Louisa Thomas Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Louisa Thomas
Photo: Jesse Ruddock

Louisa Thomas

An interview with Louisa Thomas

Louisa Thomas explains the process behind the research for her biography of the only foreign-born first lady, Louisa Adams.

Louisa Adams is a lesser-known 19th century First Lady. Why did you decide to tell her story?

Louisa Catherine Adams is lesser known, but not less notable. She was a vital presence in the early republic, a social force that helped shape the political landscape in Washington, and a witness to the great transformations not only in the United States but also Europe. She was born in London and lived in France, Berlin, and St. Petersburg; she crossed the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars, converging on Paris with Napoleon, who'd just escaped from Elba. At a time when most women—most people—were incredibly constrained, the range of her experiences is astonishing. She makes history seem human.

What, apart from sharing a first name, first attracted you to Louisa Adams' story?

I do like her name! But it was her voice that drew me in. I read some of her letters and diaries while working on a project about Andrew Jackson, and I was struck by how unusual they were—how urgent, observant, sharp, and alive they felt. Louisa laid bare her thoughts and feelings in a way that few figures from her time do. She wondered what to live for and why. There is something about her that we usually only see in the pages of novels. As it happens, she was born the same year as Jane Austen and lived in St. Petersburg during the years of War and Peace. There is even something of Middlemarch to her. And Alexander Hamilton wasn't the only bastard who arrived in America and made good!

How did you research, and what were your methods?

The book took five years to research and write. Most of her papers are housed at the Massachusetts Historical Society but are also included in the microfilmed Adams Family Papers. My research took me to archives not only in Massachusetts but London, Berlin, Philadelphia, Washington. And thanks to the kindness of librarians and staff and the wonders of the Internet, I was able to have letters located in places ranging from Wisconsin to Oxford. I read letters, diaries, census records; a wonderful researcher in London sent me images of church, land tax, and chancery documents. And, of course, I learned from and built upon the scholarship of those who study the early republic and the Adams family in particular. I am in their debt, and I know it.

What was the most unexpected thing you learned while working on the book?

Louisa was very resilient. People thought of her as a hot-house flower, and she sometimes described herself as weak; but she dealt with adversity in an admirable way. Whether moving through the wreckage of war in Europe or dealing with the deaths of those she loved, she found reserves of strength.

What would most surprise people to learn about her?

Her sense of humor. I think we're used to viewing historical figures as we would oil paintings or statues, as solid and serious. She loved to laugh and to make others laugh, too.

Two hundred years later, does Louisa's life have any contemporary resonance?

Louisa had to think about what it meant to be a daughter, a mother, a wife, a woman, and an American at a time when all those roles were changing. She was pulled by conflicting responsibilities and identities and desires, as a lot of people are now. It was a time of economic anxiety and social transformation. New technologies were changing the way news traveled. The country was engaged in a great argument, one that continues today, about how power was distributed, about the role of the federal government, about who should and who shouldn't have a voice. There is something resonant about that moment, about the transition from the early republic into a democracy—the ferment, the fear, the confusion, and the real hope.

Louisa played an important role in helping John Quincy win the presidency. Since that time there has been an ongoing evolution in campaigning in American politics and the particular role and expectations of a spouse.

It's an unusual role, campaigning to be First Lady (or, now, First Gentleman). You are there and not there— at once subsumed and prominent, powerful and powerless. That was true for Louisa, and in many ways it's true now. Louisa's particular genius was being the social presence John Quincy would not, and could not, be. She gave him cover, as it were—he could tell himself he did nothing to advance his own cause, while she did everything to keep the light bright upon him.

Louisa is the only foreign-born first lady. Why is this a significant part of her story?

So much of her story is about her feeling of being caught between places and caught between roles, and it begins there— with that sense of not quite belonging. Her father was a merchant from Maryland who'd moved to London before the Revolution, and her mother was from London, where Louisa was also born. She was naturalized as an American citizen when she was young, and she was taught to think of herself as American—and told to marry one—but her upbringing was very British. She grew up in a household of secrets, which may have made her wonder, more than most, who she was and why.

Louisa casts America's first great political dynasty, the Adams family, in new light. How did your understanding of the family change?

So much has been written about the Adams family, but very little has looked at Louisa's role—even though the first editor of the Adams Papers once wrote that "in the entire span of the Adams dynasty, no figure is more central than the wife of the second Adams statesman." To her, for instance, John and Abigail weren't the iconic Founding Father and Mother, but parents-in-law, with all the tensions and tenderness that typically implies. I learned that it was tremendously difficult to be an Adams. The family could be withholding, demanding, and harsh. But I was also able to appreciate, anew, their fantastic intellects, good humor, and grace.

Louisa is often overshadowed by (or even confused with) her mother-in-law Abigail Adams, the more famous Mrs. Adams. What was their relationship like?

It was complicated. Abigail thought Louisa was frail and foreign—"a fine lady," as Louisa put it, which was not something a good New England woman was supposed to be. Abigail was proud of waking at 5 every morning and milking the cow. Louisa's only attempt at cow-milking ended in hysterical laughter. But it wasn't always so funny. Louisa knew she could never match the example set by her industrious mother-in-law, and she wasn't sure she wanted to. But actually Louisa was much tougher than Abigail had thought, and Abigail far more compassionate than Louisa had assumed, and they became closer over the years.

Have you begun research for your next book?

I'm in the earliest stages of thinking about a new idea, but so far I've only dipped my toe in the ocean. It's daunting to dive in! I will say that I don't think I'm done with the era in which Louisa lived quite yet.

Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.

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