WELCOME TO THE BLOG IN THE WORDS OF WOMEN

Based largely on the book of the same name, the blog is a kind of trailer for it and the primary source material it contains. An invitation, you might say … to eavesdrop on the lives of women writing 250 years ago … to become acquainted with 144 little-known but amazingly articulate chroniclers … and to discover a valuable new perspective on the Revolutionary Era.

The women featured lived between 1765 and 1799. But once you attune your ears to their way of writing, their voices easily leapfrog across the centuries. Read just a few sentences and you’ll find yourself back in time, entering their concerns, sharing their feelings. And what they have to say is always fascinating, often eye-opening, sometimes heart-rending.

Please bookmark the blog and visit regularly to see which writers and issues are being featured. There are two new posts weekly: on Monday and Thursday. And do explore those related to the many topics listed on the right. In addition to posts based on the book, others introduce the writings of women who didn’t make it into the book or who turn up as a result of ongoing research. To subscribe via email, click here. Leave a comment. Email a question. And enjoy your visits.

A “forlorn stranger”

In October of 1795 John Quincy Adams was called to London from the Hague, where he was the United States minister, to exchange ratifications of the Jay Treaty. Unbeknownst to him this had already been done before he arrived. In London, however, he met Louisa Catherine Johnson and became a frequent guest at the family home. In Record of a Life Louisa described their meeting and courtship. “Time flew on its lightest pinions and I looked not beyond the hour.—I rattled and laugh’d then heedless of harm and never dreamt of change—Matters went on thus for two or three months. . . . ” Finally, persuaded that he was wooing her, Louisa agreed to an engagement which was announced on February 12, 1796. Louisa goes on to describe an incident that revealed what an odd and difficult man John Quincy was and, indeed, remained throughout their marriage.

In the Spring we made a party to go to Ranelagh [a pleasure garden] and Mr. Adams was to accompany us.— I had jokingly told him that if he went with us he must dress himself handsomely and look as dashy as possible—not aware that on this subject he was very sore. . . . The night previous to the party he took leave very coldly and desired if we went we should call for him at the Adelphi [Hotel] on our way. . . . Accordingly we took him up . . . and I obser’d immediately that he was very handsomely dressed. . . . As I had dressed myself very becomingly . . . we drove off in high spirits. . . . On entering the Rotunda our party naturally separated and Mr A offered me his arm and while we were strolling round the room I complimented him upon his appearance at which he immediately took fire, and assured me that his wife must never take the liberty of interfering in those particulars, and assumed a tone so high and lofty and made so serious a grievance of the affair, that I felt offended and told him I resign’d all pretensions to his hand, and left him as free as air to choose a Lady who would be more discreet. I then drop’d his arm and join’d my mother with whom I staid the remainder of the evening—

On our way home apologies were made and accepted but if lovers quarrels are a renewal of love they also leave a sting behind which however apparently healed reopens on every trivial occasion; and the smart frequently felt inspires the mind with a secret and unknown dread of something hidden beneath the rosy wreath of love from which we would in vain turn our thoughts; but which like the faint sunbeams through a dense fog only produce a momentary gleam of light to make the darkness which surrounds us still more impenetrable.

For several months John Quincy refused to set a wedding date, claiming insufficient funds. He returned to Holland and recommended that during his absence Louisa should “attend to the improvement of my mind and laid down a course of study for me until we met, which might be in one year or in seven.” Eventually the two married in 1797 although John Quincy’s mother Abigail did not approve.

Upon finally meeting her husband’s family in 1801 in Quincy, Louisa described her reaction. “Had I step[p]ed into Noah’s Ark, I do not think I would have been more utterly astonished. . . . Do what I would there was a conviction on the part of the others that I could not suit.” She was made to feel “a maudlin, hysterical fine lady not fit to be John Quincy Adams’ wife.” Her mother-in-law, she felt, “was in every point of view a superior Woman . . . the equal of every occasion in life.” She “forms a most striking contrast to poor me.” This “forlorn stranger,” as Louisa described herself, eventually managed to earn the affection of her father-in-law John Adams and was a great comfort to him in his old age.

This source was consulted for biographical details and events in Louisa’s later life. Her own impressions are from A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), pages 23-28. Her portrait as First Lady is by Charles Bird King (between 1821 and 1825) and is in The Granger Collection.

posted October 16th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Abigail Adams, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, Louisa Catherine Adams

“A small neat looking man”

In Record of a Life, Louisa Catherine Johnson, soon to be the wife of John Quincy Adams, describes a visit her father received in London in 1795 when he was the American consul.

It was about this time that a Gentleman called on my father a small neat looking man in a very handsome chariot with livery Servants &ce. He walked into the Office entered into conversation very agreeably and then presented some papers to my father which concerned some American business to be done before the Consul—My father returned the papers for signature and stood to see the name when to his utter surprize he discovered that it was the Traitor [Benedict] Arnold, and he deliberately took up the pen with the Tongs and put it into the fire—The gentleman sneaked off endeavouring not to notice the act—This trait will give you real insight into your Grandfathers character—He was a perfect Gentleman in his manners and universally respected—the American Sailors adored him and his house was their refuge on all occasions—Noble in his sentiments; noble in his Acts; he was ever ready to defend the unfortunate, and his temper was so open and confiding he soon became the victim of fraud and conspiracy.

Here Louisa is full of praise for her father whom she dearly loved; he was soon to lose his fortune and, incidentally, his ability to pay her promised dowry.

The passage is from A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), pages 22-23. The miniature of Benedict Arnold is by Du Simitiere, c. 1779.

posted October 13th, 2014 by Janet, comments (0), CATEGORIES: Benedict Arnold, Louisa Catherine Adams

“too good a joke to lose”

In 1794, President George Washington sent John Jay to England to negotiate a treaty dealing with issues that had arisen relating to the Peace Treaty of 1783. Concluded in November of 1794, the Jay Treaty, as it was called, did not resolve all of the problems in a satisfactory manner, but it prevented another war between Britain and the United States that had seemed imminent. John Jay, his nephew Peter Jay Munro, and his secretary John Trumbull remained in London until the spring of 1795.

About this time John Quincy Adams, with his brother Thomas Boylston, arrived in London en route to a diplomatic assignment in the Hague. The Adams brothers and the Jays met at the Johnsons several times. Louisa described details of a particular visit to her children in “Record of a Life”.

Mr. Jay . . . came to England and while he was there Mr. Adams [JQA] and his Brother Tom arrived in London on their way to Holland. . . . Mr. Jay and your father and Uncle were invited to dine with us . . . they were asked on account of the former acquaintance of the two families when your Grandfather [John Adams] was Minister in England—Your father was engaged; but your Uncle dined with us and so far were we from dreaming of a future connection in the family that from some strange fancy my Sister Nancy nick named your Uncle Abel and of course the brother whom we had never seen was called Cain. I mention this merely to show how little idea or desire there was in the family to plot or plan a marriage between the families—I also had a nick name in consequence of my habit of warning my Sisters if any thing was likely to go wrong; they called me Cassandra because they seldom listened to me until the mischief was done. . . .

Colonel John Trumbull visited the Johnsons frequently and his favorite among the sisters was Louisa. She remarked that “he said he wished he was a young man for then he should certainly pay his addresses to me; and this was the utmost that ever passed between us that could be tortured into love or what we fashionably term a belle Passion.” Louisa goes on to describe an amusing incident that took place at a friend’s house.

In consequence of our being at Mrs. Church’s the first Evening that Mr. Jay and his son [really Jay's nephew, Peter Jay Munro] and the Col was introduced he also bore another name among us Girls—The Servant a frenchman announcing them as Mr Pétéràjay and Col Terrible—you may suppose this was too good a joke to lose and it attached itself to them as long as they remained in England.

The information and quoted passages are from A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), pages 21-22. The portrait of John Jay is by an unknown artist after a painting by Gilbert Stuart, courtesy of the John Jay Homestead State Historic Site. Gilbert Stuart painted the portrait of John Trumbull in 1818. It is at the Yale University Art Gallery.

Before They Became Sister-in-laws: Louisa and Nabby

Interesting in the light of the subsequent connection between Louisa Catherine Johnson and Abigail “Nabby” Adams as sister-in-laws is their relationship before the family tie was even dreamed of. In 1783 the Johnsons returned to London where Louisa’s father became the American consul. Nabby married Colonel William Stephens Smith in London in 1786, and when she and her husband, after an absence, returned to London in 1792, they socialized with the Johnsons, and Nabby and Louisa became good friends. See a post by Nabby Adams here.

Our acquaintance was enlarged and I will say improved—the very familiar footing on which we lived made their society delightful to us. Whenever the Col dined from home Mrs. S. would bring her Children early in the morning and pass the day with us and as this happened very frequently it brought us together continually—It was my delight to dress her and I was often employed in making up Articles of Millinery which I used to insist upon her wearing and in which she looked beautiful—She was one of the most placid quiet beings I ever saw; very cold in her general manners; but when she laughed or entered into the spirit of gaiety which was very often, she seemed to be the life of the party—She would romp or dance and partake of all the jokes like one of us and she was perfectly adored by the family—The Col’s manners . . . were irrisistable and we seldom sat down to our favorite Suppers without him—

Thus years rolled on and we were too happy to think of the lapse of time. In the Summer the Col and my father took a house between them at Brighton where we lived together six weeks but the air disagreed so much with my Mother we were obliged to leave it and we all returned to Town together—

Mrs. Smith was one of the most really amiable women I ever saw, and under the appearance of coldness and reserve was very affectionate in her disposition—. . . . I loved her then and still better after I became her Sister [in-law]. At that period we had little idea that such a circumstance would ever happen—

The information and quoted passages are from A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), pages 19-20. The illustration of Louisa was created between 1834 and 1860 and is from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a16702.

Louisa Catherine Adams: “Record of a Life”

Louisa Catherine Adams was the wife of President John Quincy Adams, the only foreign-born First Lady. In the summer of 1825, a few months after moving into the White House, she began a memoir for her three children—George Washington, John 2nd, and Charles Francis. In “Record of a Life” she recalled events of her childhood and young adulthood, breaking off shortly following her marriage to John Quincy Adams. Louisa did not resume her narrative until 1840 when she began writing “Adventures of a Nobody.” A new volume designed to make her writings and observations more easily accessible was published earlier this year. It is from this volume (see below) that the quoted passages are taken.

Louisa Catherine was the daughter of an English mother, Catherine Nuth, and an American merchant, Joshua Johnson from Maryland who was representing an American firm in London. An intelligent and gifted child she adored her parents and they doted on her. One of eventually nine children—eight sisters and one brother—she enjoyed a close relationship with her older sister Anne and a younger sibling named by her parents in a fit of patriotism Carolina Virginia Marylanda. When the American Revolution was imminent, for safety’s sake, her father moved his family to Nantes in France when Louisa was about three. This early period of her life she considered her happiest: the scenes of her childhood Louisa recalls as “visions of delight in which all was joy and peace and love.”

From portrait painted when she was eighteen, she appears to have been petite, with a fair complexion, hazel eyes, and red hair.

As I am interested in Sarah Livingston Jay I was delighted to discover Louisa’s impression of the Jays who were living in Paris at the same time as the Johnsons. (Nabby Adams described what Madame de Lafayette thought of Mrs. Jay in an earlier post.)

Of our journey I do not remember any thing until we arrived in Paris. There we had elegant Apartments in one of the best hotels, and a day or two after our arrival the Children at the request of Mr. & Mrs. [John] Jay were all sent to pay their respects. Mr. Jay was then in Paris I believe as Minister [peace commissioner]. Mrs. Jay was a very Lady like looking woman and she had two daughters children like ourselves but dressed in the plain English fashion white Frocks and Pink Sashes which appeared to me much prettier than the silk dress and hoop which I was used to wear. Their establishment was handsome and their kindness unbounded and I have always looked back with pleasure to this visit which is the only thing that occurred in my stay in Paris which had stamped itself upon my mind.

The painting of Louisa Catherine Adams is by Edward Savage c. 1794. It is at the Adams National Historical Park and can be seen HERE. The information and quoted passages are from A Traveled First Lady: Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams edited by Margaret A. Hogan and C. James Taylor (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2014), pages 1-5.

posted October 2nd, 2014 by Janet, Comments Off, CATEGORIES: Americans Abroad, Children, Clothes, France, London, Paris

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