The first first lady born outside the United States, Louisa Catherine Adams did not come to the United States until four years after she had married John Quincy Adams. Louisa Catherine Johnson was born in London on February 12, 1775, to an English mother, Catherine Nuth Johnson, and an American father—Joshua Johnson, of Maryland—who served as United States consul after 1790.
A career diplomat at 27, accredited to the Netherlands, John Quincy developed interest in charming 19-year-old Louisa when they met in London in 1795. They married on July 26, 1797 and moved to Berlin in course of duty. At the Prussian court she displayed the style and grace of a diplomat’s wife; the ways of a Massachusetts farm community seemed strange indeed in 1801 when she first reached the country of which she was a citizen. Then began years divided among the family home in Quincy, Massachusetts, their house in Boston, and a political home in Washington, D.C. When the Adamses settled in the capital, Louisa felt more at home there than she ever did in New England.
She left her two older sons, George and John, in Massachusetts for their education in 1809 and took two-year-old Charles Francis to Russia, where Adams served as minister. Despite the glamour of the tsar’s court, she struggled with cold winters, strange customs, limited funds, and poor health; an infant daughter born in 1811 died the next year. Peace negotiations called Adams to Ghent in 1814 and then to London. To join him, Louisa made a 40-day journey across war-ravaged Europe by coach in winter; roving bands of stragglers and highwaymen filled her with “unspeakable terrors” for her son. Happily, the next two years gave her an interlude of family life in the country of her birth.
Appointment of John Quincy as Monroe’s secretary of state brought the Adamses to Washington in 1817, and Louisa’s drawing room became a center for the diplomatic corps and other notables. Music enhanced her Tuesday evenings at home, and theater parties contributed to her reputation as an outstanding hostess.
The bitter politics of the election and her own poor health made moving to the White House in 1825 difficult. Though she continued her weekly “drawing rooms,” she preferred quiet evenings—reading, composing music and verse, playing her harp. The necessary entertainments were always elegant and her cordial hospitality made the last official reception a gracious occasion although her husband had lost his bid for reelection and partisan feeling still ran high.
After her husband's presidency, Louisa thought she was retiring to Massachusetts permanently, but in 1831 her husband began 17 years of notable service in the House of Representatives. The Adamses were married for more than fifty years, celebrating the occasion in 1847. The following year, John Quincy Adams died while serving in Congress; she died in Washington on May 15, 1852 at the age of 77, and today lies buried at his side in the family church at Quincy.
You Might Also Like
Podcast U.S. First Ladies: Making History and Leaving Legacies
Since the founding of America, spouses and relatives have served as White House hostess, public servant, and unofficial presidential adviser....
Collection Presidential and First Lady Portraits
Since 1965, the White House Historical Association has been proud to fund the official portraits of our presidents and first ladies,...
Podcast Conversations from History Happy Hour
In this first episode of 2021, White House Historical Association President Stewart D. McLaurin introduces the Association’s popular virtual program Hi...
Collection An Artist Visits the White House Past
From the beginning of its construction in 1792, until the 1902 renovation that shaped the modern identity and functions of the interior...
Collection Women and the White House
While there has yet to be a female president, women have played an integral role in shaping the White House...
Podcast Fearless Leadership: A Conversation with Jean Case
Fearless leaders have walked the halls of White House for centuries. In this episode, White House Historical Association President Stewart...
Collection Cherry Blossoms
Since the first cherry blossom planting in 1912 by First Lady Helen Herron Taft, Washingtonians have celebrated the scenic beauty and...
Collection Animal Ambassadors
Animals, whether pampered household pets, working livestock, birds, squirrels, or strays, have long been a major part of White House...
Collection The White House Behind the Scenes
While the presidency is often in the eye of the public, those who ensure operations at the White House run...
Podcast Entertaining at the White House
From diplomatic dinners to holiday gatherings, the White House has always played a central role in the nation’s official en...
Collection The Presidents
Biographies & Portraits
Collection The First Ladies
Biographies & Portraits