Review of “Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams” by Louisa Thomas

The author spent five years researching and writing this book on Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of the sixth U.S. President, John Quincy Adams.

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In “The Wall Street Journal” Book Section on April 15, 2016, Jane Kamensky reviews a new book on Abigail Adams, observing: “If you can name one woman from the era of the American Revolution, it’s likely Abigail Adams.”

Louisa Adams, as limned by Louisa Thomas, sounds every bit as remarkable as Abigail – maybe more so – and yet there has not been much written about her. From this story, it is clear we have missed out knowing this inspirational woman and First Lady.

Louisa first encountered John Quincy Adams (JQA) when she was 20 and he 28. They met in London, where Louisa was born in 1775. She lived in momentous times, not only because of the events that ensued in the United States, but because of the growing number of debates over rights for women and blacks. (Louisa died in 1852, on the brink of another American cataclysm.)

Louisa Adams

Louisa Adams

JQA sounds like a curmudgeonly husband at best, but it had to be “difficult” for a man of his time to have a wife so intelligent and outspoken as Louisa. His mother, Abigail, was certainly intelligent, but was not only much more genteel in manner, but more accepting of women’s “secondary” role. Louisa was neither one.

Louisa was exceedingly well-read, both for her own time and any time: she read Plutarch, Milton, Pope, Dryden, Shakespeare, Dickens; Voltaire and Molière in French; radical feminists of the time (urging her son Charles to read Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman); newspapers, literary journals, novels, travelogues, histories; and the Bible, to which she increasingly turned as she aged. In addition to all this, she kept diaries, wrote two autobiographies, and sent frequent letters to her children, and to her in-laws, John and Abigail Adams, informing them of developments on the political scene. (John Adams later wrote to her, “Your journal is a kind of necessary of life to me. I long for it the whole week.”)

John Quincy Adams as a diplomat

John Quincy Adams as a diplomat

When JQA ran for president, this was at a time when it was still frowned upon for a candidate to campaign himself [would that those times still obtained!]. Moreover, JQA was of the mind that people should just know that he was the superior intellect and therefore vote for him. Louisa had a much more realistic view of how the political process operated. Exasperated that JQA couldn’t even bothered to be civil to would-be supporters, she took up the mantle herself: entertaining, cajoling, making the case for her husband’s worthiness, and passing on information to him from political actors.

Louisa’s position on women’s rights were complicated. In that era, the pressures to be “ladylike” were intense, and Louisa felt them keenly. Yet she also was frequently angry over the subjugation of women, writing to her husband (they were frequently separated):

That sense of inferiority which by nature and by law we are compelled to feel, and to which we must submit, is worn by us with as much satisfaction as the badge of slavery generally….”

As for slavery, she was even more conflicted. Her family, to whom she was extremely loyal, owned slaves. And while Louisa felt that the principles of Christianity militated against the system of slavery, she harbored a deep racism toward blacks. She also resented the dangers to her husband when he took up the cause of slavery (he received a number of death threats), wishing that he would leave well enough alone, or let God take care of it, or indeed, anyone else but her husband. At that time, however, unfortunately there was hardly anyone else with the courage to take on the subject.

President John Quincy Adams

President John Quincy Adams

Although she and JQA remained married over fifty years, their marriage was certainly not of the quality that John and Abigail Adams had. Often Louisa resented JQA, and he frequently felt annoyed with her. Yet there had also been, the author finds, “moments of real tenderness, companionship, support, and joy.”

Discussion: The author took great pains to make this book about Louisa rather than about John Quincy, and I think she does a very good job in that respect. Nevertheless, Louisa’s story cannot really be told outside of the story of her husband. Thus, while I think I understand why the author chose not to include pictures of John Quincy, it still would have been nice to have a few included, as well as more than one of Louisa.

Louisa Adams as First Lady

Louisa Adams as First Lady

While I don’t usually opt to read biographies, preferring a broader glimpse at the sociopolitical context of any historical era, the roles played by the extended Adams family in American history in many senses does provide just that.

Louisa Thomas has done a great service by researching the life of a woman whose role in American history has too long gone unrecognized. As the wife of a man who was a Minister to the Great Britain, the Netherlands, Prussia, Russia, U.S. Secretary of State, U.S. President, and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives, her story is as interesting and amazing as John Quincy’s own – in some ways even more, because she was a woman who often had to act on her own and in her husband’s stead.

Evaluation: This is an excellent and illuminating look at a woman’s life well worth contemplating, in the process shedding a great deal of light on American political life in antebellum times via the astute observations of Louisa Adams. Students of early American history and of the history of women’s role in America will find this book most gratifying.

Rating: 4/5

Published by Penguin Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House, 2016

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