The Life and Times of a President's Wife

By Anderson, Virginia Dejohn | International New York Times, May 5, 2014 | Go to article overview

The Life and Times of a President's Wife


Anderson, Virginia Dejohn, International New York Times


The life and times of Louisa Catherine, the wife of John Quincy Adams.

Louisa Catherine. The Other Mrs. Adams. By Margery M. Heffron. Illustrated. 416 pages. Yale University Press. $40.

All she did was dab a little rouge on her cheeks to disguise her wan complexion and provide a rosy contrast to the black gown she would wear. But her husband strongly disapproved. Grabbing a towel, he pulled her onto his knee and wiped her face clean. It did not matter to John Quincy Adams that Queen Louise of Prussia had given his wife the cosmetic and expected it to be used.

Forty years later, Louisa Catherine Adams recorded her humiliation in a fragment of a memoir she called "Adventures of a Nobody." That self-deprecating title, as Margery M. Heffron shows in her sparkling biography "Louisa Catherine," belied the facts of Adams's remarkable life. She was born in London in 1775 to Joshua Johnson, an Annapolis merchant, and the teenage Catherine Young Nuth -- they would not actually marry for another decade. When the outbreak of the Revolution made their continued residence in England awkward, the family relocated to Nantes in France, where they socialized with other expatriate Americans. Among the Johnsons' visitors in 1779 were John Adams and his 11-year-old son.

Four-year-old Louisa was not there to meet them. She was already ensconced in a convent-run boarding school confined to the top floors of the spacious mansion where the Johnsons' apartment was located. Her education was completed in England after the family returned in 1783. Louisa was exposed to more rigorous academic training than was usual for girls at the time, but she also cultivated the social graces deemed far more useful than intellect in attracting a husband. As her life progressed, both brains and refinement would be put to the test.

In 1795, John Quincy Adams, now America's minister to Holland, visited the Johnsons' London home and his courtship of Louisa commenced. Its troubled progress presaged the difficulties that would intermittently plague their long marriage. It did not help that their parents initially objected to the match. Joshua Johnson, according to Louisa, "always had a prejudice towards the Yankees and insisted that they never made good husbands." John and Abigail Adams, in turn, warned their son that Louisa would surely surrender to the dissipations of European court life and drive him into debt. John Quincy did not make matters any easier for the relationship when he supplied his fiancee with a reading list and course of study, urging her to improve her mind before their wedding.

The young couple stubbornly persevered, yet even after they married in the summer of 1797, they struggled with complications of their own making. Both harbored deep insecurities. John Quincy constantly worried about fulfilling his parents' high expectations. Louisa agonized over her financially reckless father's inability to provide the dowry he promised; she was certain the Adamses thought she had duped their son into marriage. Each was quick to take offense at a stray comment or prolonged silence, and found it much easier to express affection in writing rather than in person. They tried to abide by prevailing notions of gender inequality, with John Quincy asserting self-righteous dominion over his not-always- submissive spouse, but they were every bit as evenly matched in intellect and willpower as his formidable parents.

Any marriage would have been strained by the trials, both private and public, that John Quincy and Louisa endured.Frequent illness and repeated miscarriages sapped Louisa's physical and emotional energies. For years, John Quincy wavered between the foreign service and domestic politics as he sought an outlet for his ambitions. His diplomatic and political career carried them back and forth across the Atlantic and often entailed prolonged separation from their children. At his various postings across Europe, they tried to mingle in society as best they could on the paltry salary provided by the American government. …

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