Monday, May 5, 2014

Louisa Catherine Adams:The Other Mrs Adams by Margery M. Heffron


"...many undertakings which appear very difficult and arduous to my Sex, are by no means so trying as imagination forever depicts them--energy and discretion, follow the necessity of their exertion, to protect the fancied weakness of feminine imbecility."

When I was researching the First Ladies for my Redwork quilt Remember the Ladies I was fascinated by Louisa Catherine Adams. So when I heard about the first biography written on her I knew I had to read it.


Louisa reminds me of an 19th c version of Eleanor Roosevelt in that she was intelligent but spent her younger years battling self doubt. Both faced a domineering mother-in-law. And both women blossomed late in life. Each had troubled marriages, but was a political helpmate to their husband. Both advanced women's rights.

One huge difference: while Franklin Roosevelt cheated on Eleanor, John Quincy, following his father's example, was a true and life-long lover to Louisa. Their tempestuous romance is a story that rivals Elizabeth and Darcy in misunderstandings, stubborn willfulness of spirit, and intellectual duels.

Remember the Ladies designed by Nancy Bekofske
Louisa was born in England to an American merchant father and a British mother...who married after the birth of several children. She was raised in luxury, was well educated and cosmopolitan, speaking fluent French. Louisa played the harp and sang beautifully. Her family were long time friends of the Adams clan. John Quincy was a frequent guest, and fell in love with Louisa. But took his sweet time proposing to her, as he felt the heavy burden placed upon him to ACHIEVE, and marriage would keep him away from applying himself to achievement. Their courtship and engagement was full of misunderstandings. John kept Louisa uncertain when he would set a marriage date. It could have easily ended their future together. But passion prevailed, and the 30 year old John Quincy married the 22 year old Louisa just before he left for his assignment in Russia.

John Quincy Adams as a young man in 1796
Louisa and John Quincy shared many intellectual interests and a deep passion, but each suffered from feelings of inadequacy. They were perfectionists who fell short of both their own and the other's expectations.

John and Abigail Adams raised John Quincy for public service. Their expectations were extremely high. This perfectionism was passed down even to their grandchildren's generation. It was not a healthy Adams trait.

Louisa Catherine Adams at marriage
Whenever they were separated, or Louisa was ill, John showed a great affection towards Louisa. But he was also often self-absorbed in his career and his drive for continual self-improvement kept him isolated from his family, physically and emotionally.

Rarely in good health, the petite Louisa suffered nine miscarriages, a still born child, the death of her beloved little girl, separation from her sons for six years, and the suicide of a son. The medical attention available was blistering and bleeding, laudanum and other 'cures' we shudder at today. She also suffered from a reoccurring painful and disfiguring bacterial skin condition, erysipelas.

As the wife of an ambassador, she was exposed to the courts of Europe with all the glitz and glamor of royalty, yet was unable to afford the wardrobe to suit her position. Louisa made friends easily and was readily taken under wing by American Ex-pats. Her husband was oblivious to her gifts as a social ambassador early in their marriage. At a time when it was considered ill mannered to campaign for political office, Louisa did all the footwork, managing his presidential campaign through social affairs, the 'parlor politics' used so successfully by Dolley Madison.

One of the most thrilling adventures ever undergone by any First Lady was Louisa's 40 day, 3,000 mile trip across post-war Europe in 1815. John had been called to Paris to aid in the Treaty of Ghent, leaving Catherine and their son Charles in St. Petersburg. After nine months apart he learned he would not return to Russia, assigned to London. He wrote for his family to join him at once. Louisa had to arrange the sale of their home and goods, plan their travel and arrange for protection as they traversed Russia, Prussia, and France. It was the middle of winter. The roads were terrible, unmarked rutted dirt or deep mud. Robber and murders haunted the open roads and the hamlets along the way. All her money was secreted on her person. She lost her male guard and had to make do with a fourteen year old boy. As she neared France, traveling in a Russian carriage with Russian and Prussian sidekicks, a new concern arose. Napoleon had escaped from Elba. Russia and Prussia were bitter enemies of Napoleon. The travelers feared attack by the crowds in the streets.

Louisa in mid-life had blossomed into the strong and capable person she was meant to be. Her husband came to respect and trust her as an equal partner and she became his personal secretary for a while.

As many First Ladies have experienced, life in Washington was stressful and isolated. Etiquette Wars over who called on who first had started with Elizabeth Monroe. When Louisa followed the precedent of not calling first on everyone in Washington no one was pleased and her socials were boycotted. Her health often kept her from attending events or accompanying her husband socially.

John Quincy Adams was a scholar of great intellect with a remarkable career, starting as a teenager who accompanied his father on his diplomatic missions. After graduating from Harvard and a brief career in Law, John Quincy was minister to the Netherlands; Secretary of State of Massachusetts; taught at Harvard; was minister to Russia; represented America at the Ghent peace talks; served as plenipotentiary to Great Britain; and was Secretary of State under President Monroe. After serving as President he served as Senator, arguing for abolition. He died on the floor of the Senate.

John Quincy spent years researching and writings the most thorough, and un-readably dry, exploration of weights and measures. He was compulsive about keeping a diary, and  alphabetized his personal letters. During a more peaceful and contented time, he indulged in composing poetry and  thought had he been able to choose his own path he would have made a great poet

After John Quincy's death Louisa wrote several books about her life, "Adventures of a Nobody," "Record of My Life" and "Narrative of a Journey from Russia to France 1815". She corresponded with Sarah and Angelina Grimke' and was interested in the nascent movement for women's rights.

Margery M. Heffron saw Louisa's portrait at the Adams National Historical Park in the 1970s and wrote,"Her level, appraising glance challenged me to pay her respect." This book is her response. The author passed away while writing this biography and was unable to finish Louisa's life. Sadly the story ends at John Quincy's bid for reelection to the presidency.

"The Other Mrs. Adams" was a fascinating and complex woman.

I thank Yale University Press for e-book access through NetGalley.



Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams
Margery M. Heffron
Yale University Press
 ISBN: 9780300197969
Cloth: $40.00