Born in London, Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams was the wife of the sixth President, John Quincy Adams (1825-1829). She is the only First Lady to have been born outside of the United States.
Only First Lady born outside the United States, Louisa Catherine Adams did not come to this country until four years after she had married John Quincy Adams. Political enemies sometimes called her English. She was born in London to an English mother, Catherine Nuth Johnson, but her father was American–Joshua Johnson, of Maryland–and he served as United States consul after 1790.
A career diplomat at 27, accredited to the Netherlands, John Quincy developed his interest in charming 19-year-old Louisa when they met in London in 1794. Three years later they were married, and went to Berlin in course of duty. At the Prussian court she displayed the style and grace of a diplomat’s lady; the ways of a Yankee 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 Johnsons had settled in the capital, Louisa felt more at home there than she ever did in New England.
She left her two older sons in Massachusetts for education in 1809 when she took two-year-old Charles Francis to Russia, where Adams served as Minister. Despite the glamour of the tsar’s court, she had to struggle 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 had to make a forty-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. Good music enhanced her Tuesday evenings at home, and theater parties contributed to her reputation as an outstanding hostess.
But the pleasure of moving to the White House in 1825 was dimmed by the bitter politics of the election and by her own poor health. She suffered from deep depression. 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, however; and her cordial hospitality made the last official reception a gracious occasion although her husband had lost his bid for re-election and partisan feeling still ran high.
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 could look back on a secure happiness as well as many trials when they celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary at Quincy in 1847. He was fatally stricken at the Capitol the following year; she died in Washington in 1852, and today lies buried at his side in the family church at Quincy.
The biographies of the First Ladies on WhiteHouse.gov are from “The First Ladies of the United States of America,” by Allida Black. Copyright 2009 by the White House Historical Association.
Learn more about Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams’s spouse, John Quincy Adams.