of John Adams, who was then vice president of the United States (in 1797, John Adams became president). Louisa was the 20-year-old daughter of the American consul in London. She had been born in England and raised in France. Her schooling was focused on music, dancing and the arts. They became engaged in the spring of 1796. Adams then returned to Holland.
They continued their relationship through letter writing, although their missives were not all sweetness and light. One of Louisa’s biographers characterized their engagement correspondence as “[c]rackling with raw intensity, misunderstandings, and righteous indignation.” (2) Louisa was frustrated by John Quincy’s refusal to set a date for the wedding. He suggested it could be as long as seven years until he was able to support a wife, and he turned down her suggestion of coming to visit him in Holland. Influenced by his parents, who questioned whether Louisa was a suitable match, John Quincy tried to prepare Louisa for a less comfortable life than she was accustomed to. He bristled whenever she questioned his judgement, or offered opinions that differed from his own.
Notwithstanding their squabbles, they began to understand and accept their differences. When Louisa sarcastically used the phrase “pleasing admonition” in reference to one of John Quincy’s gloomy warnings, he replied:
[P]leasing contemplations…do not alone su[ffic]e for the happiness of any person’s life, and…the tenderest attachment may sometimes discover itself by pointing the attention of its beloved friend to useful reflection. I do most sincerely wish that you may never find from experience that pleasing contemplations are summer friends, ready to fly from the first appearance of difficulty; but I am sure that you will often have occasion to know that reflection, and the habit of seeing by anticipation the inconveniences and evils inevitably annexed to every approaching prospect, is in reality a kind and benevolent adviser. As I prefer suffering the mortification even of a sneer from you, rather than the future reproach of having excited false though pleasing contemplations, I readily renounce all pretensions to address in the art of pleasing, and hope you will find me throughout life rather a true and faithful than a complaisant friend. …
[C]ould you…for a moment harbour the thought that there is any quarter of the world, or any situation in life which can diminish your worth in my estimation, or render your society less essential to my happiness? No Louisa. You are the delight and pride of my life. (3)
Louisa responded, “How much my loved friend shall I atone for the uneasiness my last letter caused you…. May distrust with all its baneful tribe be far, far from our hearts. … [B]e assured the world itself without you will ever be an aching void to your L.C. Johnson.” (4)
John Quincy Adams and Louisa Johnson were married on July 26, 1797 at the parish church of All Hallows-by-the-Tower in London. During the next 25 years, John Quincy moved from a diplomatic career to a political one, eventually becoming Secretary of State under President James Monroe. He and Louisa lived in Berlin, Boston, Washington, St. Petersburg and London. They experienced Louisa’s numerous miscarriages, the birth of three sons – George (1801), John (1803) and Charles (1807) –, and the birth and death of a daughter, Louisa (1811-1812). John Quincy and Louisa were frequently apart, because of the demands of his job. Even when they were together he made decisions that substantially affected their life without consulting her. For example, he refused to let Louisa bring their two oldest sons to live with them in Russia. He and Louisa were often annoyed with each other. Yet they also experienced “moments of real tenderness, companionship, support, and joy.” (5)
The summer of 1822
Louisa Adams spent the summer of 1822 in Philadelphia nursing her sick brother, Thomas Baker Johnson, who was under the care of the aptly-named Dr. Philip Syng Physick. John Quincy Adams remained in Washington with their son George. They corresponded frequently. Between her departure from Washington in June and her return in October, Louisa sent 56 letters to John Quincy; he sent 25 to her. She gently scolded him for not writing more often.
Louisa’s letters tended to be long. She wrote about her brother’s surgery, her visitors and entertainments, and news and gossip she had heard. Louisa feared that her chattiness might bore her husband. “I must conclude this tiresome tirade which will I think be enough to wear your patience, although it is almost inexhaustible.” (6) “My journal is a potpourri, in which you find much nonsense now and then relieved by something a little better; but if it can afford interest sufficient to amuse you for a few minutes; it fully answers every purpose to your affectionate wife.” (7) John Quincy reassured her. “My dearest Louisa. We continue to be delighted almost daily with your journalizing letters, which together with our visits to the theatre, enliven the dullness of our half–solitude.” (8)
John Quincy was concerned that Louisa not over-extend herself in caring for her brother. “I wish you to remain with your brother as long as your own inclination and sense of duty will prompt you; without thinking a moment of the expense. Only let me caution you for his sake as well as for mine and your own, to measure your exertions for him by your own strength. To beware of overstraining yourself, till you sink under it. Your stock of service to him will hold out the longer for being used with discretion and reserve.” (9)
Louisa worried that John Quincy’s health was being adversely affected by the heat in Washington. “Pray if you are sick do not deceive me, for I could not bear the idea of being absent while you are indisposed.” (10) He wrote back, “I did suffer much for some time from excessive heat, but the cool weather has relieved me. We are all comfortable. The river bathing has been very refreshing and useful both to George and me.” (11)
Politics and manners
Louisa’s and John Quincy’s letters were also laced with politics. Louisa wanted to help her husband’s prospects in the 1824 presidential election. She met with people who could aid his cause, relayed their views and counsel to him, and threw in some advice of her own. One of her letters encouraged him to improve his manners.
[T]he constant hints of your most devoted friends would almost urge me who am so far very far inferior to you in every thing, to give you a lecture on common sense; or in other words on that worldly and every day sense, which is so essential to adapt us for the common intercourse of society. In nothings, every one can deal. In true solid sterling sense refined by experience and strengthened by cultivation and acquirement how few! When these things are united, man becomes a paragon and nobody can resist him. To you nothing is impossible. Cease to view a place hunter in every phiz, and you will find yourself at ease. At this critical time when all is warm in your favour, when the flash of superior talent has found its way into every soul susceptible of feeling; you should if possible seize the happy occasion to show yourself to your countrymen; and convince them that the coldness and austerity of which they complain, is not a part of your nature; but has only been produced by situation and circumstance. You will not I know be displeased at this expression of my wishes; for one of the qualities for which I have most respected you has always been that of bearing to hear the truth without impatience when it affects yourself. This is indeed an epitome of my favorite fable, and I think if I go any further I shall certainly share the fate of the Frog, and burst with my new born dignity of adviser. (12)
John Quincy playfully wrote back:
Your letter contains so much excellent advice, that last Saturday evening at the Theatre where I was seeing Booth in Sir Edward Mortimer, and Mrs Burke in Little Pickle, I determined to commence my practice upon it, and I made myself as amiable as possible to Mrs. Gales and Miss Kitty Lee, who were in the same box with me. Now to commence a course of politesse and gallantry with the thermometer at 100 was truly distressing, and that I was enabled to undertake it proves to you how deeply I was convinced by your eloquence. I asked Mrs. Gales how it was possible for a woman to love a man with such honours as those of Sir Edward Mortimer. She said his misfortunes made him interesting, and I loved her the more when I heard [such] tenderness fall from her tongue. But as Mrs. Gales has a husband and I have a wife, I thought it was time to stay the use of my fascinating powers there; and with Miss Lee I was still less successful, having only had the advantage of supplying her with a play-bill. Now you must know there are already two conquests upon which I calculate, both achieved by your advice. And I have a presentiment that if I ever do acquire the faculty of being irresistible my greatest achievement, will be upon the Ladies of the [fair]—who as Montesquieu wisely observes are the best possible judges of some of the qualifications which constitute a great man. (13)
John Quincy Adams’s feud with Jonathan Russell
One matter that preoccupied both John Quincy and Louisa was a pamphlet that had recently been published by Jonathan Russell, a Congressman from Massachusetts who, along with John Quincy Adams and Henry Clay, was one of the negotiators of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812 between Britain and the United States. Russell’s pamphlet accused Adams of having favoured British interests during the treaty negotiations. His aim was to help Clay’s presidential candidacy against Adams. Adams responded with several pamphlets that fiercely refuted Russell’s claims and destroyed the latter’s reputation.
This became a running theme in their correspondence, as Louisa heard from several visitors, including Robert Walsh, editor of the Philadelphia National Gazette, that Adams had fully made his point and it was in his interest to cease and desist. After several attempts to persuade her husband to let the matter drop, Louisa finally wrote this.
Walsh called on me in the evening and we had a great deal of conversation, particularly on the controversy. … He says that all your best friends are anxious that you should leave Jonathan the remnant of life which your last allowed him; and take as little notice of him as he merits. That the matter stands so fairly for you now, and that the public voice is so strongly expressed and manifested, that any future scourging would look like torturing a poor reptile, already crushed beyond recovery; and create a sensation of pity and compassion towards him which would re–elevate him to the notice and attention of the world, and give him claims upon society which are now lost forever. … You are under a great error as it regards the interest of the late correspondence; the personal part of it has been the only part which has really occupied the public mind, and it has placed you before the world in the character of a private individual, suffering under an unjust and ungenerous persecuted—in this light alone it is viewed and in this light it is powerfully felt, because every man can understand it and make the case his own. Persons long inured to public life accustomed to objects of great magnitude; thinking for a world and ever dwelling not on man individually but on the welfare of mankind at large; are apt to overlook the little passion, and the little every day feelings which contribute so largely to create the strong impulse of civil society; and though superior talents will be appreciated by the multitude, unless a man is sometimes seen en deshabille as a mere mortal, with the same passions and the same errors as his fellow creatures; he will be viewed as we have viewed a bright constellation when strongly pointed out to us, at a particular moment gazed at, and forgotten as if we had ever seen it. For this reason my best friend this controversy has placed you in a new light; not as a negotiator of treaties alone, but as an able man, with the will and the ability to fight his own battles, and to crush the atom that dare insult you with the strong and broad [aegis] of truth, garbed in the brilliant raiment of eloquence and learning.
Once more let me beseech you to spare your miserable opponent, and leave him to write himself into darker and deeper infamy than that into which he has plunged.
I know not how it is but I hate the word advice when you apply it as given from me to you. It sounds so much like caricature or banter. The narrowness of my conceptions and the littleness of my views make it impossible for me to advise with propriety on any subject, unless those which are mere matter of feeling. Here my sex seldom err; and here men may trust them without danger. (14)
Adams responded as follows.
Your journals…have become a sort of necessary of life to George and me. Whatever the cause of the confidence which you say you have but recently acquired of writing to me whatever comes into your head, as I am the principal gainer by the acquisition—hope it will be permanent. Your advice is always acceptable, and if I do not always profit by it, mayhap it is sometimes from the waywardness of my own nature; and sometimes from an honest difference of opinion. Yet it is not always lost upon me as for example in consequence of your good advice, I have withdrawn my controversy with Jonathan, from the newspapers. I hope I have nearly done with him, but you may be sure I shall not be suffered to live in peace, till I am displaced. (15)
On July 26, 1822, the date of their 25th wedding anniversary, Louisa Adams – who was mistaken about the year – wrote to her husband:
It is this day four and twenty years since we came together, in which time much of bad and good has fallen to our lot: but take it all in all we have probably done as well as our neighbours, and have been as much blessed as mortals usually are who cannot pretend to any extraordinary degree of perfection. I yet hope that many years are in store for you whatever may befall myself, and that your children will long bless the day that gave them such a father. (16)
John Quincy Adams sent his wife a more eloquent greeting.
With the dawn of this morning I awaked and ejaculated a blessing to Heaven upon the gem jubilee of our marriage. More than a half of your life and nearly half of mine have we travelled hand in hand in our pilgrimage through this valley, not alone of tears. We have enjoyed together great and manifold blessings and for many of them I have been indebted to you. May the Guardian Angel of our Union or that all powerful being whose superintending Providence is the Guardian Angel of all, bless us for the future, in proportion as he has blessed us for the past, in the vicissitudes of sorrow and of joy, which constitute the sum of all human destiny, may we proceed in harmony, and in conscious integrity to the end of our career on Earth. If it be the will of our Creator that we should live to celebrate the full jubilee of this day, may it be with equal and unabated affection for each other, and may it find our children established and prosperous in life, virtuous and useful. And if to either or both of us a shorter date is allotted may we be gathered to our fathers in peace, and leave behind, to our posterity, a memory and a name not, as stimulants to pride but as model, for imitation. And so I bid you my beloved farewell. (17)
He wrote in his diary:
I have been this day married twenty-five years. It is what the Germans call the ‘Silberne Hochzeit’ – the Silver Wedding. The happiest and most eventful portion of my life is past in the lapse of those twenty-five years. I finished the letter to my wife. Looking back – what numberless occasions of gratitude! How little room for self-gratulation! Looking forward – what dependence upon the overruling Power! What frail support in myself! ‘Time and the hour wear through the roughest day.’ Let me have strength but to be true to myself, to my maker, and to man – adding Christian meekness and charity to Stoic fortitude – and come what may. (18)
Louisa responded to John Quincy’s letter on July 29.
Your very very kind letter is just brought…and I find I made a most curious mistake in one year; so that our Silbern Hochseit [silver wedding anniversary] was complete when I supposed it a year off. You possess the happy wit of saying or writing things in so superlative a style it makes every effort on my part appear cold insipid, I might say almost vulgar—but when the heart speaks, it is of little importance whether the language is elegant; as its powerful expression is always felt, and mostly appreciated. In our children we have hitherto been blessed; may the God whom we adore continue to us this to me greatest of all blessings and reward them for the happiness they may afford us in our age. (19)
John Quincy Adams’s first love
A month later, on August 28, 1822, John Quincy Adams confided to Louisa that the first woman he ever loved was an actress, although he never spoke to her and he never saw her off the stage.
She belonged to a company of children who performed at the Bois de Boulogne near Passy, when I lived there with Dr Franklin and my father. She remains upon my memory as the most lovely and delightful actress that I ever saw; but I have not seen her since I was fourteen. She was then about the same age. Of all the ungratified longings that I ever suffered, that of being acquainted with her, merely to tell her how much I adored her, was the most intense. I was tortured with this desire for nearly two years but never had the wit to compass it. I used to dream of her, for at least seven years after. But how many times I have since blessed my stars and my stupidity, that I never did get the opportunity of making my declaration. I learnt from her that lesson, of never forming an acquaintance with an actress, to which I have invariably adhered; and which I would lay as an injunction upon all my sons. … I have burnt none of your journals, and shall keep them all. I do not even ask you to burn this or any other of my letters; but I entreat you not to mislay them, or let them get into any other hands than your own. Consider with what ineffable ridicule you would cover me, if you should suffer my confession of my first love to get abroad—and how I
never told my love,
But let concealment like a woman in the bud
Pray on my damask cheek.
Happily for me, when many years afterwards I did tell my love, and you was the hearer, it was for a worthier object, and a better purpose. That was an affection, for this world, and I humbly hope, for the next. and so I am yours. A. (20)
You might also enjoy:
- Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor, eds., A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams (Cambridge, Mass., 2014), p. 55.
- Margery M. Heffron, “‘A Fine Romance’: The Courtship Correspondence between Louisa Catherine Johnson and John Quincy Adams,” The New England Quarterly, Vol. 83, No. 2 (June 1010), p. 200.
- “John Quincy Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson, 12 October 1796,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-11-02-0200.
- “Louisa Catherine Johnson to John Quincy Adams, 1 November 1796,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/04-11-02-0203.
- Louisa Thomas, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams (New York, 2016), p. 449.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 22 July 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4094.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 24 July 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4097.
- “From John Quincy Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 22 July 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4093.
- “From John Quincy Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 25 June 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4065.
- From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 29 July 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4105.
- “From John Quincy Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 6 August 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4116.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 31 July 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4107.
- “From John Quincy Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 5 August 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4115.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 7 August 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4119.
- “From John Quincy Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 12 August 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4128.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 26 July 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4100.
- “From John Quincy Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 25 July 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4099.
- Charles Francis Adams, ed., Memoirs of John Quincy Adams, Vol. VI (Philadelphia, 1875), p. 46.
- “From Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams to John Quincy Adams, 27 July 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4102.
- “From John Quincy Adams to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, 28 August 1822,” Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Adams/99-03-02-4145.
Much of bad and good has fallen to our lot: but take it all in all we have probably done as well as our neighbours, and have been as much blessed as mortals usually are who cannot pretend to any extraordinary degree of perfection.