The “vivid and propulsive” life of the wife of statesman and president John Quincy Adams.
Drawing on a rich trove of letters, diaries, and memoirs, historian and journalist Thomas (Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family—a Test of Will and Faith in World War I, 2012) has created an enthralling, sharply etched portrait of Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams (1775-1852), the wife of America’s sixth president. Portrayed by many historians as sickly and delicate, a weak specimen when compared with her stalwart mother-in-law, Abigail, Louisa emerges as a spirited, ambitious woman who grew from a submissive girl to a politically astute writer and thinker. She learned early in her marriage that her husband’s “first devotion was to his country, his second to his parents, and his third to his books.” He could be exacting, supercilious, domineering, and “self-involved in unbelievable ways,” but in times of distress—miscarriages, debilitating illnesses, and the deaths of three of their four children—he was lovingly tender. Louisa was, he said, his best friend. Louisa followed her husband wherever his duty took him: Prussia, St. Petersburg, London, Washington, and the Adams family homestead in Quincy, Massachusetts, which Louisa deemed an insufferable backwater. Travel was arduous: the trip from America to Russia took 80 days; Quincy to Washington, “three miserable weeks.” Alone, Louisa traveled with her 5-year-old son from St. Petersburg to Paris, nearly 2,000 miles over 40 days, as Napoleon’s troops invaded, proving herself shrewd and decisive; adversity, the author concludes, brought out her strength. Her warmth as a hostess helped to soften the effects of her husband’s sullenness. “They must have a President that they dare speak to,” she told him, when he coveted the highest office. Thomas effectively sets Louisa’s eventful life against the backdrop of a nation transforming itself, debating foreign and domestic policy, including slavery, which John Quincy vehemently opposed.
An elegant, deeply perceptive portrait.