Portrait by Gilbert Stuart
If Abigail Adams led a tumultuous life, it pales in comparison to the woeful tale of her daughter-in-law, Louisa, wife of John Quincy Adams. Louisa proved to be even more sickly than Abigail and far less suited for the role of First Lady. She expressed regret at marrying into a political family and disdained the White House, saying of it, “There is something in this great, unsocial house which depresses my spirits beyond expression.” During her time in the capitol, she suffered from migraines, fainting spells, and a black depression that she attempted to ease through playing her harp and writing plays.
All three of her sons were embroiled in scandals during her husband’s single term as president – her first became addicted to opium, fathered a child out of wedlock, and would later commit suicide; her second was kicked out of Harvard; and her third was caught soliciting prostitutes. Her only daughter had passed away years before at just one year old.
Louisa’s reclusive nature and aversion to politics made for a turbulent marriage. She thought the Adams men cold, and she and her husband clashed over wide differences in, among other things, their views on education and women’s rights. Before John Quincy’s presidency, Louisa endured endless meddling on the part of Abigail Adams, who believed she herself was better suited to raise Louisa’s children.
Despite all of her trials, she remained supportive of John Quincy, helping him organize a fight against slavery and holding highly regarded receptions for diplomats and other distinguished guests. For her husband’s benefit, she braved cold winters in Russia, eight years of separation from two of her sons, and a six week coach ride across war-torn Europe, during which she saved her own life by convincing French troops she was Napoleon’s sister. Her perceptiveness and intelligence made her an invaluable aide to her husband’s political career. To this day she is the only First Lady born outside of the U.S. (in London), one of only two First Ladies to ever entertain guests by playing an instrument, and the first woman whose death led Congress to adjourn in mourning.
By Alex Thomas