16-16 Segment 2: Louisa Adams: The extraordinary life of the First Lady you didn’t know

 

Synopsis:  We all know the names of famous First Ladies – Martha Washington, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan – and they all left their marks on our country in one way or another. One of these ladies that you probably don’t know much about is Louisa Adams, wife of President John Quincy Adams. Our guest has researched this extraordinary woman and discusses the strength, political savvy and resilience of America’s only foreign-born First Lady.

Host:  Marty Peterson.  Guests: Louisa Thomas, author of Louisa: The extraordinary life of Mrs. Adams
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Louisa Adams: The extraordinary life of the First Lady you didn’t know!

Marty Peterson: There are many very famous First Ladies in America’s history:  Dolly Madison, Mary Todd Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan, and Michelle Obama, just to name a few. All of the women who were married to the President have left their marks on our country in one way or another, but not all are remembered for their contributions. One of these is Louisa Adams, wife of our sixth president John Quincy Adams. Louisa Thomas says we should know more about this remarkable woman, so she researched the First Lady’s life and work and the result is her new book, Louisa: The extraordinary life of Mrs. Adams. Thomas says that Louisa was different from any than any president’s wife so far in that she was the only foreign-born First Lady in American history…

Louisa Thomas: She was born in London in 1775, right before the outbreak of the Revolution. Her father was an American merchant from Maryland living in London, and he was a very proud American patriot. In fact, she spent the Revolution in Nantes, France so she actually has a very international upbringing even as a child.

Peterson: John Quincy Adams was a diplomat when he met Louisa, and Thomas says that although he was smitten with her and spent a great deal of time at her parents’ home in England, he was a rather reluctant suitor…

Thomas: He knew for one that his parents were going to be quite upset with his choice of mate because she was not quite American, even though she’d been raised to call herself an American and had been raised and told to marry an American. She had a very British upbringing and she also was not someone that her own parents were very comfortable putting into a world which it was full of self-sacrifice, and the kind of austere virtues that the Adams’s had cultivated.

Peterson: When Louisa accompanied her husband to his postings to Prussia, Russia and elsewhere, she won over royalty, the aristocracy and other wealthy and influential people she met.  This, despite her frail health at the time…

Thomas: She just had an amazing personality. Part of it is that she had natural charm, she was very funny. We think about these founding fathers and these early republic people we sort of think of them as kind of either austere or cast in marble. But she was very, very funny, she was irreverent, she was pretty, she spoke French which, in the courts, was crucial. And I think also people sensed a bit of vulnerability about her. Certainly in that first moment meeting the Prussian King and Queen, they could sense that she needed a little bit of kindness and they responded with it and she blossomed under that warmth and attention.

Peterson: Louisa’s personality helped John Quincy Adams in his work because it offset his colder, more business-like persona with one of gaiety and warmth.  Yet there was a pall over the marriage. Louisa had several miscarriages – one that was nearly fatal. She gave birth to three sons and one daughter, who died just after her first birthday in St. Petersburg, Russia. To add to that sadness was the legacy of Louisa’s family. Her father went bankrupt and fled with his family to avoid paying his debts right after Louisa’s and John Quincy’s wedding. He also failed to pay the dowry. Thomas says the shame of that stayed with Louisa throughout her entire marriage…

Thomas: He didn’t hold it over her but she felt that in some ways this had stained her and it really haunted her for the rest of her life, especially at times of extreme vulnerability.

Peterson: Although Louisa was often ill, and had suffered the loss of a child in Russia, she was no shrinking violet. When the situation called for strength and resolve, Thomas says she could meet any challenge. And she did when she was forced to leave Russia and meet her husband in France in 1815…

Thomas: John Quincy had left St. Petersburg to negotiate the treaty at the end of the War of 1812, and she was left in Russia for a year, actually, by herself with her son. And at the end of it he sent her this letter, at the end of 1814, and said, “Sell all our things and pack up and come meet me in Paris.” You have to understand that this is now the dawn of 1815 – the Napoleonic Wars. Europe is devastated. Much of Central Europe is just wreckage and it’s winter in Russia. She sells her things, packs it up, ships it, buys a carriage, hires of couple of manservants to protect her and one female servant to help her and they set out. And while they’re on the road, Napoleon escapes Elbe and starts heading toward Paris. And about halfway through they get wind of this.

Peterson: Armies are forming and heading toward Paris as Louisa and her son make their way across Europe. Thomas says that she dug deep to find the courage to make the trip, using all of her resources to fend off danger…

Thomas: It’s rumored that she’s Napoleon’s sister. It’s rumored that there’s a carriage with a woman on it headed toward Paris. No one would be that crazy, so it’s a rumor that she encourages, that she’s Napoleon’s sister, and it gives her some protection. She had this idea that she was very weak and this is part of the expectation for a woman at the time. But, the truth is that she was incredibly resilient, and when she was tested she just thrived. You know, she really, really withstood that and flourished, when her manservants hired to protect her fled. They were scared. They left her. She went on.

Peterson: John Quincy’s expertise in foreign affairs continued after the couple was reunited. He served as President Monroe’s Secretary of State from 1817 to 1825. Thomas says that Louisa was aware of her husband’s desire to become president, and helped him attain that goal using the social and political skills that her husband didn’t have. It’s hard to believe in this day and age with candidates and their advertising vying for voters’ time and attention, but back in 1825, Thomas says that John Quincy and his colleagues thought it was bad form to beg for office…

Thomas: He never even liked to admit that he was campaigning for the presidency. She understood, really, the personal in politics. She understood that people voted for people, and she understood that relationships mattered. And she had a kind of social grace that he just simply lacked. I mean the word that everybody used – including himself – to describe him was “cold.” So what she did, actually, she did something quite brilliant. She had a series of parties, she called them “My Campaign,” and they were very explicitly to kind of keep the bright light of attention on him so that he could float above it. She gave him cover, in some ways.

Peterson: John Quincy Adams went to the White House in 1825. During his time in office, Louisa was bored since her husband didn’t think she should be involved in the workings of government in any way. She still held some social events, but Thomas says she spent most of her time in her room, no longer the focal point of Washington society. When John Quincy lost his bid for a second term in 1829, Louisa thought that politics was over for them and they would retire to their home in Massachusetts. In  1831, though, politics called John Quincy back to Washington…

Thomas: He actually, quite early, was elected to become a representative from Massachusetts and she was headed back to Washington and at first she was extremely angry, actually. She felt that she had not signed up for that. In the end she came to understand that this was his life, and in a lot of ways it was her life too.

Peterson: Thomas says that Louisa not only had the burden of being a politician’s wife, she also had to bear the grief of their eldest son George’s suicide and the death of their second son John just a few years apart. During his tenure in the House, John Quincy embraced the abolitionist movement. Louisa was also anti-slavery and began reading and corresponding with the Grimke sisters, famous abolitionists and women’s rights advocates of the time…

Thomas: Louisa read one of their pamphlets about women, basically about women’s rights, and she wrote Sarah Grimke a fan letter, essentially, and they struck up a correspondence. This is also involved in Louisa’s own personal involvement about how to think about slavery, as well. But she really started to think about what kind of education she’d received, and what were her rights, and what were her responsibilities. And she certainly would not have called herself a feminist – no one was a feminist back then, really – but she was kind of interested in a way that was ahead of her time.

Peterson: John Quincy Adams died in 1848 and Louisa died four years later from a heart attack at the age of 77. She was survived by her youngest son, Charles. Upon her death, both houses of Congress adjourned in mourning —  the first time a woman’s death was honored by the federal government. Thomas says that although she wasn’t as well-known as many other First Ladies, Louisa Adams left an important legacy to America…

Thomas: Her life gives us a view of history that is really, really rare at a time when most lives were very constrained. You know the range of her experience is fascinating, and few people will give you a revealing glimpse into the past. She played an important role at a formative time. But I think, actually, really what most excited me was her inner life. She really gives you access to her hopes and her fears and her devastations and triumphs in that rare and thrilling way. She really made history seem human. So I think it’s at once a chance to think about these big forces in the early Republic, but also to see the intimacy, you know, of the real kind of urgency with which decisions were being made, as history was unfolding.

Peterson: You can read about the life and times of our first and only foreign-born First Lady in Louisa Thomas’s biography, Louisa: The extraordinary life of Mrs. Adams, available in stores and online. She also invites listeners to visit her website at Louisathomas.com. You can also find out more on our website at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron and Reed Pence. I’m Marty Peterson.

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