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Louisa Catherine Adams describes the Fourth of July address by her husband, Secretary of State John Quincy Adams, in a letter to their son, John Adams, dated Washington, 5 July 1821. Louisa Catherine addresses her letter to “John Adams, Jr.", then a college student at Harvard, to distinguish him from his illustrious grandfather, the former president. She writes:
Your father yesterday performed his part to admiration and their [sic] was as much general satisfaction expressed as could possibly be expected in a place where so many great interests and powerful passions are ever at work.
While John Quincy Adams’s speech has become famous —championing political rights as the source of good government but also as an admonition against foreign interventions even for humanitarian purposes—Louisa Catherine Adams’s comments are almost entirely given over to her husband’s performance. She notes the surprise of many in the audience “who had taken it for granted that the apparent coldness of his character would necessarily make his oratory flat and insipid.” While President Monroe was only at the beginning of his second term, prospective candidates already were maneuvering for positions in the 1824 presidential race, and Mrs. Adams was about to become, in effect, her husband’s “campaign manager."
The extraordinary life of Louisa Catherine Adams has often been overshadowed by her more famous mother-in law, Abigail Adams, but Louisa Catherine’s influence on the public career of her husband, although very different, was as important as Abigail’s on the career of John Adams.
Born in 1775 in London, the daughter of Maryland merchant Joshua Johnson and Catherine Nuth Johnson, a young Englishwoman whose life and family background remain obscure, Louisa Catherine grew up in England and France. In 1795 she met John Quincy Adams, a young American diplomat who was visiting London, and their complicated courtship—almost everything between them over more than fifty years would be “complicated”—led to their marriage in 1797.
Until 1821, their married life had been divided between overseas diplomatic postings, including five years in St. Petersburg, and time spent at “home” (although Louisa Catherine came to America for the first time in 1801) in Quincy and Washington. In the years between his foreign assignments, John Quincy served in the U.S. Senate and taught rhetoric and oratory at Harvard University. By 1821, they had three sons old enough to be away at Harvard, although Louisa Catherine had endured many additional unsuccessful pregnancies, and they had lost an infant daughter while they lived in Russia.
As secretary of state, John Quincy Adams was seen to be “next in line” for the presidency, although, as Louisa Catherine noted, his reputation for a cold, austere manner made him an unlikely candidate. Earlier in 1821, she had written that as a leading figure in Washington society, “The eye of the public is already upon me.” Her ambition was to bring that “eye” to bear upon her husband and to “manage” his path to a presidential nomination.
In 1821, John Quincy Adams had been asked to give the annual Fourth of July address in the United States Capitol. A former Harvard professor of rhetoric, Adams wore his academic gown to indicate that he was speaking as a private citizen. While he celebrated the overthrow of all governments based upon conquest, he went on to argue strongly for nonintervention in foreign conflicts: “She [America] goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator of only her own.”
During the course of his speech, Adams paused to read the Declaration, using as his text the official “engrossed” copy on parchment that the Continental Congress had authorized on 19 July 1776, the copy now on display at the National Archives.
The recipient of Louisa Catherine Adams’s letter, her middle (and favorite?) son, John Adams, had been born on 4 July 1803, so as she notes:
It was the anniversary of your eighteenth birthday and the mingled feelings of publick and private interest thus excited will stamp its memory with more than its wonted respect. You will I proudly hope my son live to see it celebrated many many a year and in your turn assist in adding to its festivity and joy.
It was not to be. John was dismissed from college for riotous behavior in 1823. He served as presidential secretary during his father’s term in office, during which time he was the victim of a notorious assault in the Rotunda of the Capitol. He struggled with alcoholism, illness, and business failures, and died in 1834, leaving John Quincy and Louisa Catherine Adams, who already had lost their eldest son, George, overwhelmed by grief, but also responsible for John’s young widow and her children.
Louisa Catherine Adams mourned John’s death in memorial poetry. She lived on to bury her husband in 1848 and to create a memorable impression on a grandson, the historian Henry Adams. When she died in Washington in 1852, members of both houses of Congress adjourned their sessions to attend her funeral.
Adams, John Quincy. An Address Delivered at the Request of a Committee of the Citizens of Washington; on the Occasion of Reading the Declaration of Independence, on the Fourth of July, 1821. Washington: Printed by Davis and Force, 1821.
John Quincy Adams circulated copies of his Address within a few days of delivering it. It was widely reprinted in newspapers and in other pamphlet editions.
________. Oration. 4 July 1821. 16 pp.
Corrected manuscript draft of the Fourth of July address by John Quincy Adams. There are substantial differences between the manuscript and the speech as published, not least the famous line in the peroration: “But she goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy,” which originally read, “But she has no political Quixoticsim in her composition.”
In the Adams Papers microfilm, “John Quincy Adams—Lectures and Orations,” reel 452.
Adams, Louisa Catherine. Diary and Autobiographical Writings of Louisa Catherine Adams. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2013. Ed. by Judith S. Graham, et al. 2 vols.
There is a break in Louisa Catherine Adams’s diary between 28 March and 19 July 1821, but her published writings contain many references to her son John, their close emotional bond, and the memorial poetry she wrote after his death in 1834.
Allgor, Catherine. Parlor Politics: In Which the Ladies of Washington Help Build a City and a Government. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 2000.
While Parlor Politics describes Washington women as political actors throughout the early national period, Chapter 4, “Louisa Catherine Adams Campaigns for the Presidency,” provides context for her description of her husband’s Fourth of July oration.
Bemis, Samuel Flagg. John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1965.
________. “A Scuffle in the Rotunda: A Footnote to the Presidency of John Quincy Adams and the History of Dueling,” Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Vol. 71 (October 1953-May 1957), pp. 156-166.
Heffron, Margery M. Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams. Ed. by David Michelmore. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014.
Thomas, Louisa. Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams. New York: Penguin, 2016.
Thomas explores and documents the close relationship of Louisa Catherine Adams with her son John and the wrenching circumstances of his death.
Traub, James. John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. New York: Basic Books, 2016.
Traub describes John Quincy Adams’s Fourth of July address as the “most famous words” he ever spoke. He describes the important role Louisa Catherine Adams played in her husband’s political career.
Whitaker, Arthur P. The United States and the Independence of Latin America, 1800-1830. New York: Norton, 1964. First published by the Johns Hopkins Press in 1941.
The author devotes a chapter (Chapter 12: “The Reply to Lexington and Edinburgh,” pp. 344-369) to John Quincy Adams’s 1821 Fourth of July address and provides references to contemporary printings of the address, Adams’s correspondence following its publication, and the widespread public reaction, both positive and negative, to it.
Family of John Quincy Adams [MHS Collections Online]
This silhouette was created after John Quincy Adams left the presidency in 1829, about eight years after the speech, and illustrates the key figures in this story in the form of silhouettes of John Quincy Adams, Louisa Catherine Adams, their son, John Adams (1803-1834) and his wife and daughter, along with a family friend and an Adams niece.