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.