- Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas
New York: Penguin Press, 2016
Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams long remained a shadowy figure, known simply as the wife of John Quincy Adams and, somewhat more intriguingly, as the only foreign-born First Lady. Unlike her mother-in-law, Abigail, or her predecessor Dolley Madison, she had not been regarded as particularly interesting, unusual, or influential in her own right. But within just the last few years, we have seen a flurry of works on her life: authoritative editions of her diary, travel writings, and autobiographical memoirs; Michael O’Brien’s Mrs. Adams in Winter: A Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon (2010); and Margery M. Heffron’s Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams (2014). Neither O’Brien nor Heffron dealt with the totality of Adams’s life—Heffron did not live to complete her book—so that Louisa Thomas’s Louisa emerges as the first comprehensive biography. Its subtitle—The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams—lets the reader know from the start that Thomas regards her subject as anything but commonplace.
The old chestnut, Louisa’s status as the English-born wife of an American statesman, continues to figure in Thomas’s presentation of Adams’s life. Born in 1775, daughter of a London-based merchant from Annapolis and an English mother, Louisa Johnson was raised like other English girls from mercantile families with aspirations to gentility. The goal was to compete well on the marriage market, not to become a republican wife. To that end, Louisa learned needlework, sang to her sisters’ pianoforte and harp, and spoke fluent French, the last in part because of a childhood sojourn [End Page 834] in Nantes during the War of Independence, when American merchants of any but a Loyalist bent were not welcome in London. From the Johnson family’s point of view, the young John Quincy Adams who frequented the family’s parlor in 1795–96 was a good match. That opinion was not shared by his parents. John and Abigail looked for their son to marry a prudent and industrious New Englander with republican instincts, not a pampered and frivolous female raised to admire the empty and corrupt glitter of aristocratic society. Nor were Louisa’s in-laws the only ones to harbor such doubts. So too did John Quincy Adams. Thomas details how he monitored his wife’s behavior, curtailed her spending, and in one especially gripping anecdote, personally removed the rouge she had applied in preparation for a royal ball. Once she stepped foot on American soil for the first time, at the age of twenty-six, Louisa would be at pains to prove her republican credentials to the Adams family—unlike Abigail, she was not adept at milking cows—and then, as her husband’s political career took off, to Washington operators and the American public at large.
But in Thomas’s telling, there is much more to Louisa’s life than the conflict between a foreign upbringing and republican mores. Attentive to Catherine Allgor’s scholarship on political wives of the early Republic, and closely following Heffron’s portrayal of Louisa’s critical role in John Quincy’s career, Thomas documents how Adams mobilized her English-bred social skills toward diplomatic and political ends. Personally charming and socially adept, she achieved in the royal courts of Berlin, St. Petersburg, and London—and then in the republican “court” of Washington—what the austere and tactless John Quincy never could have on his own. The most compelling passages in the book detail the substance of such experiences and stratagems, when far more was at stake in these ostensibly private interactions than was obvious. A charm offensive on Czar Alexander might influence him to allow American vessels free passage into St. Petersburg. Incessant rounds of visits, teas, and balls in the nation’s capital might seal John Quincy’s election to the presidency.
Critically, Thomas does not stake her case for the extraordinariness of Adams’s life on Louisa’s role in diplomatic or political affairs. Instead, she stresses Louisa’s...