John Quincy Adams was a 30-year-old diplomat when he married.
JQ the Diplomat
John Quincy Adams was a recent graduate of Harvard College when George Washington became president in 1789. He had received an exceptional education during the 8 years he spent in Europe, when his father (currently VP) John Adams, was sent abroad for diplomatic assignment. Having studied in some of the finest schools in Europe, he mastered several languages, was acquainted with many of the important people on the continent, and self-assured in the sophisticated manners and deportment of those in high circles. Now he was an attorney, recently admitted to the Massachusetts bar.
In short, he was considered by many of his American countrymen, to be the most cosmopolitan young man of his generation. If that wasn’t enough, he was making a name for himself (at least in pseudonym) writing well-crafted letters to the newspapers in support of the new country and its policies.
George Washington thought well of him, and appointed him Minister to the Netherlands. He was only 27. Washington was so well pleased at his young appointee, that he specifically urged John Adams, his successor, not to recall his son, believing him to be destined for a brilliant diplomatic career.
As part of his ambassadorial duties, JQ was obliged to encourage trade between the Netherlands and the United States, which necessitated meeting and greeting Americans living and working abroad. He also had occasion to cross the English Channel from time to time, again representing U.S. interests.
The Johnsons of London
On one of those trips to London, JQA (as he liked to refer to himself) met Joshua Johnson, a merchant from Maryland who had emigrated to England a decade before the Revolutionary War. He engaged in a successful shipping business, married Englishwoman Catherine Nuth, and raised a family. Thus prominently placed, Johnson made it a point to seek and befriend his native country’s representatives. Some time in late 1795, JQA was duly invited to dine at Johnson’s opulent home, filled with all the amenities of fine living. There he met Louisa Catherine, Johnson’s second daughter. She was twenty, convent-schooled in Paris, cultured, graciously accomplished – and pretty. The young man was smitten. By mid- 1796, the two were engaged.
John Quincy Adams’ prior “romantic life” had been unsuccessful and unsatisfying, having been rejected a few years earlier by a young girl that he fancied at the time. While he channeled his romantic disappointment into professional success, he was also developing the chilly exterior that would come to mark his persona.
But Joshua Johnson was delighted at the match. Not only was JQA a fine figure of a young man and a well-regarded diplomat with a promising career ahead, he was also the son of the Vice President of the United States, expected to be in line for the top position. Young Adams was a prize, indeed!
The two years of engagement between JQ and Louisa was mostly by correspondence. Once betrothed, Louisa conventionally wrote to her fiancé every other day; JQ wrote markedly less. Their letters were generally routine, hardly to be considered tender love notes. Nevertheless, Louisa had ample opportunity to recognize the rigid and overbearing nature that would come to dominate her lot in life. She could have broken the engagement – but she did not.
The Marriage Potential
On paper, Louisa Catherine Johnson possessed all the attributes necessary to make a fine consort for a man of importance and distinction. Her education and culture was exceptional for the time; her manners and language skills were flawless; her beauty and grace were the stuff of Gainsborough paintings.
If that were not enough, Louisa came from a well-moneyed family. The Adamses were financially comfortable by the end of the eighteenth century, but were never wealthy. JQ had many cultural interests: history, literature and poetry being among them. He harbored a deep desire to write poetry, but while reasonably accomplished, lacked the creative spark of greatness. Despite being considered an excellent attorney, he did not enjoy the practice of law. Ever.
But while pursuing monetary gain was never an Adams’ trait, the ample dowry promised by Joshua Johnson would enable him to provide for his wife and their potential family, and still have plenty of leisure time for his many avocations. In addition, Joshua Johnson had outfitted one of his ships to take his daughter and son-in-law on a honeymoon cruise to Portugal, where JQA had recently been assigned as Minister Plenipotentiary.
All of the aforesaid outweighed (at least to him) the disapproval of his mother Abigail Adams, who believed a cultured European woman would prove too delicate and unequal for the rugged new country across the ocean.
On July 26, 1797, John Quincy Adams and Louisa Catherine Johnson were married in London. On the day of the wedding, very shortly before the ceremony, Joshua Johnson took his new son-in-law-to-be aside, and confessed his financial embarrassment. He had stretched himself too thin, and bankruptcy loomed. His creditors were pressing, and he planned to leave the country and return to America. All Johnson could provide was a plush honeymoon cruise. There would be no dowry, opulent or not.
Exactly when this information was told to the bride is unknown, however it was always an embarrassment to her, and she even suspected that JQA’s critical flintiness was predicated on his disappointment. He, on the other hand, confided to his diary that he never regretted his decision to marry Louisa.
Their voyage to Portugal was balmy and comfortable, although they learned en route that his mission had been changed, and they would be moving to a new position: Minister Plenipotentiary to Prussia – a much more prestigious assignment. He would fulfill Washington’s prediction for a brilliant career.
Nagel, Paul C. – Descent From Glory: Four Generations of the John Adams Family – Oxfvord University Press – 1983
Shepherd, Jack – Cannibals of the Heart – 1980, McGraw Hill
Unger, Harlow Giles – John Quincy Adams – DeCapo Press, 2012