In the Shadows
Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams
A Marylander born in London, educated abroad, and
the first foreign born First Lady
Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, Maryland State Archivist, retired
Louisa Catherine Johnson lived always in the shadow of others suffering one personal misfortune after another (including perhaps 8 miscarriages and the alcoholism that killed her two eldest sons). It was no wonder that she sought attention through an array of illnesses that plagued her throughout her adult life. First it was her parents and her sisters, then her husband and his mother, and finally that other first lady, her neighbor in Washington, D. C., Dolley Madison who lived with her relations, the Cutts. Even after Dolley’s death in 1849, three years before her own, Louisa continued an association with the Cutts, so much so, that when Louisa died in 1852, a significant ‘trove’ of her manuscripts disappeared into the Cutts family attic, inaccessible to scholars and to even Louisa’s son Charles and her grandson Henry, both of whom would write short biographical sketches of Louisa without them.
1826, by Charles Bird King
Still, she was talented. She read and spoke fluent French, an invaluable asset for a diplomat husband. She was an accomplished harpist and had her first lady portrait painted with harp, and a book of music open to “Hail to the Chief” which her husband first used as President and has been used by every president since. She wrote a poem on her Father-in-law’s death that was published anonymously, and a perceptive play about the political world of her husband’s presidency. She wrote a great deal for herself and her children (of four, only Charles Francis Adams would survive her), including unpublished biographical notices of herself which she began in her forties on her return permanently to the United States as the wife of the Secretary of State in the James Monroe administration. The first sketch she began in the White House in the heat of a particularly depressing July day in 1825 and entitled it simply “Record of a Life.” The style is simple, self deprecating, and frequently caustic in content.
I have no pretensions to be a writer and no desire to appear any thing more than a mere commonplace personage with a good memory and just observation enough to discover the difference between a man of sense and a Fool, and to know that the latter do the least mischief of the two.
She only got as far as John Quincy’s assignment at the Prussian court (1797-1801) which ends with him telling her of his first true love, Mary Frazier. She makes no mention of the birth of her son George in April 1801, just prior to her first journey to America, nor of the four prior miscarriages.
There are diaries, primarily covering the years October 1812-to 1815, and again 1819 to 1849, and a considerable body of correspondence, some of which did not surface until recently when it was first used by Paul C. Nagel and then given to the Massachusetts Historical Society.
The diaries fail to detail her one great adventure, the journey she and her seven year old son Charles took on their own in February and March 1815, from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris, some 2,000 miles, accompanied by servants whose reliability was questionable, and several necessary passports to enable her to cross borders. She would write her memories down in 1836 in a harrowing account of her adventure.
It has often been a matter of regret to me that I kept no journal of my travels from St. Petersburg, to paris --and having little to occupy my mind or attention, I will even at this late period endeavour to sketch some of its incidents; merely by way of amusement, to fill up an hour which might be less profitably employed--It may perhaps at some future day serve to recall the memory of one, who was -and show that many undertakings which appear very difficult and arduous to my Sex, are by no means so trying as imagination forever depicts them--And that energy and discretion, follow the necessity of their exertion, to protect the fancied weakness of feminine imbecility...
In 2010, Michael O’brien published a study of Louisa’s journey that corrected her memories and supplemented it with her letters placing it all in the context of the times. As Catherine Allgor observed on the dust jacket of Michael O’brien’s book, Mrs. Adams in Winter, a Journey in the Last Days of Napoleon.:
Louisa Catherine Adams, a woman who spent her life in voyages both literal and metaphorical, above all longed to leave her mark on the landscape of the life she passed through. The noted historian Michael O’Brien gives Louisa her voice, assuring her place in history as a woman ‘who was,’ as she put it. Take these twin journeys, rendered with precision and grace by a master --across the dramatic frozen landscape of Napoleon’s Europe, and deep within the mind and heart of one of the most compelling characters in American History.
Louisa picks up her autobiographical pen again in 1840, after her husband’s return to Congress. She copies the “Record” and begins anew in journal and letter form what she calls “Adventures of a Nobody.” This time she got as far as her life in St. Petersburg where her only daughter was born and died at the age of 13 months. The “Adventures” end with a diary like entry which concludes with “my child has gone to heaven” dated September 12 , 1812.
The correspondence of the St. Petersburg sojourn clearly shows that she was in many ways the eyes, ears, and social grace of the Adams’s, befriending the Czar and the ladies of the nobility, sending perceptive reports to husband when he left to negotiate peace between Great Britain and the United States. In her paper concerning a treason trial that followed the burning of Washington in 1814, a University of Maryland Law school student, Jennifer Smith, discovered Louisa reporting and assessing the state of affairs on the banks of the Potomac from her perch in St. Petersburg.
The fear that the government was not doing enough to ensure treasonous “opposition . . . [was] hushed” [Jennifer Smith writes] reached across the Atlantic Ocean to Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams in St. Petersburg Russia, who wrote to John Quincy Adams in November 1814:
“The defects of our Constitution are certainly now completely brought to light and a Government which is too feeble to check the treason which is formed in the very heart of the people it affects to rule must sink the very conviction that the Laws cannot reach them gives a boldness, energy and strength to factions which must render them successful . . . “
In this she echoed her father-in-law during his administration, and expressed her fear that factions such as witnessed in the New England press that opposed the war to the point of disunion, would prevail.
The Massachusetts Historical Society and the Adams Papers have published all of Louisa’s autobiographical writings and her diaries in two well indexed, excellent volumes that clearly demonstrate her ability to express herself well, often in an entertaining style, but within a dark shadow of frequent depression, illness, and self-recrimination.
So who was Louisa Catherine Adams at the age of 26, seen in this 1801 portrait by Edward Savage? What can we know about her in her own right and the influence she had on others including her husband, her family, and on the role of First Lady of the nation.
I first learned of Louisa Catherine when I wrote about the business career of her father who was born in Calvert County Maryland and who participated in the aggressive and entrepreneurial efforts by the Annapolis merchant firm of which he was a member, to break the hold of the London and Scottish merchants on the importing of finished goods and the exporting of Maryland tobacco. So successful did they prove to be before the Revolution that the wealthiest of the Maryland planters consigned their tobacco to Wallace, Davidson, and Johnson, including Charles Carroll of Carrollton, who even consigned two of his young children to her father’s care on route to their boarding schools in Liege, in what is now Belgium. Because her father left the firm under a financial cloud, and spent the remainder of his life (he died in 1802) fighting in the courts with his former partners, my focus remained with the fate of the Annapolis partners. My study did not include what happened to his family beyond the fact that his daughter Louisa Catherine married a future President in 1797, just before the rest of the family’s precipitous departure from London, fleeing from Joshua’s creditors.
By far the best modern biography of Louisa is by Louisa Thomas, granddaughter of the perennial socialist candidate for President, Norman Thomas. It is sensitive, extensive and thought provoking. She successfully enters the shadowland of Louisa’s mind utilizing all the available evidence with great narrative skill. Louisa Thomas chose to include only one image in her book, a silhouette that was cut in 1828 when she was first lady, symbolic of the need to see past the surviving images of Louisa Catherine to the soul of her subject.
Joan Challinor and Louisa Thomas were the first to clearly demonstrate that Louisa Catherine was, in the eyes of the Anglican Church, and perhaps her own, illegitimate. Her parents did not marry in the Anglican Church until ten years after she was born. Under Maryland law, which governed her father, he and Catherine Newth were eventually ‘married’ by common law by 1780 (seven years), but not before Louisa Catherine, their third child, was born in 1775. Yet, she and all of her sisters and her brother were baptised in the Anglican church. How that was accomplished without their parents being married in the church is still a mystery, although the rules were probably administered loosely in light of her father’s prominence in the American merchant community. Nevertheless it was likely one of the dark secrets or at least troubling questions that plagued Louisa throughout her life, along with the belief that her father pawned her off just before his total financial collapse, to John Quincy Adams in 1797, without every paying the promised £5,000 pound sterling dowry.
are best and most favorably remembered, I suspect, by our grandchildren
who are, perhaps, more forgiving of our foibles and shortcomings.
Louisa’s only surviving son, Charles Francis Adams, did write glowingly
of her diplomatic and entertaining abilities in an 1839 article
accompanying a softened and more youthful engraved rendition of the
portrait painted in 1816 when she was the wife of the American Minister
to Great Britain. Undoubtedly Louisa Catherine approved of both the
sentiment and the choice of portraits.
But it was her grandson, the eminent historian Henry Adams, who wrote the more realistic yet sympathetic biographical sketch of his grandmother, someone he clearly felt suffered from the same educational shortcomings he did, a point made well by Joan Challinor in her essay entitled “The Mis-Education of Louisa Catherine Adams” published in 1986. His memories were of “the Madam” an elderly woman, about whom he knew only a little of her earlier life: In it Henry also assessed the educational shortcomings that the first ten years of his father’s life spent abroad had on his adjustment to American life, although he was able, unlike Louisa Catherine and Henry to overcome them.
The Madam was a little more remote than the President, [Henry Adams wrote in the Education of Henry Adams], but [the madam was] more
decorative. She stayed much in her own room with the Dutch tiles,
looking out on her garden with the box walks, and seemed a
fragile creature to a boy who sometimes brought her a note or a
message, and took distinct pleasure in looking at her delicate
face under what seemed to him very becoming caps. He liked her
refined figure ; her gentle voice and manner; her vague effect of
not belonging there, but to Washington or to Europe, like her
furniture, and writing-desk with little glass doors above and
little eighteenth-century volumes in old binding, labelled
"Peregrine Pickle" or "Tom Jones" or "Hannah More." Try as she
might, the Madam could never be Bostonian, and it was her cross
in life, but to the boy it was her charm. Even at that age, he
felt drawn to it. The Madam's life had been in truth far from
Boston. She was born in London in 1775, daughter of Joshua
Johnson, an American merchant, brother of Governor Thomas Johnson
of Maryland; and Catherine Nuth, of an English family in London.
Driven from England by the Revolutionary War, Joshua Johnson took
his family to Nantes, where they remained till the peace. The
girl Louisa Catherine was nearly ten years old when brought back
to London, and her sense of nationality must have been confused;
but the influence of the Johnsons and the services of Joshua
obtained for him from President Washington the appointment of
Consul in London on the organization of the Government in 1790.
In 1794 President Washington appointed John Quincy Adams Minister
to The Hague. He was twenty-seven years old when he returned to
London, and found the Consul's house a very agreeable haunt.
Louisa was then twenty.
At that time, and long afterwards, the Consul's house, far more
than the Minister's, was the centre of contact for travelling
Americans, either official or other. The Legation was a shifting
point, between 1785 and 1815; but the Consulate, far down in the
City, near the Tower, was convenient and inviting; so inviting
that it proved fatal to young Adams. Louisa was charming, like a
Romney portrait, but among her many charms that of being a New
England woman was not one. The defect was serious. Her future
mother-in-law, Abigail, a famous New England woman whose
authority over her turbulent husband, the second President, was
hardly so great as that which she exercised over her son, the
sixth to be, was troubled by the fear that Louisa might not be
made of stuff stern enough, or brought up in conditions severe
enough, to suit a New England climate, or to make an efficient
wife for her paragon son, and Abigail was right on that point, as
on most others where sound judgment was involved; but sound
judgment is sometimes a source of weakness rather than of force,
and John Quincy already had reason to think that his mother held
sound judgments on the subject of daughters-in-law which human
nature, since the fall of Eve, made Adams helpless to realize.
Being three thousand miles away from his mother, and equally far
in love, he married Louisa in London, July 26, 1797, and took her
to Berlin to be the head of the United States Legation. During
three or four exciting years, the young bride lived in Berlin;
whether she was happy or not, whether she was content or not,
whether she was socially successful or not, her descendants did
not surely know; but in any case she could by no chance have
become educated there for a life in Quincy or Boston. In 1801 the
overthrow of the Federalist Party drove her and her husband to
America, and she became at last a member of the Quincy household,
but by that time her children needed all her attention, and she
remained there with occasional winters in Boston and Washington,
till 1809. Her husband was made Senator in 1803, and in 1809 was
appointed Minister to Russia. She went with him to St.
Petersburg, taking her baby, Charles Francis, born in 1807; but
broken-hearted at having to leave her two older boys behind. The
life at St. Petersburg was hardly gay for her; they were far too
poor to shine in that extravagant society; but she survived it,
though her little girl baby did not, and in the winter of
1814-15, alone with the boy of seven years old, crossed Europe
from St. Petersburg to Paris, in her travelling-carriage, passing
through the armies, and reaching Paris in the Cent Jours after
Napoleon's return from Elba. Her husband next went to England as
Minister, and she was for two years at the Court of the Regent.
In 1817 her husband came home to be Secretary of State, and she
lived for eight years in F Street, doing her work of entertainer
for President Monroe's administration. Next she lived four
miserable years in the White House. When that chapter was closed
in 1829, she had earned the right to be tired and delicate, but
she still had fifteen years to serve as wife of a Member of the
House, after her husband went back to Congress in 1833. Then it
was that the little Henry, her grandson, first remembered her,
from 1843 to 1848, sitting in her panelled room, at breakfast,
with her heavy silver teapot and sugar-bowl and cream-jug, which
still exist somewhere as an heirloom of the modern safety-vault.
By that time she was seventy years old or more, and thoroughly
weary of being beaten about a stormy world. To the boy she seemed
singularly peaceful, a vision of silver gray, presiding over her
old President and her Queen Anne mahogany; an exotic, like her
Sevres china; an object of deference to every one, and of great
affection to her son Charles; but hardly more Bostonian than she
had been fifty years before, on her wedding-day, in the shadow of
the Tower of London.
Such a figure was even less fitted than that of her old
husband, the President, to impress on a boy's mind, the standards
of the coming century. She was Louis Seize, like the furniture.
The boy knew nothing of her interior life, which had been, as the
venerable Abigail, long since at peace, foresaw, one of severe
stress and little pure satisfaction. He never dreamed that from
her might come some of those doubts and self-questionings, those
hesitations, those rebellions against law and discipline, which
marked more than one of her descendants; but he might even then
have felt some vague instinctive suspicion that he was to inherit
from her the seeds of the primal sin, the fall from grace, the
curse of Abel, that he was not of pure New England stock, but
half exotic. As a child of Quincy he was not a true Bostonian,
but even as a child of Quincy he inherited a quarter taint of
Maryland blood. Charles Francis, half Marylander by birth, had
hardly seen Boston till he was ten years old, when his parents
left him there at school in 1817, and he never forgot the
experience. He was to be nearly as old as his mother had been in
1845, before he quite accepted Boston, or Boston quite accepted
Prior to Louisa Thomas’s biography, the most sensitive assessment of Louisa Catherine life was a chapter in The Adams Women by Paul C. Nagel.
He introduces Louisa Catherine at the end of Abigail Adam’s life in 1818. Abigail had not approved of Louisa’s marriage to John Quincy, considering his having married beneath himself to a woman who was too European. Her relationship with Louisa was strained to say the least until the last years of her life when Louisa not only won over her mother-in-law, but also endeared herself to the aging John Adams. It was Abigail that kept her from taking her two eldest sons with her on the mission to Russia, not to see them for most of their formative years. Neither sons, George Washington, or John Adams II, would do very well with their lives. Both were alcoholics, a disease that their brother, Charles Francis attributed to the Smith side of the family, Abigail’s family. Such an assessment was quite possibly correct, considering the recent research on the genetics of alcoholism, but Louisa always blamed herself in part on not being there to nurture her children. It was also quite likely that John Quincy’s distance from his two oldest sons and his instance on a rigorous academic course of study always presented in a critical framework, had something to do with their personal failures. He did take his son John Adams as his private secretary when President and inflicted him with the management of a failing grist mill in Rock Creek park afterwards. By then he was too far along in the disease that killed him. He did leave behind a wife and one daughter who would care for Louisa, but the suicide of the eldest, George Washington Adams in 1829 and the death of John Adams II in 1834, left an indelible depression on Louisa and shadowed her for the remainder of her life.
In 1818, those debilitating events of Louisa Catherine’s life lay ahead of her. As to her relationship her mother-in-law, it had blossomed into true friendship. As Paul Nagel writes:
No one captured the nature of Abigail Adams better than Louisa. First she said that her mother-in-law was “the guiding planet around which all revolved, performing their separate duties only by the impulse of her magnetic power.” Then, in a poem of farewell, Louisa enlarged the tribute in charming lines which especially touched old John Adams: “Depart thou Sainted Spirit, wing thy happy flight/To the bright realms of everlasting light./ Yet fondly hover oer’ thy lonely friend,/In nightly visions resignation send,/Cheer his great mind, Attune his soul to Peace,/Till in this world his hopeless grief may cease,/ And when his spirit quits this mortal clay/Lead him to heavenly bliss and guide him on his way.
Louisa, from her days in the convent school, leaned towards being a high Anglican and often was disparaging of the “Unitarian” beliefs of her father-in-law and husband, seeking solace in the book of common prayer, and according to her wishes, buried by it.
The most politically influential period in Louisa Catherine’s life came in the twelve years that John Quincy Adams served first as Secretary of State in the Monroe Cabinet and then on his own as President of the United States. The first scholar to write about her role in those years is Catherine Allgor in her Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government ( Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000). There she stands on her own, if in the shadow of Dolley Madison who appears on the cover, but not Louisa.
To quote one reviewer:
When Thomas Jefferson moved his victorious Republican administration into the new capital city in 1801, one of his first acts was to abolish any formal receptions, except on New Year's Day and the Fourth of July. His successful campaign for the presidency had been partially founded on the idea that his Federalist enemies had assumed dangerously aristocratic trappings―a sword for George Washington and a raised dais for Martha when she received people at social occasions―in the first capital cities of New York and Philadelphia. When the ladies of Washington City, determined to have their own salon, arrived en masse at the president's house, Jefferson met them in riding clothes, expressing surprise at their presence. His deep suspicion of any occasion that resembled a European court caused a major problem, however: without the face-to-face relationships and networks of interest created in society, the American experiment in government could not function.
Into this conundrum, writes Catherine Allgor, stepped women like Dolley Madison and Louisa Catherine Adams, women of political families who used the unofficial, social sphere to cement the relationships that politics needed to work. Not only did they create a space in which politics was effectively conducted; their efforts legitimated the new republic and the new capital in the eyes of European nations, whose representatives scoffed at the city's few amenities and desolate setting. Covered by the prescriptions of their gender, Washington women engaged in the dirty business of politics, which allowed their husbands to retain their republican purity.
Constrained by the cultural taboos on "petticoat politicking," women rarely wrote forthrightly about their ambitions and plans, preferring to cast their political work as an extension of virtuous family roles. But by analyzing their correspondence, gossip events, "etiquette wars," and the material culture that surrounded them, Allgor finds that these women acted with conscious political intent. In the days before organized political parties, the social machine built by these early federal women helped to ease the transition from a failed republican experiment to a burgeoning democracy.
Louisa is perhaps best known for the party she threw for Andrew Jackson in 1824. In a chapter entitled A Beautiful plan, Mary F. Heffron in her posthumous biography of Louisa (2014) begins with a quote from the poet and newspaper editor John Agg: “Belles and matrons, maids and madams, All All are gone to Mrs. Adams.” Based on her correspondence, Mary Heffron paints a word picture of Louisa Catherine trying
All kinds of cajolery to get her Macbeth-”If chance will make me king, why chance may crown me” --to mend his political ways. Bemoaning “the illiberal attacks of any idiot that can hold a pen,” Louisa worked hard to bolster his confidence: “My conviction from my long acquaintance with your conduct as a publick man is so strong that the deeper they dive, the higher they must elevate your character.” These were words that the personally insecure and politically clumsy John Quincy needed to hear, but they could not move him from his pedestal.
Despite of her husband’s aloofness, Louisa entertained and promoted her husband’s interests. She held Tuesday sociables at her home and on December 20, 1823 she “decided to hold a ball honoring Andrew Jackson on January 8, 1824, the anniversary of the general’s victory in the Battle of New Orleans”. Jackson was Adam’s most serious rival for the presidency. The Ball was a success.
“Louisa led the guest of honor through the crowd, making introductions as they went. Anticipating that she would be the center of attention, she had chosen a ball gown of light-catching steel lame with “ornaments for head, throat, and arms” of cut-steel,” all producing a”dazzling effect.” the Statesman’s correspondent was suitably impressed: “Mrs Adams was elegantly but not gorgeously dressed. In her manner she unites dignity with an unusual share of ease and elegance and I never saw her to greater advantage than when promenading through the rooms, winding her way through the multitude by the side of the gallant General. At the approach of such a couple, the crowd unvoluntarily gave way as far as practicable and saluted them as they passed.”
It would prove to be the highlight of her success at promoting her husband. He would win the 1824 election by one vote in the House of Representatives and appoint another contender, Henry Clay, who convinced his supporters to back John Quincy, to the post of Secretary of State. It was called the “corrupt bargain” by the press that favored Jackson. Instead of eight years as Secretary of State and then with Adam’s support, the presidency, Henry Clay would serve only four and Jackson would win the 1828 election by a wide margin, consigning John Quincy Adams, like his father before him, to one term. Those four years were also miserable ones for Louisa Catherine. While she continued to entertain at the White House, playing the Harp and popularizing “Hail to the Chief,” her son John’s accounting mistake when a Billiard table was acquired for the White House was met by cries of the misuse of public funds and a near duel between John and a reporter. The Jacksonian press was relentless, attacking her for her European ways and Adam’s elitism, while he in turn promoted better weights and measures, observing the stars, and the Federal Funding of what would become known as Henry Clay’s American system. The country was not ready for such programs nor was Louisa ready for the steady stream of criticism.
great relief, when the election was over, she moved the family directly
north of the White House to Meridian Hill where she briefly found the
rural quiet contentment that she craved. The approach to Meridian Hill
was lined with yellow wood trees which she so fancied that two were
planted in Quincy for her enjoyment, according to family tradition. Of
politicians, it was said, only Martin Van Buren came to call. The happy
repose at Meridian Hill was short lived. While she had her new
granddaughter (shown in the silhouettes she and John Quincy had cut
there) to adore and entertain her, a relationship that would continue
for a number of years, her son John was not able to cope well with his
responsibilities, his alcoholism at times all consuming, and her
eldest, George Washington Adams committed suicide.
Late that summer of 1829, Meridian Hill was sold and Louisa had to
move once again, back to Quincy, expecting never to return to
Washington. She was mistaken. John Quincy relished the notion that his
local constituents wanted him to represent them in the Capitol. When he
was elected popularly for the first time as a Representative, he and
Louisa headed back to Washington. No more parties of note, nor
campaigning for her husband. He didn’t need it. His position on the
right to petition Congress and his successful Supreme Court defense of
the Amistad slaves brought death threats and great unease to Louisa
Catherine who frequently escaped to her bed. It was in those years that
she began her memoir “Adventures of a Nobody,” and her grandson Henry
first came to remember her, both at Quincy, her summer residence, and
Late that summer of 1829, Meridian Hill was sold and Louisa had to move once again, back to Quincy, expecting never to return to Washington. She was mistaken. John Quincy relished the notion that his local constituents wanted him to represent them in the Capitol. When he was elected popularly for the first time as a Representative, he and Louisa headed back to Washington. No more parties of note, nor campaigning for her husband. He didn’t need it. His position on the right to petition Congress and his successful Supreme Court defense of the Amistad slaves brought death threats and great unease to Louisa Catherine who frequently escaped to her bed. It was in those years that she began her memoir “Adventures of a Nobody,” and her grandson Henry first came to remember her, both at Quincy, her summer residence, and in Washington.
Appropriately, John Quincy Adams died at work in the capitol in 1848, rising to oppose the honors being granted the military leaders of the Mexican War. He died much revered and honored, even by his enemies in the South who chose to speak no evil of the dead. Louisa mourned and spent the remainder of her life largely in Washington.
There was no fund for the support of First Ladies, although Congress granted free mail, known as franking privileges, to her that she used for the remainder of her life. She did have a financially astute son, Charles Francis, who provided well for his family and Louisa’s eccentric brother, Thomas Baker Johnson, managing investments and pursuing a distinguished legal and diplomatic career, eventually after his mother’s death, following in his grandfather and father’s footsteps as Minister to the Court of St. James in London during the American Civil War. It would be Charles who would build the first presidential library at Quincy to house the family’s 14,000 volume collection. Charles Francis had been the only one of Louisa’s children to have been in her care throughout most of his childhood, bearing the strenuous journey from St. Petersburg to Paris alone with his mother and living largely with his parents until his days at Harvard. The lack of the alcohol gene may have helped, but Louisa was the present and nurturing buffer between Charles Francis and his father, possibly helping to set him on the path to fame and fortune, if not the White House.
My favorite painting of Louisa is one that she did not find flattering. Completed by Gilbert Stuart in 1826 during the difficult Presidential years, Louisa Thomas captures it in prose, a Louisa Catherine who is
small and thin. Her ornate bonnet, high lace collar, and scarlet shawl almost envelop her; there are deep shadows. The colors of her face are washed out, the lines softe. Her expression is tired and sad. Louisa first saw the finished version at an exhibition at the Boston Athenaeum and thought it an accurate representation. It looked,, she wrote, like a woman who has just felt “the first chill of death.” she was half joking; there’s something gentle, appealing, and intimate about the painting. But it is the portrait of an older woman, and it suggests some secret sorrows. Its tone is essentially private.
Louisa Catherine sat for another portrait at about the same time by Charles Bird King, one that Louisa Thomas rightfully describes as political:
Both portraits, [Louisa Thomas writes] --on political, one domestic; one lively, one exhausted; one powerful, one withdrawn---captured something essential about her. She was both women, however contradictory the images seemed. “One visitor to Washington in the winter of 1824 remembered her as “very talkative and lively” and her parties “always pleasant and gay,’ but at home she was often unwell, and her family followed her mood. Despite her torrid activity, her health was terrible. “Nothing but opium affords relief at night,” she wrote to her son John during the summer of 1823.
Gone was the gay, perhaps at times giddy young 20 year old girl of 1797, full of the stories of love drawn from the novels of the day. While the serious side of her nature peers at us from the earliest known miniature attributed to her days in Nantes in the care of the nuns, it would be her education in the shadow of her husband, a world in which she tried valiantly to find her own voice, never really succeeding, only soaring for a few years in the capacity of useful ally like an American Phoenix, the title of another biography in which the author argues that even before his unsuccessful presidency, John Quincy Adams and Louisa Catherine Adams transformed their European sojourn into America’s salvation through the ties they forged in Russia, once a strong ally in defense of America’s independence.
In 1816 Louisa Catherine’s portrait was painted in London on the eve of her returning to America to become the dutiful wife of the Secretary of State. Apart from the loss of her daughter in St. Petersburg, she had yet to suffer from the loss of two of her sons and the slings and arrows of the political world. She was indeed a traveled first lady which provided her with the knowledge and diplomatic skills to fill the unofficial office of First Lady, but even then in 1816, she looks pensive, perhaps even annoyed, with the roles which awaited her at the side of a brilliant and stuffy man who perhaps loved himself above all others. She fulfilled the outward reaching roles demanded of her with grace and effectiveness, but suffered for it. While born a Maryland citizen, she remained attached to her European upbringing and her European tastes, never fully able to comprehend or appreciate the unrefined, rough and tumble Democracy that men like Andrew Jackson represented. For her generation and for us she remains a woman in the shadows, a silhouette, to be observed, reflected upon, but perhaps never fully understood.