Saturday, March 29, 2014

Louisa Catherine: The Other Mrs. Adams by Margery M. Heffron

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Obtained from: Netgalley
Read: March 28, 2014

Louisa Catherine Johnson Adams, wife and political partner of John Quincy Adams, became one of the most widely known women in America when her husband assumed office as sixth president in 1825. Shrewd, intellectual, and articulate, she was close to the center of American power over many decades, and extensive archives reveal her as an unparalleled observer of the politics, personalities, and issues of her day. Louisa left behind a trove of journals, essays, letters, and other writings, yet no biographer has mined these riches until now. Margery Heffron brings Louisa out of the shadows at last to offer the first full and nuanced portrait of an extraordinary first lady. The book begins with Louisa’s early life in London and Nantes, France, then details her excruciatingly awkward courtship and engagement to John Quincy, her famous diplomatic success in tsarist Russia, her life as a mother, years abroad as the wife of a distinguished diplomat, and finally the Washington, D.C., era when, as a legendary hostess, she made no small contribution to her husband’s successful bid for the White House. Louisa’s sharp insights as a tireless recorder provide a fresh view of early American democratic society, presidential politics and elections, and indeed every important political and social issue of her time.

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Portrait of Louisa Catherine Adams
by Charles Bird King
There are exceptions, but generally speaking America's first families don't hold much appeal for me. I know about them, but I don't study them the way I do the ruling houses of Europe so even I was a bit surprised at my opting to read Margery Heffron's Louisa Catherine. 

Being new to the material I had little idea what I'd find within these pages, but looking back I can't say I'm disappointed with the time I spent reading about America's only foreign-born first lady. 

I didn't much care for Heffron's depiction of Louisa's childhood, but round about chapter four, when Louisa is being courted by John, the book developed a much more interesting tone. 

In particular, I liked Heffron's examination of the marriage between Louisa Catherine and John Quincy. The dynamics of their relationship are intricate and at time baffling, but the portrait she creates put some very interesting perspective on Louisa's role in his political career. 

The text itself can be a bit dry, but the material in and of itself makes Heffron's biography worth looking into. 

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Theirs was not a match made in heaven. Highly sensitive, quick- tempered, and prone to self- doubt and depression, Louisa and John Quincy mirrored and reinforced the other’s least attractive and most vulnerable characteristics. The exceptional strengths they shared—intelligence, ambition, courage in adversity—would be critical to a marital bond lasting more than fifty years but did little to ease their path through an excruciatingly painful courtship and engagement period.
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