Louisa Adams wanted her husband to be president of the United States. Her husband didn’t have much choice in the matter. John Quincy Adams grew up believing he would disgrace himself if he didn’t.
“If you do not rise to the head not only of your profession, but of your country, it will be owing to your own Laziness, Slovenliness, and Obstinacy,” wrote his father, the founding father, John Adams.
In 1824, the time was right for John Quincy to run for president. One man stood in his way: the U.S. Senator from Tennessee, Andrew Jackson.
Louisa Adams tried to help get Jackson out of the way — by throwing a magnificent ball in his honor. Because that’s the way they did it in 1824.
She met her husband in England in 1790. He was a rising young diplomat, the son of the vice president of the United States. She had been born in London and spent much of her childhood in France as the daughter of a wealthy American merchant and diplomat. The two probably couldn’t have differed more.
She was a charming, fashionable, hot-blooded socialite. He was reserved, taciturn and cold. Louisa described him in a novel:
“a man of extraordinary talents…his natural disposition was ardent and impetuous, but a perpetual watchfulness over these natural defects, had taught him to master them completely, and it was only those who were the most constantly with him, who were aware that occasions could arise in which the internal volcano would sometimes produce an eruption that was short but violent in its explosion. “
They married in 1797. Around the time of the wedding, Louisa’s father told John Quincy he had lost most of his money. Financial troubles plagued the Adamses for the rest of their lives.
Louisa followed her husband to his diplomatic postings in Russia, Ghent and London. During their marriage she had 15 pregnancies and delivered three sons and a daughter, who died in infancy.
Back to the USA
In 1817, President James Monroe appointed John Quincy Adams secretary of state. They moved to Washington, D.C., and eventually bought the house Monroe had lived in on F (now I) Street.
By 1824, Monroe neared the end of his term, which gave John Quincy Adams a chance to run for president. He knew he’d probably face Jackson, a war hero, for the prize.
Adams and Jackson had little in common other than their age (57), their ambition and their early promise. Adams’ career as a diplomat began at 14, when he went to St. Petersburg to work as secretary to the U.S. minister to Russia, Francis Dana. Jackson began his career as a soldier at the age of 13, when he volunteered to fight in the American Revolution for the local militia.
In 1824, men did not campaign for president the way they do today. There was no gladhanding the public, no caucuses or primaries. In six of the 24 states, legislators cast the vote for president. And in all the states, only white male adults could go to the polls.
Politicians shunned retail politics. Instead, they played social politics, appealing to political power brokers in their own parlors.
It was not something Adams was good at. Jackson, on the other hand, was. Dashing and tempestuous, he had won enormous popularity after winning the Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812.
Louisa Adams made up for her husband’s shortcomings. She had shone as a diplomat’s wife and a society hostess. She threw herself into Washington’s social whirl, hosting dinners and levees at their F Street mansion for people important to her husband’s career.
Louisa Adams’ Ball to End All Balls
Louisa held a grand ball on Jan. 8, 1824, the ninth anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans. The purpose of the party was ostensibly to honor Jackson, but really to eclipse him. On the social front, Jackson’s backwoods wife, Rachel, couldn’t hope to compete with the worldly Louisa. Plus, by “honoring” Jackson, the Adamses hoped to win his endorsement for president. They might even persuade him to run as vice president.
Louisa invited a thousand people to the house on F Street, so many they had to remove all the furniture and doors. They even built pillars to keep the floor from caving in. Louisa filled the house with flowers, hired the marine band and served a lavish buffet.
The party was a smash, Louisa a legend. People talked about it for days. The National Republican printed a poem in her honor, which ended,
Belles and matrons, maids and madams,
All are gone to Mrs. Adams.
They continued to go to Mrs. Adams. In March, her husband recorded they’d had 235 visitors in their home that month alone.
Jackson still ran against Adams for president, and he even won the popular vote in a three-way Electoral College tie. The election then went to the House of Representatives.
Adams beat Jackson by making a deal with Henry Clay, then Speaker of the House. After Clay threw the election to Adams, Adams made Clay his secretary of state.
That enraged Jackson, who accused Adams of making a corrupt bargain. Jackson was already furious with Adams’ supporters because they had attacked Rachel. He resigned his Senate seat and almost immediately launched a grassroots campaign to defeat Adams for reelection. Jackson and his supporters would make the next four years the most miserable of John Quincy and Louisa Adams’ lives.
Images: Latrobe, Benjamin Henry, Architect. The White House “President’s House” Washington, D.C. South front elevation / Jan. , B H Latrobe. Washington D.C, 1817. Jan. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2001698953/. Adams house By APK – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=117668495. With thanks to Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams by Louisa Thomas.