Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Louisa Adams

When John Quincy Adams was a candidate for President of the United States in 1824, his wife, Louisa Catherine Adams, was his unofficial campaign manager. She helped dispel her husband's occasional doubts about a future in politics, reminding him that public service was his destiny. She discussed current affairs with congressmen and journalists, lobbying them for their support in advancing Adams's presidential aspirations. She also encouraged her husband to go out on the presidential campaign trail in 1824, suggesting that he show himself "if only for a week." "Do for once gratify me," she implored, noting that "if harm comes of it I will promise never to advise you again."

Louisa Catherine Johnson was born in 1775 in England to a British mother and American father originally from Maryland, the only foreign born First Lady. Her family moved to France in 1777 due to their support of the American Revolution, and Louisa was schooled by Catholic sisters in Nantes. French became her first language. The family returned in 1783 to England, where Louisa's father served as U.S. consul in London while also working as a merchant. In 1795, Louisa met John Quincy Adams who was at the time engaged in a diplomatic assignment; they married in the summer of 1797. Louisa accompanied John Quincy to diplomatic posts in Berlin, St. Petersburg, and London, and also lived with him in Boston and Washington, D.C. The couple had four children—three sons and a daughter. Louisa's cosmopolitan experiences made her an able diplomat's wife but also occasionally set her apart from more provincial Americans uncomfortable with European style and customs. By the time John Quincy accepted appointment as secretary of state in 1817, Louisa was well prepared to assist him socially.

While Louisa Adams impressed congressmen and government figures with her political acumen, she also made frequent social calls on their wives and entertained Washington society at elaborate dinners and open-house receptions. These events took on greater importance during the Monroe administration because of Elizabeth Monroe's aloofness and ill health, which consequently limited her social calendar. As the wife of the secretary of state, Louisa emerged as one of the leading ladies of Washington society, using her social power to advance her husband's political interests. In 1824, for example, she held a lavish ball celebrating the anniversary of General Andrew Jackson's victory at the Battle of New Orleans. One thousand people attended what was then called the event of the season. While Louisa threw the ball to impress congressmen, dignitaries, and the cream of Washington society, she also used it to solicit Jackson's support for her husband's presidential bid. Jackson, however, did not accede to those wishes and became John Quincy's chief opponent in the election of 1824.

Given the importance of Louisa's social accomplishments and her political value to her husband, it would seem as if a formidable Adams partnership was in the making. But it was not to be. Once John Quincy won the close and disputed presidential election, his need for his wife's counsel came to an end. In fact, John Quincy Adams often ignored his wife except for when he needed her to hostess official receptions. Louisa was aware of the change, noting, "I am decried an incumberance unless I am required for any special purpose for a show or some political maneuver and if I wish for a trifle of any kind, any favor is required at my hands, a deaf ear is turned to my request." Exacerbating the situation was the general unhappy tenor of the Adams administration, doomed early on by the close 1824 election and questions of its legitimacy.

While Louisa Adams had embraced the role of "campaign manager," she disliked her position as First Lady and called her new home "a prison." She became increasingly despondent during her White House years. Through the years, she had experienced multiple pregnancies, miscarriages, a stillbirth, and numerous other health issues. Now suffering through menopause, the once affable and gregarious Louisa withdrew into herself. She entertained less, devoting time to composing music, playing the harp, writing poems, and penning satirical plays which parodied her husband's rigidity and gently mocked her own spoiled upbringing. She began an autobiography; entitled "Adventures of a Nobody," it reflected her sense of self during her tenure in the White House.

As the election of 1828 neared, Louisa once again rallied to support her husband's bid for reelection, although she recognized from the outset that the cause was largely hopeless given the nature of his election four years earlier. She emerged from her seclusion to campaign actively for him. She again urged him to become directly involved, even suggesting a potential campaign trip from Washington, D.C., to Boston. But this time, Louisa had to divert some of her energies from supporting her husband to defending herself, as her foreign birth became a campaign issue. Some people charged her with being un-American due to her foreign birth; she vigorously denied the claim, declaring publicly that she was "the daughter of an American Republican Merchant."

Shortly after Adams's defeat in the 1828 election, Louisa and John Quincy were struck by tragedy when their eldest son, George, either fell overboard or committed suicide by jumping off a ship in April 1829. He was en route to visit his parents in Washington, D.C., summoned there to account for his fathering a child out of wedlock. Five years later, their second son, John, died of acute alcoholism. At this point, Louisa had outlived three of her children (a daughter, also named Louisa Catherine, died at age 15 months in St. Petersburg), and for the remainder of her life she blamed herself for leaving her young children behind in America while she and John Quincy went abroad for diplomatic service.

In 1830, John Quincy accepted a call to return to Congress as a Massachusetts representative. Louisa stridently opposed this move, having no desire to return to Washington or to the political engagement such a position required. Still, in time, she came to find a measure of acceptance with her life and with John Quincy's intense need to continue his public service. In shared grief over the deaths of their children, the parents drew closer together. Louisa gave much attention to John's widow and their two daughters, as well as to the family of the Adamses' third son, Charles Francis. As John Quincy waged his battle against the "gag rule," which denied the reading of petitions to Congress critical of slavery, Louisa helped summarize and arrange the numerous documents he received. The couple developed friendships with abolitionist leaders such as the Grimké sisters, and Louisa became more appreciative of public activity by women. With the election of the President William Henry Harrison in 1840, John Quincy enjoyed renewed acclaim, and Louisa resumed her lavish entertaining. As late as 1844, she gave parties for more than two hundred guests at events that lasted into the morning hours. Louisa outlived John Quincy by four years, dying in 1852. Congress adjourned to attend her funeral—a mark of respect for a very private woman caught in an intensely public life.