Sample text for Henry Adams and the making of America / Garry Wills.

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1Grandmother Louisa And The South

On May 20, 1796, Abigail Adams warned
her son, John Quincy Adams,
against marriage to Louisa Johnson, who
was not from New England: "I would
hope, for the love I bear my country,
that the siren is at least half blood." (A
381) In 1907,Henry Adams wrote of his
grandmother, Louisa Johnson
Adams: "[I] inherited a quarter taint
ofMaryland blood." (E 737)
Adams could never escape the fact that
he was a member of the Adamses.
Yet that does not justify attempts to
interpret his whole life as a defense of
his family, his region, or his
forebears" ideology. In fact, he was
determined to
escape all three of those things, to be
what he called "less Adamsy" (L
6.401). He preferred to be considered a
descendant of his Maryland
grandmother, Louisa Johnson Adams. His
emotional and ideological
compass bore due south, from an early
age and all through his professional
life. Using a genealogical quirk (his
grandmother"s purported southernness),
he sought the South both as symbol and
physical location all his life. Except
for his six years of teaching at
Harvard, Adams preferred Louisa"s
Washington to Massachusetts, from which
he wrote in 1869 that "nothing but
sheer poverty shall ever reduce me to
passing a whole season here again" (L
Most of the men he studied and admired
were southerners, and
especially Virginians, including his
three principal heroes, Washington,
Marshall, and Gallatin (the latter he
treated as a Virginian, since Virginia is
where Gallatin became an American
citizen). The noblest character in his
first novel is a Virginian, and the
heroine of the tale is the widow of a
Virginian. Adams"s good friend at
Harvard was a Virginian -- in fact, the son
of Robert E. Lee -- and he was visiting
the Lee mansion at Arlington the
night Lincoln reached Washington for his
None of this can cancel the fact that
Adams was affected by his
own family background. But that was not
a simple thing. Those people who
claimed that he defended his own family
are thinking primarily of the
Adamses. But Adams was aware that he was
mired in a pretentious muddle
of families, of whom the Adamses were
the last and least. He was also a
Boylston, a Quincy, a Brooks. He wrote
his brother Charles: "My own theory
of Boylston influence is that you and I
have the Boylston strain three times
repeated [through their
great-grandfather, great-grandmother,
and mother].
John Adams had it but once. Which
accounts for you and us others being
three times as damned a fool as John
Adams --which seems hard" (L 6.574).
The Quincy line came from Abigail
Adams, and she was very
proud of it, unwisely putting its crest
on her carriage when she went to New
York as the vice president"s wife. Henry
said that the Quincys were the
family"s "most aristocratic claim."1 The
Brooks connection was through
Henry"s own mother, and it made Henry
and his siblings the first Adams
generation to have inherited wealth. All
four of these family lines had
ramifying branches dimmed in clouds of
in-laws, making Henry live in a forest
of cousinhoods. He found this a stifling
environment, and came to admire
most the one member of his family who
had not a drop of Adams, or
Boylston, or Quincy, or Brooks blood in
her, his grandmother. He
exaggerated his blood tie with her,
saying it was a "quarter taint"
(actually it
was an eighth). She had been mistreated
by the family, yet she had survived.
He meant to do the same. She had been an
intruder into the family fold, but
she opened a gate through which he could
slip free --toward the South.

"The President"

Adams knew his grandmother"s husband,
John Quincy Adams, during the
first ten years of his own life. (His
great-grandfather, John Adams, had died
twelve years before he was born.) John
Quincy stood for the family heritage
when Henry was a boy -- he was always
called "the President" at his Quincy
home, where Henry"s family spent its
summers. The most vivid picture in the
first chapter of the Education tells how
Henry"s mother (not otherwise
mentioned in the book) could not make
her son go to school in the summer,
and the president came down from his
study to march the boy "near a mile"
to school (E 732). Some have taken from
this episode an impression that
Henry had great respect or affection for
the president; but in fact he
considered the man incapable of
affection, selfish, and cruel. There is no
clear evidence when this feeling began;
but it was clearly there by his late
twenties, when he planned to publish his
grandmother"s papers.
Later, at the time when he was writing
the Education, Henry
successfully warned his younger brother
Brooks not to publish an admiring
life he had written of their
grandfather. In over eighty pages of
commentary on Brooks"s manuscript, he
said things like this (referring to
John Quincy"s time as Boylston Lecturer
on Rhetoric at Harvard):

The picture you have drawn of that
slovenly German Gelehrte whose highest
delight is to lecture boys about a
rhetoric of which he never could practice
either the style or the action or the
voice or the art, and then gloating over
own foolish production in private,
instead of rolling on the ground with
mortification as his grandchildren would
do --this picture grinds the colery [?]
into my aesophagus; but it is not so
hideous as the picture of his voting for
the Embargo under the preposterous and
dishonest pretence that it
was a measure of resistance, although he
knew Jefferson better than anyone
else did, and (like Hamilton) knew that
Jefferson was a temporizer by nature.
Even that is not so bad as his going to
caucus to nominate a candidate for
the opposition party, an act which
scandalized even his admiring mother to
hot and just remonstrance. And even this
is not so bad as his jumping at the
Russian mission and deserting his
self-evident duty in Massachusetts at the
time of the utmost difficulty and under
the hottest kind of fire, avowedly
because he wanted to escape attack -- my
teeth chatter at this exhibition.
Yet worse follows! To see him dawdle on
in Russia under one pretence or
another when his mother and father pray
him to come home, and he had
ceased to be useful where he is, but
during all these years, while the
young Americans like Clay are forcing
the country to assert some
shadow of self respect, I do not see J.
Q. A. open his mouth, and his one
allusion to the war is to call it a rash
act. Finally, I see him find his chief
delight in quarreling with foes and
friends alike, but still clinging to
until Monroe makes him his tool to break
down treacherously the Virginia
dynasty which gave Monroe all the credit
the idiot ever had.2

There is more, much more, of this
vituperation.3 Adams cannot
even give J. Q. much credit for his
great stand against slavery during his
years in the House of Representatives
(which include the ten years when his
own life overlapped that of his

Your remark about J. Q. A."s double
nature is as much as you are required to
admit, and I think it goes quite as far
as I would myself go in public; but the
double Puritan nature, with its
astonishing faculty of self-deception,
was a
dart-hole, and when our grandfather
upheld Jackson and blinked the Missouri
Compromise with its attendant
legislation, his critics could not be
blamed for
charging it on political ambition. Rufus
King"s record is far better. J. Q. A.
deliberately acted as the tool of the
slave oligarchy (especially about Florida)
and never rebelled until the slave
oligarchy contemptuously cut his throat.4

These white-hot comments are worth
quoting in extenso, since they are not
in print anywhere else, nor included in
the 608 microfilm reels of the Adams

I am met by the fact that has always
worried us all, and worried his father
and mother and wife, that he was
abominably selfish or absorbed in self, and
incapable of feeling his duty to others.
You have pointed at this trait so often
that I did not need this last picture of
Clay to make me alive to it. His neglect
of his father for the sake of his damned
weights and measures was almost
worse, but his dragging his wife to
Europe in 1809 and separating her from
her children was demonic.5

What can explain such ferocity? The
elements for an explanation are in that
last sentence, in the earlier references
to J. Q."s stay in Russia, and in the
mention of his wife"s awareness that he
had no "feeling [of] his duty to
others." Henry was drawing these
judgments from Louisa"s papers.
The publication of his grandmother"s
writings, had he completed it,
would have been Henry"s first book. He
wrote about it to his English friend
Charles Gaskell:

I am myself preparing a volume of
Memoirs which may grow to be three
volumes if I have patience to toil. It
is not an autobiography -- n"ayez pas
peur! An ancient lady of our house has
left material for a pleasant story.
(L 2.25)

What he calls sardonically a "pleasant
story" would show how hard was the
fate of an ebullient and delicate woman
who married into the iron family of
Adamses. His grandmother Louisa is the
other vivid presence in the first
chapter of the Education, which neglects
his parents. Henry recalls her as
shedding an irresistible grace upon her
New England setting. Louisa had
been educated in France, spoke French
beautifully, and was called by her
grandchildren "the Madam":

He liked her refined figure; her gentle
voice and manner; her vague effect of
not belonging there, but to Washington
or to Europe, like her furniture and
writing desk . . . Try as she might, the
Madam could never be Bostonian, and
it was her cross in life, but to the boy
it was her charm. Even at that age he
felt drawn to it. (E 735)

After her husband"s death, Louisa
escaped Quincy by returning to
Washington, where her Johnson relatives
were, and Henry was charmed all
over again when his father took him
there at age twelve to visit her.
It is not surprising that the sympathy
Henry felt for Louisa would
become bitterness toward her husband
when he read her account of their
relations. The only explanation he could
find for the indignities visited on her
was that John Quincy had no inner life
at all.

His limitations, too, were astounding.
Though he was brought up in Paris,
London, and Berlin, he seems to have
been indifferent to art. I do not
remember that he ever mentions an
interest in architecture, sculpture, or
painting . . . I half remember that
among his books I could never find Goethe
or Schiller. I do not think he ever
enjoyed Voltaire, and I would give much to
be assured that he ever bothered himself
to look at the Rembrandts at the
Hermitage . . . He must have lived a
life of pure void. (L 6.228)

This was opposed to everything Henry
knew or supposed about his
grandmother, whose aesthetic
sensibilities he felt he had inherited.

"The Madam"

Since Henry meant to publish Louisa"s
papers in three volumes, he went
through all her many writings, her two
incomplete autobiographies, her
Russian diary, her separate account of a
trip she took through the battlefields
of Europe in 1815, her letters, her
plays (or skits), her many poems. One of
these writings, and only one, was
intended for publication, "Narrative of a
Journey from Russia to France, 1815"
(1836), and it did not appear in her
lifetime. Henry"s younger brother Brooks
brought it out in Scribner"s
Magazine for 1903. Louisa"s first
autobiography was "Record of a Life, or My
Story" (1825), which breaks off in 1801,
when she was twenty-six. This is
less bitter than the second account
would be, since it was originally planned
for her children"s reading. The first
title, crossed out, was "Memories of Your
The second autobiography, "Adventures
of a Nobody" (1840),
brought her story down to the year 1812.
Joan Challinor, who has written the
most complete account of Louisa"s life,
thinks that each biographical
fragment was broken off because the
memories became too sad for her to
continue.6 The first one ends when
Louisa, having just arrived in America, is
made to feel that John Quincy had
accepted her only because he let his real
love, Mary Frazier, get away. The second
one ends in Russia, when her
infant daughter dies and she wishes to
be buried with her in St. Petersburg.
Louisa"s entire story is disturbing. Her
father"s financial ruin obviously
affected her profoundly. Like many women
of her era, she was kept
continually pregnant. As Catherine
Allgor writes:

Suffering from the effect of her first
pregnancy, Louisa sailed [from England]
to Berlin, where he was posted to the
Prussian court. Once on shore, she
miscarried the child and thus began a
death-defying reproductive history that
included fourteen pregnancies -- nine
miscarriages, four live births, and one

But Louisa traces her deepest sorrows to
a feeling that the Adamses did not
consider her worthy of her husband.
Henry began his edition of her writings
by conflating and
condensing the autobiographies, copying
out in his own clear hand nearly
two hundred closely packed pages
(roughly ninety thousand words). He
relies principally on her second
autobiography, which is the most
critical of
John Quincy Adams. This was obviously a
very serious project for him, and it
is clear that he sides entirely with
Louisa and trusts her account. He knew
from letters he had not yet begun to
copy for publication that Louisa was a
victim of the Adamses" ambition.
He did not mean to be such a victim
himself. Louisa remained a
potent symbolic figure in his
imagination. Reflections of her went
into the
creation of Madeleine Lee, the heroine
of his novel Democracy, who almost
becomes a sacrifice to ambition. And the
example of her life would make him
especially devoted to another woman
whose life was troubled by marriage
into an ambitious political family,
Elizabeth Sherman Cameron.
Louisa is undergoing a kind of
rediscovery, with the help of
feminist scholars. She merits a
substantial article in American National
Biography (1999), though she was not
included in Dictionary of American
Biography (1928). Joan Challinor makes
extensive use of modern studies of
women"s education and roles in the
nineteenth century. She and other
feminists believe that Louisa had
ambitions of her own, but that the times as
well as the Adamses stifled them. Her
writings could reach no public, her
political shrewdness was constantly
checked or rebuked, in a criticism that
she internalized.8 I believe that Adams
anticipated their findings in the use he
made of Louisa"s life while creating the
character of Madeleine Lee. This is
just one of the ways in which Adams, in
some of his early writings, was a
To see how important Louisa was to the
formation of Henry"s
attitudes toward family, women,
politics, and ambition, the narrative he
copied out must be read along with the
other writings he intended to put in
the second and third volumes of his
edition. Though he thought of his
grandmother as a southerner, she was
born in England, spent her childhood
in France, and grew up in London. Her
father was from Maryland, but her
mother was English. Even after John
Quincy Adams married her in England,
she did not see the United States for
another four years, which she spent in
Berlin with her husband on his
diplomatic mission. But as soon as she
reached America for the first time she
sought out her relatives in
Washington -- in fact, she and her
husband would live in the home of her
sister and brother-in-law throughout the
time when John Quincy was a
senator. The South was largely a
symbolic reality for her, as it would be
her grandson. The South was all that the
Adamses were not --warm and
accepting, tainted but forgiving.
Since Louisa was only half "Maryland"
and half English, and John
Quincy was all New England, it was her
son, Charles Francis Adams, who
had the "quarter taint" of Louisa"s
blood. Henry, as the son of Charles
Francis, had at most an eighth of his
descent from her, though he
exaggerated the connection for his own
emotional and symbolic purposes.
Abigail Adams had met Louisa"s family in
England when Louisa was only ten
or so, and she thought her parents
extravagant (as they were). Any child of
theirs, she warned her son after he met
her in her twentieth year, was
unlikely to have the severe code that
Adamses required from a spouse. The
Johnsons" religion was Anglican, their
manners Continental. Louisa"s father,
Joshua, was a businessman who had become
the American consul in
London by the time John Quincy met her.
Joshua Johnson had a bevy of
beautiful daughters, and he was living
beyond his means while trying to find
them suitable husbands. He went broke
almost immediately after Louisa was
married. No wonder Abigail thought her
son was being trapped by foreign
wiles. Louisa would feel the unspoken
reproach in Boston, ashamed that her
father seemed to promise more in family
wealth than was realized.
John Quincy Adams met the Johnson girls
in London when he
was twenty-eight years old. He had taken
a break from his diplomatic duties
at The Hague, and the consul"s house was
a gathering place for Americans.
John Quincy worked so hard to contain
any sign of emotion that Louisa
thought he was interested not in her but
in her twenty-one-year-old sister
Nancy. When he surprised Louisa by
proposing marriage, he was vague
about when he would be able to wed her --
it would have to wait till the end of
his mission in Holland. His mother"s
letters from home were warning him
against marriage, and he seemed partly
to heed and partly to defy that
When Abigail Adams found out, in 1796,
that her son was serious
about one of the Johnson girls, she
wrote onMay 20 asking, "Maria, has she
no claim?" (A 381). John Quincy had been
deeply in love, when setting up his
law practice as a young man, with a
local charmer, Mary Frazier. Abigail
opposed his attempt to marry Miss
Frazier, on the grounds that he could not
support her in the style provided by her
family -- Abigail mistrusted those
brought up as "fine ladies."9 Now she
was using Maria to fend off Louisa. It
was in this same letter that Abigail
hoped that Miss Johnson was "at least
half blood." After John Quincy became
married despite her efforts to prevent
it, Abigail wrote on August 16 to his
younger brother, Thomas, who was
traveling with him, that she hoped he,
at least, would remain "free for an
American wife" (A 382). Louisa did not
know yet that she was caught in this
crossfire between mother and son. If she
had, she would have understood a
lovers" quarrel that made her
temporarily break off the engagement.
She had
complimented John Quincy on his clothes,
and he lashed out at her, telling
her not to dictate his appearance.10 She
did not know that Abigail had
constantly criticized John Quincy for
his slovenly dress.
When John Quincy wrote from Holland
that he would be going to a
new post in Lisbon, he said it would be
best that he not marry and take her
there. A court life might corrupt her,
since she had not yet lived in republican
America. He was repeating what his
mother had told him.
Abigail wrote on August 20 that she was
sure Louisa was a fine
woman, but "who can answer for her after
having been introduced to the
dissipations of a foreign court?" John
Quincy was passing on other
misgivings of his mother, warning Louisa
on February 7, 1797, that she was
spending too much time on music (a
"trivial accomplishment") or novels,
instead of improving herself with
serious books (A 383). When, in her letters
to Holland, Louisa attempted an
affectionate nickname for him -- "my
Adams" -- he told her on May 31 that she
sounded like one of her
sentimental novels (A 384). He suggested
that her father take her back to
Maryland, where they would be married
whenever he returned from Europe.
Mr. Johnson said that he could stop off
in Holland before going on to
America, so the lovers could see each
other -- but Adams said that it would
be better to test their character by not
yielding to such desires.11
The Johnsons had still not left England
when John Quincy
returned there to prepare for his trip
to Lisbon. He reached the city on the
afternoon of July 12, 1797, but did not
go to her, or send news of his arrival,
that night. And the next day he met with
two friends before visiting her. She
wrote of her "mortified affection" when
he told her of this remarkably
insensitive action.12 He had to prove to
her and to himself that he was not
driven by passion. He lived by the code
espoused in his diary: "If there is a
lesson necessary for my peace of mind in
this world, it is to form no strong
attachment to any person or thing that
it contains"(8.382). The last thing that
a fiance;e wants to know is that her
husband fights any strong attachment to
her. But he did, in fact, love Louisa,
and when his assignment was changed
from Lisbon to Berlin, he married her
before leaving for Prussia.
In Berlin, the young bride became an
instant favorite of the court,
where French was the language of the
diplomats and her dancing was expert.
John Quincy resented or feared her
popularity, and tried to instill in her the
reserve his mother had imposed on him.
When he was ten years old, Abigail
wrote him what Joan Challinor calls a
"terrible letter," saying that she would
rather see him drown when coming back
with his father from Europe than that
he return "an immoral profligate," and
warning him that a slip from virtue would
involve him in all the vices of the fall
of the Roman Empire -- and he was
ten.13 When he was seventeen, Abigail
had warned him against youthful
levity, counseling him not to laugh in
public: "I never knew a man of great
talent much given to laughter. True
contentment is never extremely gay or
noisy . . . and I know from experience
that sudden and excessive joy will
produce tears sooner than laughter."14
John Adams"s sons, she said, must
be a credit to him: "Your father"s
station abroad holds you up to view in a
different light from that of a common
traveler. And his virtues will render your
faults, should you be guilty of any,
more conspicuous."15
Louisa was now told that she must mold
her life to be a credit to
her husband. She must indulge none of
the feminine wiles his mother had
denounced. Abigail found even the Quaker
city of Philadelphia full of hussies,
who dressed "to seduce the unwary, to
create inflammatory passions, and to
call forth loose affection by unfolding
to every eye what the veil of modesty
ought to shield."16 She had taught John
Quincy to be especially censorious
about women"s makeup. She approved of
Holland because, as she
said, "Rouge is confined to the stage
here."17 Henry carefully copied out
Louisa"s account of the cosmetics war
she waged with John Quincy.18 In
Berlin, where Louisa underwent a series
of miscarriages and illnesses, the
Queen of Prussia noticed her pale
appearance. She kindly said she would
send her a box of her own rouge.

I answered that Mr. Adams would not let
me wear it. She smiled at my
simplicity and observed that if she
presented me the box he must not
refuse it, and told me to tell him so .
. . I told Mr. Adams what the Queen
said, but he said I must refuse the box
as he should never permit me to
accept it.

When carnival time came, women dressed
in glittery dresses with black
hoods, and used compensatory makeup to
avoid a mask-like pallor under the
hoods. Louisa decided to take the
Queen"s advice:

Being more than usually pale, I ventured
to put on a little rouge, which I found
relieved the black and made me quite
beautiful. Wishing to evade Mr.
Adams"s observation, I hurried through
the room telling him to put the lights
out and follow me down. This excited his
curiosity and he started up and led
me to the table and then declared that
unless I allowed him to wash my face
he would not go. He took a towel and
drew me on his knee and all my beauty
was clean washed away, and a kiss made a
peace, and we drove off.

The cosmetics war was not yet over, but
it soon would be. She tried one
more time.

One evening, when I had dressed to go to
Court, the everlasting teasing
about my pale face induced me to make
another trial of a little rouge, and
contrary to my first proceeding, I
walked boldly forward to meet Mr. Adams.
As soon as he saw me, he requested me to
wash it off, which I with some
temper refused, upon which he ran down
and jumped in the carriage and left
me plante; là, even to myself appearing
like a fool, crying with vexation.

The conflict moved to other issues.
Contrary to Abigail"s cautions,
Louisa was prone to burst into loud
laughter at the absurdity of things -- at
John Quincy"s quaint court costume and
wig, at her borrowed clothes after
landing in a storm, at her own and her
sister"s prescribed costumes for a
royal audience. When an aide to Mr.
Adams, who had been driving Louisa
around in his carriage, begged her to
make the penurious J. Q. buy his own
carriage, lest people think she was
having an affair with the simpering aide,
she could not contain her laughter. Her
husband curtailed her attendance at
balls, and left her stranded at some
they did attend -- he played cards for a
while, then went home without her. He
instructed her not to tell Abigail about
events at court, lest his mother think
her frivolous --though Abigail was
actually curious and asking for details.
John Quincy constantly made her
aware that she did not meet the
"republican" standards of his mother. When
Louisa bought her mother-in-law the
present of a ring, John Quincy wrote
Abigail on January 19, 1798, that he had
refused to let her send it, since it
was too showy (A 130).
At length, after five miscarriages,
Louisa bore her first child, a son
who would be her favorite throughout his
short life. He was named George
Washington Adams, in honor of the
president who had appointed John
Quincy to his first foreign post, and
who had died just sixteen months earlier.
Abigail was angry that the family
lineage was not more clearly marked by
calling him John Adams. She wrote to her
son Tom: "I am sure your brother
had not any intention of wounding the
feelings of his father, but I see he has
done it."19 When Tom called his brother
to account on this head, John
Quincy wrote a defense of his choice,
but he made sure to call his next son
John, to placate his mother.20 (In the
next generation, Charles Francis
Adams would observe dynastic proprieties
by naming his first son after his
own father, making him another John
Quincy Adams.)
The return to America was made
harrowing for Louisa by her
husband"s warnings against behavior that
Abigail would disapprove of. He
also told her on the boat about his
earlier love for Mary Frazier, an act that
depressed her severely. Though it is
hard to see how he could do such a
thing, I suppose he thought he was
preparing her for talk about Mary in
Boston, where in fact Louisa would be
likely to meet his first inamorata. But
the story hardly strengthened her for
meeting the formidable Abigail. She was
happy in retrospect that her illness
when she arrived gave her an excuse for
keeping quiet, since she was sure she
would have said the wrong things if
she had talked freely.

What shall I say of my first impression
of Quincy? Had I stepped into Noah"s
ark I do not think I could have been
more astonished. It was lucky for me that
I was so much depressed and so ill, or I
should certainly have given mortal
offence. Even the church, its forms, the
snuffling through the nose, the
singers, the dressing and dinner hours,
were novelties to me; and the
ceremonious parties, the manners, and
the hours of [church] meeting (half
past four) were equally astounding. In
England I had lived in the city of
London, in Berlin at court, but the
etiquette of court society was not half so
burdensome . . . The old gentleman [John
Adams] took a fancy to me, but I
was literally and without knowing it a
"fine lady."21

Adams compresses the diary without
ellipses to indicate
omissions, and here we can see that,
even though he retained most of the
criticisms of his grandfather, he
omitted some of the evidence for
mistreatment by others, especially by
Abigail. The last sentence quoted
above continued, in the diary: "The old
gentleman took a fancy to me, and he
was the only one" (emphasis added). The
Adamses, all but John, made her
feel "I was an aparte; in the family . .
. it appeared to stamp me with
unfitness."22 Henry also omits the
expression of her deepest fear --that the
contempt felt for her by his family
would become her husband"s. "Could it
therefore be surprising that I was gazed
at with surprise, if not with
contempt? -- the qualifications necessary
to form an accomplished Quincy
lady were in direct opposition to the
mode of life which I had led, and I soon
felt that even my husband would
acknowledge my deficiency and that I
should lose most of my value in his
Louisa"s husband was sent to the Senate
in 1802, and she had
become so uncomfortable in Quincy by
then that she stayed on in
Washington when the Senate was out of
session and John Quincy returned
to his parents. At the end of his term
she had, despite further miscarriages,
borne her husband three sons. John
Quincy did not like to travel with the
children, so he instructed her to leave
the two older ones with Abigail in
Quincy. Louisa protested against this,
but Abigail wrote her on May 21,
1804, that grandparents can be better
guides than parents -- hardly what a
mother wants to hear when being parted
from her children:

I have a great opinion of children being
early attached to their grandparents.
Perhaps it may arise from the bias I
formed for mine, and the respect and
veneration instilled into my infant mind
toward them, so that more of their
precepts and maxims remain with me, to
this hour, than those of my
excellent parents --who were not,
however, deficient in theirs. But the
superior weight of years, added to the
best examples, impressed them more
powerfully at the early period when I
resided with them. (A 403)

Louisa did not know that a pattern was
being established for separating her
from her two older sons, including the
precious George. At this point, Abigail
kept John with her (the one named for
her husband), and gave George into
the keeping of her nearby sister, Mary
Cranch. Later, both boys would be
living with the Cranches.
John Quincy was forced to retire some
months short of his term"s
expiration because he had supported the
Embargo against the wishes of his
constituents. The new president,
however, James Madison, rewarded him for
this defection from the Federalists by
naming him America"s first minister to
Russia. Louisa, who had not been
consulted on going to Russia, was once
again not allowed to take her older sons
with her. Despite her protests the
family decided that John and George
should stay with Abigail. John Quincy"s
brother, Thomas, was deputed to tell
Louisa of the decision. Louisa says she
was prevented from being alone with her
father-in-law, since Abigail feared he
would side with her on keeping her
sons.24 Henry omits much of this, but
includes Louisa"s expression of the
basic problem:

My conviction is that, if domestic
separation is absolutely necessary, we
should cling to the helpless creatures
whom God has given to our charge. A
man can take care of himself.
Nonetheless, not a soul entered into my
feelings. My eldest children were left
under charge of their grandparents, and
we and our youngest child and my sister
Catherine sailed on the fourth of
August from Boston.25

Here we have the source of Henry"s
comment on the Brooks
manuscript: "Dragging his wife to Europe
in 1809 and separating her from her
children was demonic." It was a
separation that would haunt Louisa for the
rest of her life, making her feel that
the older sons became drunken failures
because she had "deserted" them.
In Russia, Louisa and her pretty
younger sister, Catherine,
became favorites of the Tsar, who caused
some scandal by flirting with
Catherine.26 Here, too, French was the
court language, and the sisters
spoke it not only well but wittily. In
Russia, John Quincy performed valuable
services at the outset, helping firm up
the Tsar"s resolve to defy Napoleon by
allowing American ships to trade in St.
Petersburg. But Adams outstayed
any real need for him to be there
("dawdling" for six years, as Henry
wrote to
Brooks), keeping Louisa from her
children while he worked on his hobbies,
astronomy and the currency system --
self-imposed tasks that could have
been performed at home. Henry was
voicing the pent-up emotions of Louisa,
who was forced to travel alone with her
young son (Henry"s father) across war-
torn Europe in 1815, when John Quincy
left her behind to negotiate an end to
the War of 1812 at Ghent. (She could not
have anticipated, when she set off
on her perilous journey, that she would
move through the "Hundred Days"
mobilization of armies to oppose
Napoleon"s unexpected breakout from
detention at Elba.) Louisa"s letters
after the period of her partial
autobiographies would have become even
more painful reading if Henry had
edited them for publication. Louisa was
tortured by the fate of her sons.
George and John grew up to lead
alcoholic and dissolute lives. This
a pattern from the earlier generation,
when John Adams had left two sons
with Abigail (in this case the two
younger sons) while he took young John
Quincy to Paris with him. Paul Nagle and
others find it significant that the
two sons and the two grandsons left
under Abigail"s supervision turned out
badly, while only the son and grandson
who escaped to Europe with their
respective fathers led sober and
productive lives. Abigail"s constant and
detailed grooming of her charges for
greatness broke all four of those left with
her. The tone of her management is
caught in one of her letters to John
Quincy: "My anxieties have been and
still are great lest the numerous
temptations and snares of vice should
vitiate your early habits of virtue."27
Abigail the relentless improver can be
glimpsed at the time when she was
separated from her own sons during her
stay in Paris. She hung up their
silhouettes in a place where she could
"sometimes speak to [them] as I
pass, telling Charles to hold up his
Even the boys who escaped Abigail were
not entirely free of the
emotional damage of her upbringing. John
Quincy was severely hampered in
his expressions of love and care for
Louisa, and Charles Francis blighted his
son Charles"s life by his cold ways -- so
Charles himself wrote for the public
to read.29 But at least they had not
been total failures, like their
siblings. The
price of failure in this perfectionist
family was high. John Adams refused to
see or communicate with his drunkard son
Charles, even when he was dying.
He said that Charles, who had deserted
his wife, was a worse ingrate than
Absalom, making his father envy George
Washington"s childless state.
Charles was "a madman possessed of the
devil . . . a mere rake, buck,
blood, and beast . . . I renounce him."30
Her son George was the great loss of
Louisa"s life. In 1829, when
John Quincy had just lost the
presidency, the thirty-year-old George
set off to
meet his parents for their return to
Quincy. He was in trouble, in debt, and in
drink --the man keeping his illegitimate
child (begotten with a chambermaid)
was threatening to blackmail him.
Traveling by night on the steamer
Benjamin Franklin, George Washington
Adams threw himself overboard and
drowned. Henry later told his brother
Charles that their uncle George had
taken the only course of honor left him:
"His blackmail experience was what
any other dam fool might have had. But
his drowning himself showed a tragic
quality far above the Adams average" (L
Louisa blamed George"s death on the
family that had taken him
away from her for the crucial years of
his childhood, this boy she had
purchased with so many painful
miscarriages. Fearful of what she could
blurted out in her grief when she first
learned of George"s death, she later
drew up a careful demurrer:

In the awful moment when the hand of the
Almighty had smitten us to earth,
when my loved George was removed from
the face of the earth, my soul was
sunk in grief and I felt as if delirium
was seizing upon my mind. In this painful
state, when my beloved husband"s
sufferings were beyond control, I was
so fearful that my full heart might
betray its agony in the language of
reproach, and thereby add to his misery,
that I think I begged him, whatever I
might say in my wanderings, not to
believe me. The idea struck me after I
became more composed that as human
nature is ever prone to think ill, that I
might perhaps be thought to have some
secret uneasiness that I was fearful
of exposing; and this thought has
induced me to mark the circumstance and
to declare that I hid no terror of
conscience or of guilt, but only the
apprehension of expressing some regrets
that might have
increased the anguish of us all. So help
me God, Louisa [emphasis in

Despite this recoil, the Adams papers
editor Lyman Butterfield was right to
conclude: "To her dying day, Louisa
Catherine Adams continued to believe,
rationally or irrationally, that her son
George was a sacrifice to the political
ambitions of the Adams family,
particularly those of her husband."32
and her son had written poems to each
other, and she went on writing
dozens to him in her agony. To sample
just three:

"Twas on the bosom of the wave
That sparkles high with foam,
That thou thy suffering corse didst lave.
He heard thy anguished moan.

Strew, strew the violet on his breast
And let his sainted spirit rest.
In meek humility forbear,
For life is suffering and care.
And still the breeze in accent mild
Shall sigh, alas, My child! My child!

"Twas in thy grave I sought to lie,
My poor, poor boy.
"Twas near thy tomb I wished to die,
My lost, lost joy!

The other son that Louisa had left
behind with Abigail --the one
named John Adams after Abigail"s wishes
--was expelled from Harvard for a
drunken student prank. He married during
his father"s term as president, and
lived with his wife in the White House,
where he caused trouble for the
parents who had reluctantly accepted his
residence there. Acting as his
father"s secretary, he inaccurately
listed a government source of funds for the
White House billiard table he had
bought, creating a mini-scandal. Then he
publicly insulted a guest in the house
and had to be saved from a duel by his
father"s call on Congress to protect
White House staff.33 He was already on
the way to his alcoholic death at
Louisa"s time in the White House,
capped at the end by George"s
death, was so trying for her that she
reversed herself when John Quincy
decided to accept election to the House
of Representatives. She who had
loved Washington and hated Quincy now
refused to go back with her
husband to the scene of her recent
political ordeal. Charles Francis, Henry"s
father, was old enough to be caught up
in the conflict between his parents.
He too had opposed his father"s going to
Congress. When he feared that he
might have influenced his mother"s
refusal to accompany her husband,
Charles Francis asked his brother John
to intervene and persuade her to
maintain family solidarity. Louisa
answered him with what Lyman Butterfield
calls "a bitterness almost too painful
to read even at this distance in time."34

I look around me in vain for anything
like benefit that has resulted to anyone
as a reparation for this suffering [in
heeding the family wishes] or as a motive
for future action. Where is it to be
found? Is it in the grave of my lost
child? Is
it in the very necessity which induces
you to claim this sacrifice? Is it in the
advantages resulting to any of our
connection of either [Johnson or Adams]
side? Or is it to the grasping ambition
which is an insatiable passion
swallowing and consuming all in its ever
devouring maw?35

As soon as John Quincy died, Louisa left
that house for good, to stay with
her Johnson relatives in Washington.
When she died there, she was buried in
the Congressional Cemetery. But the
family, not letting go of her even in
death, exhumed the body and moved it to
Quincy, where it lies in one of the
four granite slabs that totally fill the
crypt in the family church --the two dead
presidents and their two wives, Louisa
still linked to Abigail, whom she
considered the destroyer of her sons.
Some have attributed Henry"s early
feminist writings to the
example of his great-grandmother,
Abigail Adams. But the real feminist in the
family, and the one whose influence
Adams always felt, was his
grandmother. Later, when Louisa and her
mother-in-law worked out a truce
between them, Louisa read with
admiration some of Abigail"s letters on
women"s needs, but she went far beyond
Abigail in her denunciation of men
who made marriage a "badge of slavery"
by denying their wives the right to
make decisions for themselves and their
children. (It is interesting that Henry
also said that a wedding ring was not a
"badge of slavery" in primitive
societies but it became one in the era
of the European church -- H 35.)
Louisa became a follower of the
feminists and abolitionists Angelina and
Sarah Grimke;. She read with enthusiasm
Sarah Grimke;"s On the Equality of
the Sexes and the Condition of Women,
and recommended that her son
Charles Francis read it, though "I
suppose it will not suit your lordly
When he lost her copy, she attributed
such carelessness to the "harsh and
severe" attitude toward women he shared
with all his sex.37 She wrote a fan
letter to the book"s author, and a warm
correspondence was struck up
between them. The Grimke;s shattered her
old southern attitudes toward
slavery, convincing her that equality
for women and for blacks had to advance
together. Sarah Grimke; asked Louisa to
collaborate with the sisters on a
book about the politics of emancipation,
and Louisa questioned her
Washington acquaintances to supply the
sisters with facts on the subject.38
The abolitionist Theodore Weld, to whom
Angelina Grimke; was
married, understood from Louisa"s
correspondence with the sisters that she
was unhappy in her marriage. He was
surprised, then, when he went to see
John Quincy in support of his
anti-slavery petitions, to find that the
seemed on good terms.39 The battle
against slavery helped unite them in
their last years. John Quincy came to
this battle belatedly --the Grimke;s
had earlier appealed to him and were
disappointed by his rebuff.40 But
Louisa, who had to travel farther from
her southern background in a Maryland
family, anticipated his arrival at the
stance for which his final years became
famous. Louisa"s cook in Washington was
a slave woman rented out by her
owner. The slave, named Julia, was
saving up to purchase her freedom, but
she was two hundred dollars short of the
demanded price. Louisa raised the

An Honorary Southerner

By his claim through Louisa"s blood, but
also by temperament, choice, and
familial rebellion, Henry Adams felt
himself a kind of honorary southerner,
admiring and writing about southerners,
living in their climate, estranged from
the "canting" world he grew up in. From
an early age he felt drawn to the
South. He notes pointedly that he grew
up on Mount Vernon Street, and the
real Mount Vernon, early and often
visited, became a talismanic place in his
life and work, the scene of the most
memorable chapter in his first novel,
Democracy. It was the place where Louisa
had gone as soon as she arrived
in America. Adams could say of himself
what he said of Albert Gallatin,
that "he regarded himself as a
Virginian" (G 59). It has already been
that Adams, who thought the two
presidents in his family were failures,
always said the only great presidents
had been Virginians: "Washington and
Jefferson doubtless stand pre-eminent as
the representatives of what is best
in our national character or its
aspirations" (G 267). One of the more
things about his life is that he
resented ever after the support that
had given the Confederacy during the
Civil War, but he harbored no hostility
toward the South after the war ended. In
fact, he would champion the South
against Reconstruction, siding with
President Andrew Johnson against the
Adams family friend, Charles Sumner.
According to him, the North tried to
make "serfs" of ex-Confederates (R 71)
like his friend Lucius Lamar (who was
nonetheless given amnesty and became a
senator and Supreme Court
As a teacher of American history at
Harvard, Adams expounded
the Virginia position and let his
graduate student, Henry Cabot Lodge, defend
the Federalists of New England.
Explaining a planned course to Harvard"s
president, Adams wrote: "His [Lodge"s]
views, being federalist and
conservative, have as good a right to
expression in the college as mine,
which tend to democracy and radicalism"
(L 2.301). As we have seen, he told
students, "You know, gentlemen, John
Adams was a demagogue" (S 1.216).
Such anti-Federalism was not confined to
the classroom. In his life of Albert
Gallatin (1879) --the first book he
wrote, as opposed to edited -- he sided,
like his subject, with Jefferson against

Mr. Jefferson meant that the American
system should be a democracy, and
he would rather have let the world
perish than that this principle, which
to him
represented all that man was worth,
should fail. Mr. Hamilton considered
democracy a fatal curse, and meant to
stop its progress. The partial
truce which the first administration of
Washington had imposed on
both parties, although really closed by
the retirement of Mr. Jefferson from
the cabinet, was finally broken only by
the arrival of Mr. Jay"s treaty. From
that moment repose was impossible until
one party or the other had
triumphed beyond hope of resistance; and
it was easy to see which of the
two parties must triumph in the end. (G

The Jefferson side had to win because
"everyone admitted that Jefferson"s
opinions, in one form or another, were
shared by a majority of the American
people" (J 117).
Those are not the words of a man who,
as many claim, wrote the
History out of some animosity to
Jefferson. In fact, Adams was fascinated by
Jefferson, critical of him (as of all
politicians but Washington), but also
admiring of him, probing over and over
the mystery of the man:

Dear old Jefferson! Never was there a
more delightful ground for people to
argue about! We discuss him here by the
day together, just as though he
were alive. We can fight about him as
ardently as ever. He is supremely
useful still (he and Hamilton) as a sort
of bone for students of history to
mumble, preparatory to getting their
teeth. (L 2.322)

A great part of Adams"s fascination with
Jefferson came from affinity with
him. He resembled him in temperament,
and even in his policies. Both men
abhorred the national debt, distrusted
banks, and were Anglophobic
Francophiles. Adams makes fun of
Jefferson"s proneness to hyperbole --
which was one of his own leading traits.
Neither man liked the push-and-
shove of politics. They preferred to act
indirectly and behind the scenes.
Adams might have been describing himself
when he said that "the rawness of
political life was an incessant torture"
to Jefferson (J 99):

He fairly reveled in what he believed to
be beautiful, and his writings often
betrayed subtle feeling for artistic
form -- a sure mark of intellectual
sensuousness. He shrank from whatever
was rough or coarse, and his
yearning for sympathy was almost
feminine. (J 100)

Neither Jefferson nor Adams was cut out
to be a soldier --they
were men of the "cabinet," not of the
field. They were aesthetes and art
collectors, who took care in the
construction and decoration of their
homes. Both were fussy about style.
Adams wrote to William James that he
had the same concern with style as
William"s brother, Henry James, "but I
doubt whether a dozen people in America
-- except architects or
decorators --would know or care" (L
6.118). Jefferson would have known and
Each man thought in north-south
(male-female) polarities, and
Adams always took the "southern" side of
this division, preferring Quincy over
Boston, and placing Washington over both
of them -- just as he
favored "female" Chartres over "male"
Mont-Saint-Michel. He would have
subscribed entirely to Jefferson"s
geographic chart of character traits.
These are Jefferson"s words:

jealous of their own liberties, and just
to those of others
superstitious and hypocritical in their

jealous of their own liberties, but
trampling on those of others
without attachment or prentensions in
any religion but that of the heart42

The list explains why Adams felt his
cold New England heart open out toward
southern warmth when he first reached
the city of Washington as a child. He
was coming into his spiritual home:

The May sunshine and shadow had
something to do with it; the thickness of
foliage and the heavy smells had more;
the sense of atmosphere, almost
new, had perhaps as much again; and the
brooding indolence of a warm
climate and a Negro population hung in
the atmosphere heavier than the
catalpas. The impression was not simple,
but the boy liked it; distinctly it
remained on his mind as an attraction,
almost obscuring Quincy itself. The
want of barriers, of pavements, of
forms, the looseness, the laziness; the
indolent southern drawl; the pigs in the
streets; the Negro babies, and their
mothers with bandanas; the freedom,
openness, swagger of nature and man,
soothed his Johnson blood. Most boys
would have felt it in the same way,
but with him the feeling caught on to an
inheritance. The softness of his
gentle old [Johnson] grandmother, as she
lay in bed and chatted with him,
did not come from Boston. His [Johnson]
aunt was anything rather than
Bostonian. He did not wholly come from
Boston himself. (E 760)

When dealing in the north-south
polarity, Adams put his Adams relatives --
all but his "southern" grandmother,
Louisa -- at the northern extreme, as
cold, calculating, and selfish. He was
so convinced of this that when, late in
life, he discovered that John Quincy
Adams had shown affection for his son,
he professed himself shocked. He had
thought him incapable of emotion.43
Adams"s sympathy with Louisa also
served him when he came to
write the History. After she reached
America, her husband was sent to the
Senate two years after Jefferson took
office for his first term as president.
Louisa, still new to America, put her
vivid impressions of Washington in the
diary her grandson copied out so
carefully. This is the world and the
period of
his History, brought to life with
caustic comments and a woman"s shrewd
eye. She picked up on the gossip of the
time -- how the French minister
beat his wife, how cold Jefferson kept
the White House, how deft Dolley
Madison was in social maneuver, how
Gallatin"s wife kept offstage, how like
John Randolph was to a court jester, how
illiterate was Henry Dearborn, the
secretary of war ("he always spelt
Congress with a K"), how flirtatious was
Mrs. Merry, the wife of the British
minister (she even played coy to the
asexual John Randolph). What I have
called the stereoscopic effect of
Adams"s early preparation and his
performance in the History is nowhere
more evident than in the echoes of
Louisa in the latter work. He had met all
these people he wrote about in Louisa"s
crackling pages.

Copyright © 2005 by Garry Wills.
Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
Adams, Henry, -- 1838-1918. -- History of the United States of America.
United States -- Historiography.
United States -- History -- 1801-1809.
United States -- History -- 1809-1817.
Historians -- United States -- Biography.