Reading Louisa Adams: Or, Taking a Book Too Personally

Alexander Hamilton may be the hottest trend in Founding Fathers but my heart belongs to the Adams family. Always has.

I first fell in love with John Adams watching the movie version of the musical 1776. It started as torture – my dad loved that movie – and came to be a favorite (the same thing happened with Brussels sprouts). He’s obnoxious and disliked and yet so pithy and self-aware. And he married so well. Abigail was smart, curious, and politically minded despite having no formal education. She managed every aspect of their household and farm while John pursued politics. I read countless books on them and visited their homes. The Adams’ pleased my little colonial history loving heart.

But perhaps it’s a sign that my love has grown out of proportion when I find myself sad and hurt by the treatment of one Adams by many other Adams’, Louisa Catherine Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams, while reading the new biography Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas. So much so that I sometimes lay the book down with a pained look on my face and tell my husband the latest mean thing that John Quincy said or Abigail wrote about her daughter-in-law.


Louisa Adams (Wikimedia)

This isn’t my first brush with Louisa. I read Mrs. Adams in Winter by Michael O’Brien that detailed her journey from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Paris in 1815. Her marriage to John Quincy didn’t seem easy or always happy in that book.

But somehow this book has hit me harder, especially as Louisa suffers miscarriage after miscarriage with little sympathy (and often blame) from her husband. He’s introverted and struggles with the public aspects of public service while Louisa excels at friendship and adjusting to new situations and expectations (of which she has an epic number). Abigail is scarcely any kinder to her, seeing her as pale, weak, and coddled – no match for her son.

No one is perfect, of course, but I’ve been surprised how deeply I feel for Louisa and the difficulties she faced. Author Stacy Schiff has it right in her blurb – if “being born an Adams was difficult, marrying one was yet more so.” John Quincy was prickly and suffered from the high expectations he believed (rightly so) that his parents placed on him. And Louisa, the child of an American father and British mother, grew up in Europe, far from the New England world of her future husband and his family.

But as sad and disappointed as I feel about some of Abigail, John, and John Quincy’s actions, it’s also this complexity that makes the past real. It’s how I fell in love with history in the first place – reading books and visiting historic sites that made people in the past feel like real people with all of the good and plenty of the bad.

I haven’t lost my love of the Adams family by reading this book. If anything, it’s just demonstrated the power of great storytelling and great history to evoke real emotion in the present day.

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