Louisa Adams was born in London, England, and is the only First Lady of the United States who was not born in the United States. Her father was the American consul in London, and her mother, Catherine Nuth Johnson, was English. Her father was a Maryland businessman whose brother signed the Bush Declaration of Support for Independence in 1775. She went to school in both France and England.
Early Life and Education
Louisa Johnson was the daughter of Joshua Johnson, an American merchant from Maryland, and Katherine Nuth Johnson, an Englishwoman. Her parents moved her to Nantes, France, when she was three years old, where she obtained her early schooling and became fluent in French. Louisa, the second child, went temporarily to boarding school when her family moved to London in 1783, now with six children.
Louisa Adams grew up in a world of luxury and indulgence, owing to her mother’s insistence. The Johnsons hosted numerous Americans in France, including John Adams and his twelve-year-old son, John Quincy Adams. In terms of cultural interests, personal manner, and worldly sensitivities, Louisa Adams would later be more French than English.
She had to retrain how to speak English when she and her family returned to England. Even though she had not been baptized in any church at the time of her birth, Louisa Adams grew up to worship as a Catholic, attending masses and closely adhering to what the nuns in her first school had taught her. As a result, when thrown into Anglicanism in England without explanation, she became bewildered and overwhelmed, collapsing many times as she knelt to pray in the new faith. Louisa Adams’ unique sensitivity for others, enthusiasm in her pursuit for answers to existential questions, and brilliant musical and literary abilities were observed by her parents and other observers and associates over the years. These characteristics stood out even more since Louisa Adams possessed a level of openness that was uncommon among young ladies at the time.
Louisa and her sisters were forced to drop out of school after their father’s business suffered difficulties, ending their formal education. However, a governess schooled them at home, and Louisa became a voracious reader.
Meeting John Quincy Adams
Because of these attributes, the young American diplomat John Quincy Adams was captivated in 1795 while attending one of the numerous expensive parties held at the Johnson residence on Cooper Row near Tower Hill in London. Even though he was engaged in 1796, Adams had qualms fueled in part by his powerful mother, Abigail Adams, who warned him that poor personal decisions could harm his political aspirations. Adams wrote a series of severely critical and forthright letters to Louisa Adams in the year leading up to their ultimate marriage, emphasizing the need for prudence, economy, and a lack of frivolity in a bride of his caliber.
When Adams’ marriage was postponed again owing to a lack of funds, Joshua Johnson volunteered to cover their travel expenses to his next assignment in Lisbon, Portugal. Adams agreed, but Louisa Adams’ father escaped England with his wife and the rest of his children just before the wedding, leaving a massive debt to British creditors.
The Adamses moved to Berlin after President Adams nominated John Quincy minister to Prussia, where Louisa managed to be a famous hostess despite her recurrent illnesses.
She had the manner and grace of a diplomat’s lady at the Prussian court, and the ways of a Yankee farm community were unusual indeed in 1801 when she first arrived in the land of which she was a citizen.
They returned to the United States in 1800 after John Adams’ reelection campaign failed, and Louisa met the Adams family for the first time.
Louisa gave birth to a boy in 1801, following multiple miscarriages. In 1803 and 1807, two more sons were born.
Louisa left the United States once more in 1809. John Quincy had accepted a job as American minister to Russia without consulting her. The Adamses arrived in St. Petersburg, where Louisa was sad because she longed for her two eldest children, whom she had left in Massachusetts with their grandparents. In 1811, Louisa gave birth to a daughter in St. Petersburg, and when the baby died a year later, she felt even more bereft. She described how she found peace in reading, particularly biographies of women tied to prominent men, in letters and other writing from the time.
When Adams was abruptly withdrawn from the post to negotiate the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, Louisa was amidst a tumultuous political assignment in Russia. Louisa took her 7-year-old boy and their servants on a terrible 2,000-mile trek from St. Petersburg to London during the winter when Adams sent word to his wife to join him in England. A group of hostile Napoleonic troops and camp followers stopped their Russian carriage near Paris, but Louisa neutralized the threat by speaking to them in French and saluting the general. Surprisingly, they made it to London unscathed after a six-week journey.
The Adamses moved to Washington in 1817 after John Quincy was appointed as Monroe’s Secretary of State, and Louisa’s drawing room became a gathering place for diplomats and other notables. Her Tuesday nights at home were improved by good music, and theatrical parties added to her image as a gracious hostess.
Louisa Adams did not create any new precedents as a first lady, opting not to follow in the footsteps of her politically active mother-in-law. The younger Mrs. Adams grumbled bitterly about being monitored at every public appearance in the hopes of learning anything about her husband’s thoughts on some vital issue.
Despite being one of the first women to attend congressional debates, she did not influence the outcome. Louisa Adams despised Washington politics and kept a low profile as First Lady.
Their oldest son died, possibly by his hand, just before the conclusion of her husband’s term in office. The next oldest son died later, most likely due to his alcoholism.
Louisa despised her husband’s decision to return to public duty after the president at first, but she eventually learned to admire his bravery throughout his 16 years in Congress.
Louisa continued to reside in Washington after her husband died in 1848, where she died in 1852. In a rare show of respect for a former first lady, Congress adjourned for her funeral, allowing lawmakers to pay their respects. She was laid to rest at the First Church in Quincy, Massachusetts, alongside her husband and parents.