Monday, April 23, 2012

Louisa Catherine Adams

Cannibals of the Heart by Jack Shepard is the personal biography of John Quincy Adams and Louisa Catherine Adams. As you may guess by the title, their marriage was anything but perfect. And neither was Louisa's life. She faced great loneliness, grief, and a constant search for purpose in life.

Louisa was born to wealthy America parents who lived and worked in France. When she was a young girl, the close knit family moved to England. Louisa was the boarding school outcast because she was foreign to the other girls. Louisa was also sickly and spent a lot of time to herself. Before her marriage she had never been away from her mother for more than a couple of hours. Imagine the shock of a new husband (who was never very affectionate or emotionally present) and then moving to a new country (Prussia, where John Quincy was appointed minister). Then again to a new country when she finally set foot on American soil for the first time as a young adult. Then again to a new country when he was appointed to St. Petersburg (a post he accepted without consulting her at all.) Then to France, then England, then back to America. All with an emotionally cold husband for company!

But her loneliest time was her time "imprisoned in the White House" as First Lady. She fulfilled her duties of entertaining and calling but confided in her son that she had "no one to break the dreadful tedium of an almost entire solitude" and that she "could not bear the loneliness of my life." 

I'm sure the grief she experienced in her life compounded the feelings of loneliness. First of all, her beloved father faced complete financial ruin shortly after her marriage. It probably didn't help that John Quincy continually brought it up and felt her father passed himself off as wealthy to dump Louisa on him. In truth, her father was ruined in part because he had to wait in England for John Quincy to stop stalling the wedding so he could return to America to take care of his business. By the time John Quincy got around to marrying Louisa after delaying for over a year, it was too late to save the business.

She also grieved the loss of eight babies through miscarriage. And her only daughter died as a toddler while in St. Petersburg. When John Quincy was appointed to St. Petersburg, he arranged with Abigail Adams for their two sons, George and John, to be left with Abigail without consulting Louisa at all. Then they did not see their sons for eight years! Although they were reunited later, the damage had been done. John Quincy's demanding, harsh parenting which lacked a loving relationship had ruined their sons. George committed suicide and John literally worked himself to death trying to please his father. Out of her 12 pregnancies, only their son Charles lived a full life.

Women in America in the early 1800's lived boring lives of hanging on their husband's arm as a pretty little ornament with not much meaning in life besides. Gone were the colonial days when men needed women to join in the Revolution by boycotting and holding down the home front while they were fighting for freedom. Louisa keenly felt this purposelessness thorough out her life with the exception of acting as John Quincy's campaign manager. But after the election, she was again purposeless.  After John Quincy's one term as president, he was elected to the house of representatives and worked towards abolition of slavery and the right of the people to petition. Louisa here found purpose as she saw the similarities between slaves and the lack of women's rights. She studied her Bible and other writings (including her mother in law's papers) for thoughts on individual freedoms and rights, not just for white men. She also compiled petitions for John Quincy to present to the house. While John Quincy worked on the floor of the house for slave rights in general, he never helped one slave in particular. However, in 1849, Louisa bought the freedom of her slave cook, Julie, a decided move from a woman who had finally found a purpose.


  1. wow. i have never been a fan of John Quincy and now i REALLY wont be. Poor Louisa!! my heart aches for her miscarriages and loneliness. i'm glad she found her purpose after all. -Tracie

  2. Oh that poor woman! I had no idea! I had heard generally negative things about John Quincy, but never really knew about his home life or his wife. I'm so glad she turned to Scripture for encouragement.

  3. Wow, Louisa had such a tragic life! I can't imagine having that many miscarriages. Thanks for sharing! I gave you an award over at my blog to help promote you!

  4. if i ever move us from St Petersburg to Paris during a world war, i will endeavor to drive the UHaul rather than have you do it! :-)