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Abigail Adams

National Portrait Gallery

22c Abigail Adams single

National Postal Museum

Abigail Ann Adams Edgerton Orme

Catalog of American Portraits

George Washington and Abigail Adams Get an Extreme Makeover

Smithsonian Magazine

Inside the conservation lab at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. , Joanna Dunn painstakingly wipes a solvent-soaked cotton swab across the bridge of Joseph Anthony’s nose. Her subject, a prominent merchant at the outset of the American republic, stares out from a 1787 depiction by master portraitist Gilbert Stuart. The force of White’s gaze has been muted, its intensity obscured by a layer of hazy, yellowed varnish. As Dunn cleans the canvas, however, a transformation takes hold. “The varnish makes everything dull, and flat,” Dunn says. “When you get it off, you see all the subtle details—the ruddiness in his cheek, the twinkle in his eye—and he really comes to life.”

Dunn and her fellow conservators finished restoring 16 of the museum’s Stuart masterpieces to their original beauty. Seven newly refreshed works by Stuart, including depictions of George Washington, as well as John and Abigail Adams, are being unveiled this weekend, on October 7—the first time these works will be shown together in a pristine condition since their creation. (The National Gallery is home to a total of 42 Stuart portraits, including 13 others on permanent display.) In the country’s earliest days, Stuart rose from humble beginnings as the son of a snuff-maker to become our de facto portraitist laureate. The most distinguished statesmen, generals, and lawmakers lined up to sit for a portrait because of Stuart’s renowned ability to create deep, vibrant portrayals on a flat surface. In 1822, the Boston Daily Advertiser wrote about his series of the first five presidents, “Had Mr. Stuart never painted anything else, these alone would be sufficient to make his fame with posterity. No one…has ever surpassed him in fixing the very soul on canvas.”

These radiant souls, though, have had a way of fading over the years. In Stuart’s day, artists covered their paintings with protective varnishes—and though they appeared clear when first applied, the coatings inevitably yellowed due to a reaction with oxygen in the air. “Stuart really wanted his paintings to look fresh and bright,” Dunn says. “He hated to varnish them, because he knew they would turn yellow.” Nevertheless, he did anyway, and his works were gradually muted over time. 

Image by Gilbert Stuart, courtesy of National Gallery of Art. A close look at the 1795 portrait of President George Washington during restoration.The original coloring is seen at the top left of his head in contrast to the yellowing hues of the varnish on the rest of his face. (original image)

Image by Gilbert Stuart, courtesy of National Gallery of Art. George Washington (Vaughan portrait), 1795, oil on canvasThe portrait after restoration. Gilbert Stuart painted this portrait of 63-year-old President George Washington in the then capital of Philadelphia. Stuart made about 104 portraits of the President. (original image)

Image by Gilbert Stuart, courtesy of National Gallery of Art. A detailed look at the effects of varnish on Stuart's Abigail Adams portrait. The varnish changes color over time, creating a layer of yellow pigment over the original paint. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of National Gallery of Art. Conservator Gay Myers restoring Stuart's Abigail Adams portrait at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC. (original image)

Image by Gilbert Stuart, courtesy of National Gallery of Art. John Adams, oil on canvas

A restored John Adams. Stuart began this portrait of President John Adams during his presidency in 1800, but he did not complete the portrait until 15 years later. (original image)

Now, as part of an ongoing project, conservators are using the latest techniques to show the portraits’ true colors. Applying a gentle solvent (one that that will remove varnish but not original paint), Dunn rolls a cotton swab across a small section of the canvas for hours at a time. Eventually, the varnish lifts off, exposing exquisite brushstrokes and vivid pigments. Dunn also removes discolored restoration paint—until the middle of the 20th century, restorers frequently added their own flourishes to historical works, creating color mismatches—and inpaints with her own. Unlike previous conservators, though, she is careful not to cover any of Stuart’s original work, meticulously introducing only a tiny dot of color-matched paint wherever bare canvas shows though. Finally, Dunn coats the piece with a new varnish, formulated to remain clear indefinitely. Spending hours face-to-face with these works, she develops a deep connection to her subjects.  “I definitely get attached to the sitters,” she says. “I sometimes even invent little stories about them in my head while I’m working.”

Stuart had a talent for capturing the personalities of his sitters, a skill enabled by his habit of chatting and joking with them as he worked, rather than forcing them to sit perfectly still as many portraitists did in his day. “He always engaged his sitters in conversation, so he was able to relate to them, and reveal a little more about their character than any other painter was able to do,” says National Gallery curator Debra Chonder. “Looking at the portraits, you can almost tell when he was particularly engaged with someone.” The portrait of Abigail Adams, Dunn says, is a case in point: “He made her look like the intelligent, kind person that she was. In addition to the outer appearance of his subjects, he captures their inner beauty.”

The careful restoration of these works has even helped uncover previously unknown stories about their actual creation. For years, scholars were puzzled by an early copy of Stuart’s Abigail Adams portrait, made by another artist: It featured a cloth atop her head, instead of the white bonnet in Stuart’s version. Then, when conservator Gay Myers removed old restoration paint from the original, she discovered a similarly shaped patch above Adams’ head. Stuart, it turned out, had likely given Adams a head cloth to wear for modesty’s sake as she sat in 1800 and sketched it on the canvas; he replaced it with a bonnet that matched the latest fashions when he finally completed the painting in 1815.

All these years, a telling detail of Stuart’s creative process was hidden under a thin layer of paint. In revealing it, conservation does more than restore the art—it recreates the artist. “When you’re working on a portrait, you feel like you get to know the artist,” Dunn says. “You start to envision him creating the painting.”


Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum
The field has scattered motifs including house, a peacock, urns of flowers, birds, and Adam and Eve with the Tree of Knowledge. Surrounded on three sides with a geometric border and on all four with a strawberry vine border. With the date 1789 at the top and the inscription Abigail Adams her work New York at the bottom.

The Letters of Abigail and John Adams Show Their Mutual Respect

Smithsonian Magazine

Although America hasn’t had a female president—yet—the history of presidents’ spouses is a fascinating one.

The First Ladies’ stories include: a woman who held the office at the age of 20, several who buried husbands killed while in office and one who ran the White House in a time of war. It also includes Abigail Adams, known to her husband as “Portia,” and John Adams, the second President and first Vice President of the United States.

The Adamses wrote to one another constantly when apart, sometimes multiple times per day. On this day in 1777, for instance, the couple exchanged a total of five letters, though for obvious reasons (the slow speed of travel in the 18th century for one), the letters weren't direct responses to each other. John was with the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, while Abigail, was overseeing their farm in Braintree, Massachusetts.

“It gives me great pleasure to find that you have received so many Letters from me, altho I know they contain nothing of importance,” John wrote in one of his three March 7 letters. He lamented the fact that he couldn’t write openly to her of important matters, but said he would “go on trifling.”

Her two letters written February 8 had just reached him by the hands of George Washington, he wrote, who had carried them from the Susquehannah River. “I long to be at Home, at the Opening Spring,” he concluded, “but this is not my Felicity—I am tenderly anxious for your health and for the Welfare of the whole House.”

One letter John received contained Abigail’s assessment of the political situation near their home and some domestic news. “I feel as if you were gone to a foreign Country,” she wrote. “Philadelphia seem’d close by but now I hardly know how to reconcile my self to the Thought that you are 500 miles distant.”

These letters, like all of the 1,160 examples of their correspondence preserved in archives today, provide valuable historical evidence about the founding of America. But they also provide a snapshot of a marriage of equals in a time when women were unable to vote or directly participate in public life, according to Their remarkable correspondence “covered topics ranging from politics and military strategy to household economy and family health,” the website reads.

Their correspondence began when John first went to Philadelphia in 1774, according to The National First Ladies’ Library. “The letters reflect not only Abigail Adams’ reactive advice to the political contentions and questions that John posed to her, but also her own observant reporting of New England newspapers’ and citizens’ response to legislation and news events of the American Revolution,” the library notes.

When John Adams took office in 1797, Abigail expressed her concerns about what the role of First Lady would do to her as well as their correspondence, which continued throughout the four years he spent in office. “My pen runs riot,” she wrote in one letter. “I forget that it must grow cautious and prudent. I fear I shall make a dull business when such restrictions are laid upon it.” 

During his presidency, however, she became known for writing public letters in support of her husband's policies, the library notes. She was also the first president's wife to reside in the White House, for eight months, during which she infamously hung laundry to dry in the East Room, which was still undergoing construction. 

John Quincy Adams

Smithsonian American Art Museum

Gilbert Stuart

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibition highlighting the life and works of portrait painter Gilbert Stuart. Includes biographic material and a gallery of his works.

First Ladies Gowns Exhibited in Arts & Industries

Smithsonian Archives - History Div
One of the rooms in the First Ladies Exhibit reinstalled in the West North Range of the Arts and Industries Building on May 24, 1955, in period decorated rooms, showing figures with the gowns worn by Dolley Madison, Martha Jefferson Randolph, Martha Washington, and Abigail Adams.

Portraits of American women

Smithsonian Libraries

Remembering the Ladies

Smithsonian Magazine

This year, the United States Mint will issue the first four in a series of one-dollar coins sporting portraits of the presidents in the order they served. The George Washington coin will be available February 15, just in time for President's Day. After that, it's expected that the golden-alloy Father of His Country will start showing up in pockets, change jars and vending machines across America.

Presidents have been on money since 1909, but what about their better halves, the women who, in the words of Rosalyn Carter, "have the president's ear"? The Mint must have taken to heart Abigail Adams' famous admonition to "remember the ladies," because this May it will release a companion series of 24-karat gold collectors' coins featuring presidential spouses. The first set of new coins should be available to numismatists by Mother's Day—appropriate timing, since two first ladies (Abigail Adams and Barbara Bush) are also presidents' mothers.

The designs for the four 2007 coins were unveiled before an 80-person audience at the National First Ladies' Library in Canton, Ohio, on December 19, 2006. They include portraits of Martha Washington, Abigail Adams and Dolley Madison. Since Thomas Jefferson's wife Martha died in 1782, 18 years before Jefferson was elected president, the third coin in the series carries a symbolic image of Liberty.

Patricia Krider, the Library's executive director, hopes the coin series will bring more national attention to the First Ladies. The Library was founded in 2003 with the goal, Krider explains, "of educating people about these women, who are important not just because of their positions but because of the contributions they have made to various social causes. The impact of the First Ladies has never been very well-publicized, and we hope to change that." Krider is correct that first ladies are often left out of history books, but their influence on history should not be overlooked. As Hillary Clinton, acknowledging her predecessors, said, "Each left her own mark, and each teaches us something special about our history."

As women's roles have changed, the role of first lady has also evolved over the past 218 years and 43 presidential administrations. Perhaps the most prominent representative of American womanhood, the current First Lady regularly places at or near the top of Gallup's annual Most Admired Woman poll. In the 19th century, one newspaper called the First Lady "the head of the female society of the United States." She has served as a role model for everything from proper feminine behavior to dress and hairstyle. Recognizing that her position was bound up with the public's conflicting ideas about a woman's place, Barbara Bush once commented, "The First Lady is going to be criticized no matter what she does. If she does too little. If she does too much."

Image by Courtesy of the National First Ladies' Library. The restored family home of First Lady Ida McKinley (wife of President William McKinley) became part of the National First Ladies' Library in 1998. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the National First Ladies' Library. Located in downtown Canton, Ohio, the National First Ladies' Library offers tours Tuesday through Saturday. The collection includes 150 original dresses and accessories belonging to many of the First Ladies. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the United States Mint. The first First Lady, Martha Washington won the gratitude of her husband's troops during the Revolutionary War. She set up sick wards and organized ladies to roll bandages, repair uniforms and knit shirts for the rag-tag Continental Army. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the United States Mint. The reverse side of the Martha Washington coin (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the United States Mint. Proto-feminist Abigail Adams wrote a letter to her husband, asking that the Founding Fathers "remember the ladies." In response, John Adams called her "saucy." (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the United States Mint. The reverse side of the Abigail Adams coin (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the United States Mint. Because Thomas Jefferson was a widower when he served as president, the third coin depicts a personification of Liberty. The tail side shows Thomas Jefferson's monument at Monticello. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the United States Mint. The reverse side of the Liberty coin (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the United States Mint. Setting the standard as a White House hostess, Dolley Madison showed great courage during the War of 1812. As the British were advancing on Washington in 1814, she refused to leave the presidential mansion until a large portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart, had been secured. The portrait hangs in the White House today. (original image)

Image by Courtesy of the United States Mint. The reverse side of the Dolley Madison coin (original image)

Though political wives have historically placed their husbands' careers above their own, some early first ladies were leaders in their own rights, particularly with regard to women's education. Abigail Adams, John Adams' wife, advocated for equal public education for girls and boys. Lucy Webb Hayes, wife of Rutherford B. Hayes, remarked, "Woman's mind is as strong as man's…equal in all things... superior in some." She was the first First Lady with a college degree, having graduated with honors from Ohio's Wesleyan Female College in 1850. Lou Hoover, married to Herbert Hoover, was not only the first First Lady but the first woman in America to receive a degree in geology, at Stanford University in 1898. Smart, self-possessed and highly educated, many first ladies used their visibility to campaign for social change. Caroline Harrison (wife to Benjamin Harrison) was an early champion of women's equality—along with other prominent progressive women, she helped raise funds for the new Johns Hopkins medical school on the condition that it would admit women. The university acquiesced and opened the first co-educational, graduate level medical school.

The role of First Lady became truly official during the tenure of Edith Roosevelt, wife to Theodore. She created the Office of the First Lady and hired the first social secretary, a position added to the White House payroll. Later, First Ladies became more politically engaged. During her husband Warren's presidential race in 1920, Florence Harding campaigned tirelessly, and on November 2, 1920, she became the first future First Lady to cast a vote for her husband (the 19th Amendment had gone into effect that August). "Couldn't have swung it but for the Duchess," said Warren Harding, using his nickname for her. Eleanor Roosevelt did even more to make the first lady a public figure: she traveled the country during Franklin Roosevelt's term, giving speeches. She also wrote a daily newspaper column, "My Day," and after her White House tenure, she served as a U.S. delegate to the United Nations.

The First Ladies coin series, expected to extend through at least 2016, is officially titled "First Spouse Gold Coins," leaving room for the possibility of a future female president. That Madame President could turn out to be Hillary Clinton, the first First Lady to hold elected office, and the first to run for president herself. But whoever the first woman president may be, her husband—the First Gentleman?—will inevitably change the role of First Spouse even further. Lady Bird Johnson said, "The First Lady is, and always has been, an unpaid public servant elected by one person, her husband." The First Spouse will likely continue to be just that—though perhaps, one day, with the genders reversed.

The Emancipation of Women (installation view) [painting] / (photographed by Peter A. Juley & Son)

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
Possibly done for Treasury Department.

Dunn, Louise Meiere (daughter of artist), 2004.

Black-and-white study print (8x10).

Orig. negative: 8x10, Nitrate, BW.

copy 1 negative: 8x10, Safety, BW.

"...But the women rose..." Vol.1 [sound recording] / compiled and edited by Susan Kempler and Doreen Rappaport

Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives and Collections
Program notes (7 p.) inserted in container.

A Will of Their Own

SI Center for Learning and Digital Access
Online exhibition adds up to a group portrait of influential women in the early days of the republic, from Abigail Adams to St. Elizabeth Ann Seton. The focus is on Judith Sargent Murray, a poet and essayist who published "On the Equality of the Sexes" in 1790.

Ladies of the White House, [photomechanical print]

Archives and Special Collections, Smithsonian American Art Museum
(Printed on image:) Copyright 1903 by T.H. Devereaux / Thom. H. Devereaux and Co., Publishers, Chicago, U.S.A. / Ladies of the White House.

(Stamped and inscribed on back:) Library of Congress / Copyright Entry Date Feb. 11, 1903 / No. J12586 / Accession No. / Division of Fine Arts / Ladies of the White House.

Meet the First and Only Foreign-Born First Lady: Louisa Catherine Adams

Smithsonian Magazine

In an electoral season where the presumptive Republican nominee has proposed erecting a wall on the border of the United States and Mexico, not to mention banning those of Muslim faith from immigrating to the United States, it can be easy to forget that Donald Trump is married to an immigrant.

But while those running for the highest political office in the United States must be able to meet just three simple requirements—one of which is being a natural born citizen—there is no such burden imposed on a prospective first spouse.

Melania Trump was born Melanija Knavs in a village in Yugoslavia, now part of modern-day Slovenia, in 1970. A former model, Melania left Slovenia by choice for a bigger European market, living in places like Milan and Paris before a talent agent arranged to get her a visa and an American modeling contract, allowing the 26-year-old to move to New York in 1996.

Melania is not the first candidate's spouse to be from a foreign country; even in recent history, Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of the 2004 failed candidate and current Secretary of State John Kerry, boasted of her immigrant heritage. Almost 200 years ago, Louisa Catherine Adams became the first and only foreign-born first lady to claim the title when her husband John Quincy Adams took office in 1825. 

In a strange historic parallel, Louisa also first came to live in the United States when she was 26, only she did so in 1801. She was a new mother and anxious about her place in the Adams’ family, considering the influence that her mother-in-law, Abigail Adams—who already made it clear that she disproved of Louisa and Quincy’s marriage—wielded. Unlike Melania, who has so far been notably quiet in her husband’s campaign for the nomination, Louisa very much wanted to play a role in John Quincy’s election, and indeed, her weekly tea parties helped swing the election in his favor. 


Louisa was born in London, England, in 1775. Her mother was, like her, British-born but her father was born in the colonies, and the family was staunchly supportive of the young republic, staying in France for the duration of the Revolutionary War, which officially began only weeks after Louisa's birth.

While her parents were sympathetic to the fledgling nation’s cause, Louisa was raised the way that “young, pretty, wealthy English girls were raised,” as Louisa Thomas writes in her lushly detailed, authoritative book on the former first lady, Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams, which came out this spring.


Louisa: The Extraordinary Life of Mrs. Adams

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Her upbringing would initially provoke the ire of the Adams clan, direct descendants of the settlers who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and looked down on those who valued worldly possessions. Indeed, just that Louisa was born in London bothered Abigail, who early on referred to her as a “half-blood.” But her almost aristocratic air—honed by following John Quincy on his diplomatic tours in Europe after their marriage—was key for his presidential campaign. While many in the United States also considered her to be a foreigner, they saw her experience as a diplomat’s wife as a novelty, and Louisa used her accomplishments to her advantage.

“She wasn’t an intellectual but she was very intelligent,” Thomas tells Though Louisa was taken out of school at the age of 14 to prepare for the marriage “circuit”, she showed a natural interest in learning.

Like Abigail and John Adams, Louisa and John Quincy engaged in an extensive correspondence throughout their relationship. At first, Louisa was unsure what to write, and self-conscious about her words, but she grew into her voice. Throughout her life, she wrote memoirs and autobiographies, in addition to her many letters, leaving behind a vibrant portrait of her opinions.

Louisa lived during a time when women were not supposed to express an interest in politics, but the scene fascinated her. “She writes these lengthy letters about political gossip, where she spends three pages gossiping about the treasury, way beyond mainstream news of the day, and then denies her interest,” Thomas says.

After the Adamses had an early social faux pas in Washington, though, Louisa began to understand how women could sway politics. Following John Quincy’s appointment as James Monroe’s Secretary of State, both John Quincy and Louisa ignored a custom that demanded that newcomers in Washington make the first social call to all notable persons in Congress. Louisa then experienced a social freeze-out by the women of Washington, and both Louisa and John Quincy initially suffered for the slight. At the time, Louisa wrote, “Indeed I could hardly have imagined that a man’s interests could be so dependent on his wife’s manners,” as Thomas records.

Louisa went about working her way into the Washington social scene, and through the parties she hosted, she became the capital’s “primary hostess,” as Thomas puts it. Her presence seemingly helped compensate for John Quincy’s belief, passed down from his father, that candidates shouldn't actively campaign or in any way express their ambitions publicly.

“He believed that merit alone, not party or political campaign rhetoric, should determine the choice of the American people,” as Harlow G. Unger wrote in John Quincy Adams: A Life. It was a view that made more sense at the time, considering that until 1824, the year of John Quincy’s presidential campaign, the popular vote wasn't even recorded.

That election showed how the balance of power in Washington had started to shift. When the United States of America was first founded, the Constitution and Bill of Rights dictated that citizens should have the right to vote and that the country would have a free press. Except at the time, that meant almost universally that only white men could vote, and, among them, only those that held land. And though newspapers were free to print uncensored content, they were limited in reach and readership.

Come 1824, however, the United States’ franchise had expanded into Native American territory, creating new states and opening up the opportunity for more to vote. Meanwhile, media production boomed, and by 1823, there were 598 newspapers in the nation, allowing citizens to be better informed and more engaged with the politics of the day.

Though John Quincy Adams, the son of a president with a long history of public service, might have once seemed to be the heir apparent to the executive office, the growing populist movement—fed by a growing frustration with banks and business, which was accelerated by the Panic of 1819—made for close competition in the multi-candidate field for the election.

Adams was up against Andrew Jackson, William H. Crawford and Henry Clay. Though those in Washington did not initially take Jackson seriously as a politician, his charisma and victory at the Battle of New Orleans caused the public to rally for the war hero.

Meanwhile, Adams, who cared little for putting on a show, preferring to focus on the politics at hand, did little to curry favor with the greater population. Considering that Democratic-Republicans distrusted him for his ties to Federalism, and most Southerners refused to vote for him because he morally opposed to slavery, his chances for election were looking increasingly bleak.

Louisa became the face of his election. Starting in 1819, she held her “tea parties” every Tuesday night, in addition to hosting balls and other social events. The women in Washington who had once refused to visit her because off her early misstep now became regulars at her raved-about parties. When her brother’s chronic health problems (and her own) forced her to withdraw to Philadelphia, she set up a salon in her hotel parlor there, where important figures in the area would visit to exchange news and discuss the election.

In her letters to John Quincy, she continued to urge him to engage with the public more; she saw the path to victory relied in having Jackson-like charisma, and tried to push her husband toward presenting himself in such a way. “She probably wouldn’t admit it, but she was electioneering,” Thomas notes.

When the votes were tallied, Jackson won the popular vote and a plurality of electoral votes, but as a majority of electoral votes are needed to take the presidency, the House of Representatives was tasked to pick the next chief executive.

Louisa held her last tea party on the evening of Tuesday, February 8, 1825, the night before the House voted. As Thomas writes, based off of John Quincy’s diary, 67 members of the House came to her party, as well as “400 citizens and strangers.”

The next day, the House—led by Clay, the failed candidate and Speaker of the House—voted John Quincy Adams as the next president.

Much has been made over the “corrupt bargain” that Jackson accused Adams and Clay of, for when Adams became president, he made Clay the new Secretary of State. But Louisa’s role has been obscured by history. Without Louisa’s support and social influence, who knows how many electoral votes her husband would have initially curried, causing Clay to rally the vote around him.

The senior Adams famously relied on Abigail’s perspective on issues of the day, but Louisa arguably was more integral to her husband’s election, as she helmed the unofficial campaign. As Thomas puts it in Louisa, “She was not content to be an adviser. She sought a public presence that Abigail avoided, and she chafed when she ran up against its limits."

But whereas his father trusted his wife almost implicitly and Abigail often referred to their property as “ours,” Louisa and John Quincy did not share the same respect. Louisa always felt beholden to John Quincy for lifting her out of the poverty her family had come into before she married him. While she tried to reconcile her own desire for equality with her institutionalized sense of a woman’s place, she struggled.

“She was of two minds about what a women’s role was,” Thomas says. “On one hand, she’s retiring demure, innocent and on the other hand, she’s self taught and has this vibrant intellectual life.”

Louisa grew up in a world where she was groomed to marry and told that women were supposed to stay in their realm. Even with her tea parties, she would not and could not admit what she was actually doing.

Louisa’s time in the White House would be marked by misery. Jackson’s victorious campaign for president in 1828 would begin barely after John Quincy stepped into the White House. The “corrupt bargain” lost him public support, and he had no reliable allies in Congress. Meanwhile, Louisa felt abandoned and neglected in the White House. 

The years following for Louisa were colored by personal tragedy, including her son’s suicide in 1829. While her husband found a second political career as a member of the House of Representatives, and led a crusade for the right to petition against slavery, she did not play a role, rather though she considered slavery a moral sin, she had to contend with her own deep-seated racism.

When she turned 65, Louisa began what Thomas calls her “most ambitious project,” a 70-page memoir titled, The Adventures of a Nobody, which chronicled her history since she first wed John Quincy, preserving her life and efforts for historians to come.

Today, in a time where everything seems to be written down, little is known about the newest foreign-born contender for the First Lady of the United States. As the election heats up though, history will record the role that Melania chooses to play in her husband’s campaign, and what, if any, historic parallels she shares with the woman in her position 200 years earlier. 

Suggested Alternative Dates for Independence Day

Smithsonian Magazine

Independence: it’s an idea that the Founding Fathers argued about a lot. Fittingly, there is even debate about when to celebrate it.

Only one person actually signed the Declaration of Independence on July 4, writes Rick Shenkman for History News Network: John Hancock. And his signature was just a pro forma measure, writes Snopes–as leader of the Continental Congress, Hancock needed to authenticate the document. It’s not the famously large signature that went down in history, and which was made later on a "fair copy" of the document.

This ambiguity about dates led some people to believe other dates should be Independence Day. If John Adams had his way, you’d be barbecuing and setting off fireworks a few days early. Another suggestion would move the holiday by about a month.

Here are the two most historically important alternative dates for Independence Day. Do you think either of them would be more appropriate?

July 2

“The Second Day of July 1776, will be the most memorable Epocha in the History of America,” John Adams declared in one of his many letters to Abigail Adams, his wife and lifetime correspondent.

The day should be celebrated with “Pomp and Parade, with Shews, Games, Sports, Guns, Bells, Bonfires and Illuminations,” he wrote to Abigail.

Adams’s reasoning? The Second Continental Congress's private vote for the Declaration was on July 2. July 4 is just the day it was officially adopted.

As a result, the Declaration of Independence is dated July 4. “I am well aware of the Toil and Blood and Treasure, that it will cost Us to maintain this Declaration, and support and defend these States,” Adams wrote.

”Yet through all the Gloom I can see the Rays of ravishing Light and Glory. I can see that the End is more than worth all the Means. And that Posterity will tryumph in that Days Transaction, even altho We should rue it, which I trust in God We shall not.”

The Founders didn’t regret their rebellion, but it did end up being celebrated on a different day than what Adams thought it would be.

August 2

Even though some Founders later recalled a July 4 signing party, most of of them didn’t sign until August 2and some even later.

The mass signing took place on August 2, Shenkman writes. To top it off, the names of the signatories weren’t made public until January 1777, he writes. Although the signing is couched with historic importance, “The event was so uninspiring that nobody apparently bothered to write home about it,” he writes.   

Still, “Both Thomas Jefferson and John Adams wrote, years afterward, that the signing ceremony took place on July 4.” he writes.

But as the Capitol’s website records, the chronology of the Declaration is a bit more complex than Jefferson recalled. June 28, 1776, was the date that the it was presented to the Second Continental Congress; July 2 was the date it was voted for, writes Phil Edwards for Vox; July 4 was the date it was adopted; and August 2 was the date it was signed by the majority of signatories.

But the myth of a July 4 mass signing has persisted, in part because Founding Fathers wrote about it–even though it didn't happpen.

New details are still being discovered about the Declarationearlier this year, for instance, a new handwritten copy was discovered in England. But it’s probable that at this point, nobody is going to change the date on which Independence Day is celebrated.

John Paul Jones and His Romantic Romp Through Paris

Smithsonian Magazine

When American naval officer John Paul Jones arrived in Paris in 1780 at age 33, he quickly became (according to Abigail Adams) “a favorite amongst the French Ladies.” Jones is best known today for his heroic service in the American Revolution and (possibly) uttering the phrase “I have not yet begun to fight!” But he also was a boldly flirtatious figure, perhaps surpassing Benjamin Franklin as a ladies man. As a newcomer to the French salon scene, however, his flirtations could lead him into some treacherous waters.

When Abigail Adams arrived in Paris in 1784 to join her husband on his diplomatic mission she initially was surprised by the appearance of the vaunted hero. “From the intrepid Character he justly Supported in the American Navy,” she wrote to her sister, “I expected to have seen a Rough Stout warlike Roman.” He was only around 5-feet-5-inches tall, so small that Abigail would “sooner think of wrapping him up in cotton wool and putting him into my pocket, than sending him to contend with Cannon Ball.”


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Nonetheless, Abigail saw much to praise in him. He was “a Man of Gallantry” who knew how to compliment women and could advise them on “what coulour best suits a Ladys complextion” and what make-up to use. Indeed, Jones knew as much about women’s dress and make-up as he did “the Masts Sails and rigging of a Ship.” Underneath his gentle manners, however, Abigail concluded that he was “Bold enterprizing ambitious and active.” He was perfectly suited to attract the elite women of French salons, who frequently had male friends and lovers. A visiting Englishwoman named Caroline Edes reported that the ladies were “wild with love for him.” “He is the most agreeable sea-wolf one could wish to meet with,” Edes concluded.

Jones reciprocated the Frenchwomen’s affections, and one biographer notes that in this period Jones’ letters are “so full of discreet longings and tiny pouts that the smell of perfume almost emanates from the page.” Jones knew that, unlike in America, he could flirt with, befriend, and even have affairs with the women he met. But he singled out one woman in particular as the object of his affection: the 26-year old Charlotte-Marguerite de Bourbon, Madame La Comtesse de Lowendahl.

The Comtesse de Lowendahl had befriended Jones at a salon and hoped to take advantage of the relationship to advance the career of her husband, an unemployed military officer. While at Versailles with Jones, she painted a miniature of Jones in his naval uniform and gave it to him as a gift, just before he had to leave Paris in the late spring of 1780.

Painting and gifting a miniature portrait was a seen as a romantic gesture in the United States. Not so, in a mix-up John Paul Jones encountered in France. (Mark Gulezian, National Portrait Gallery)

In America, the exchange of a miniature was a romantic gesture, and Jones certainly understood Lowendahl’s gift in this light. The Countess, on the other hand, had no such intentions, even though a mutual friend had hinted to Jones that Lowendahl was unhappy in her marriage. Jones saw an opening and wrote a letter to Lowendahl on June 7, 1780, from aboard his ship at Nantes. He was saddened at having to leave Paris (only “the Glorious cause of Freedom” could have torn him away from her) and declared: “You have made me in Love with my own Picture because you have condescended to Draw it.”

Jones then moved from self-love to romantic love, hinting that he had heard that the Comtesse was having marital troubles and enclosed a special cypher so they could write one another secret love letters. He also requested a copy of her miniature to wear, sent a lock of his hair, and concluded, “If I could send you my Heart itself or any thing else that could afford you pleasure it would be my happiness to do it.”

Lowendahl was surprised, if not offended, at Jones’ romantic gesture. Had he sent the cypher to the wrong person, she wondered? She replied tersely. Jones had misunderstood her, and while she was flattered at his offer, she couldn’t reciprocate “without deceiving a gentleman with whom I live.”

Jones was mortified.

How could she have thought he had written to the wrong person? If it was the cypher that bothered her, he said, perhaps he had gone too far. But he didn’t back down; rather, he demurred that the cypher would be useful in case their letters fell into the enemy’s hands while he was at sea. As for asking for her miniature, he denied that it was a romantic gesture. “As Friendship has nothing to do with Sex, pray what harm is there in wishing to have the picture of a Friend?” he asked. Of course, sex was exactly what he had been after. This seems to have been the end of his relationship with Lowendahl.

It was not the end of the story of Lowendahl’s miniature of Jones, however. In 1973, Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery acquired a miniature believed to be the very one the Comtesse had painted nearly 200 years earlier. Recent research, however, has brought that into question. A number of miniatures of Jones exist, including several whose artists are still unknown and could also be the Lowendahl piece.

One promising possibility is an unlocated miniature, known only through a photograph, which supposedly was handed down through Jones’s family. It shows Jones surrounded by the words “at versailles 1780—commodore paul jones drawn by one of his greatest admirers.” Below, in French, it praises his exploits: “Avenger of justice and liberty, only his heart could lead him to victory. Exalted Jones, he serves humanity, three nations, is the hero of all.” Could this more florid tribute to Jones be the piece Lowendahl created?

Thus the material relic of this thwarted love affair is still drawing the attention of scholars. Jones, who once admitted, “my desire for fame is infinite,” likely would not mind at all. The mystery of his miniature is certainly an opportunity to bring Jones back into the headlines, but more importantly, it offers a window into the tangled world of men, women, love and friendship in the 18th century.

The Founding Fathers and the Women, Not Their Wives, Whom They Wrote To

Smithsonian Magazine

When the term “platonic friendship” comes to mind, we’re likely to think of the movie When Harry Met Sally or the latest pop psychology article examining whether these relationships are possible. But the founding fathers? Our nation’s first presidents had close, loving friendships with women—women who weren’t their wives or close relatives. These friendships show us a softer side of the founding fathers.

While today we use the term “platonic” to describe nonsexual friendships between men and women, in the late-18th and early-19th centuries, there was no special term for or even much recognition of, these relationships. The word “platonic” connoted an unrealized ideal and usually referred to romantic love not-yet consummated. Historians can, however, distinguish a friendship from a romance in the past through careful attention to the language men and women used. Of the many thousands of letters of the founders which have survived, small caches of correspondence with female friends survive. Their correspondence shows that the founding presidents were warm, loving and often lighthearted with their female friends.

Americans in this period were prolific letterwriters, writing lengthy missives to friends and family from whom they might be separate for years at a time. Trips up and down the Eastern seaboard would take weeks. A trip across the Atlantic to London or Paris, months. But friends of the opposite sex faced special challenges when writing one another, because unrelated men and women were not supposed to correspond. When they did write one another, they had to worry that their expressions of affection would be misinterpreted—especially since letters were often passed around as public documents. Think about it as if your whole family and a few of your neighbors had access to your email password.

As Benjamin Franklin told a female friend, “I know very well that the most innocent Expressions of warm Friendship, and even those of meer Civility and Complaisance, between Persons of different Sexes, are liable to be misinterpreted by suspicious Minds.” Given that, men and women were careful about the wording of their letters, particularly the openings and closings. While John Adams opened letters to Abigail with “My dearest friend” and signed off with lines like “yours most tenderly,” his letters to his friend Mercy Otis Warren look quite different. Most opened with “Madam” and closed more formally: “With the greatest Esteem and Respect, Madam, / I have the Honour to be, your Fr[i]e[n]d, & sert.”

The founding father who left the largest body of correspondence with female friends was Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson particularly enjoyed having female friends and had a unique ability to connect with women. His wife died in 1782, and soon after he moved to France. There, he befriended Alexander Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica Schuyler Church. Church was not in Paris long and Jefferson regretted that they were not able to be in the same place. In a 1788 letter, he told her “I never blame heaven so much as for having clogged the etherial spirit of friendship with a body which ties it to time & place. I am with you always in spirit: be you with me sometimes.”

While in France, Jefferson also first met Abigail Adams, in 1784. Abigail and Jefferson bonded as parents missing their children, lovers of art and culture and as sharp intellectuals. They went to plays, concerts and exhibitions together, and Jefferson spent much of his time at the Adams’ home.

By the time Abigail moved from Paris to London with John for his new appointment as American ambassador to Britain, she reported to her sister that Jefferson was “one of the choice ones of the earth.” He, in turn, jokingly referred to her as Venus; he wrote from Paris that while selecting Roman busts to send for the Adams’ London home, he passed over the figure of Venus because he “thought it out of taste to have two at table at the same time.”

Abigail’s husband John Adams, Jefferson’s eventual political rival during the Election of 1800, is known today for his loving letters to his wife, but he also corresponded eloquently with female friends. He and Abigail were both close with Mercy Otis Warren, a well-educated Massachussetts writer. John respected Mercy’s intelligence and insight on political affairs. He told her of a Bishop writing to a female friend that “I never attempt to write to you but my Pen conscious of its Inferiority falls out of my Hand.” Adams then remarked that “The polite Prelate did not write to that excellent Lady in so bold a figure with half the sincerity, that I could apply it to myself when writing to Mrs. Warren.” He closed the letter expressing “more Esteem than I have Power in words to expend.”

Adams’s predecessor, George Washington, likewise had talented female friends to whom he wrote in a more playful, loving style than we might expect from a leader often depicted as stiff and stoic. While in Philadelphia during the 1780s, he befriended two women from a circle of female intellectuals there, Annis Boudinot Stockton and Elizabeth Powel. Stockton was a New Jersey widow living near Trenton and held dinners for Revolutionary War officers in the early 1780s. She began writing and publishing poems in tribute to Washington before she met him, and in 1783 she wrote to apologize for doing so. He replied playfully, saying:

“You apply to me, my dear Madam, for absolution as tho' I was your Father Confessor; and as tho' you had committed a crime…You are the most offending Soul "alive" -(that is, if it is a crime to write elegant Poetry) yet if you will come & dine with me on Thursday, and go thro' the proper course of penitence which shall be prescribed, I will strive hard to assist you in expiating these poetical trespasses on this side of purgatory.”

This may sound stilted to modern ears, but essentially he’s offering her dinner with him as punishment for her poetic crimes. In the language of the late 18th-century, this is light-hearted jesting—especially for Washington.

Washington’s closest female friend, however, was Elizabeth Powel. Powel lived in a large home in the heart of the city, and Washington frequently spent time at her home while in Philadelphia for the Constitutional Convention in 1787. The poem he sent her for her 50th birthday in 1793 (written by another writer friend of Stockton and Powel) praised her (as Mira, the name of the brightest star in the constellation Cetus, the Whale):

Like Mira, Virtue’s Self possess.

Let her adorn your Mind

For Virtue in a pleasing Dress

Has Charms for all Mankind.

Washington remained friends with Powel for the rest of his life, even signing one letter to her a year before his death “I am always Yours.”

The affection and lightheartedness in these letters, however, coexists with serious discussions of politics. As John Adams told his friend Mercy Otis Warren in 1776, “the Ladies I think are the greatest Politicians.”   Thomas Jefferson, while often wary of women’s involvement in politics, trusted Abigail Adams to convey political news and often discussed current events with her. It was in response to her disparaging comments on Shays’ Rebellion, the 1786-7 armed uprising of Massachusetts farmers angry about taxation and other matters, that Jefferson famously wrote “I like a little rebellion now and then.” Men like Jefferson, Adams and Washington valued the political opinions of their female friends and sometimes even turned to these women for political access and influence.

Thomas Jefferson suggested to his friend Angelica Schuyler Church that if their friendship had been painted, it would be “something out of the common line.” What friendships between Jefferson and other founders and women show is indeed “something out of the common line”—it is a new story line for the founding era. It is impossible to continue to imagine a founding fraternity once we are aware of the many friendships with women that this generation of men had. The highest of the political elite were not the only ones to have such friendships, either. In fact, these friendships were fairly common among middling to upper class Americans at the time. All of these relationships, whether with political figures or not, offered a space for men and women to model the best virtues of the young nation, in particular modeling equality across the sexes. As such, we should not talk about founding brothers or founding fathers, but a founding generation made up of both men and women.

John Quincy Adams Kept a Diary and Didn’t Skimp on the Details

Smithsonian Magazine

Dazzled by the sights and sounds of Paris in 1778, John Quincy Adams, at the time almost a teenager, dashed off a quick note home. “My Pappa enjoins it upon me to keep a journal, or a diary, of the Events that happen to me, and of objects that I See, and of Characters that I converse with from day, to day,” he wrote to his mother Abigail. The 11-year-old balked at the daily labor of a duty he later called “journalizing,” but John Quincy’s life soon proved colorful enough to set down for history. He survived a Spanish shipwreck and braved Catherine the Great’s Russia. He lived with Benjamin Franklin in France, graduated Harvard in two years, and held key diplomatic posts in Napoleon’s Europe—all before the age of 40.

Adams grew up abroad and came of age with the new country. He was the son of patriots, a polymath, a statesman, and the United States’ sixth president, and plenty of what we know about Adams’s globe-trotting past comes from the rich diary he kept (and still tweets!) in 51 volumes, which are held at the Massachusetts Historical Society and available online.

Here are a few pivotal moments in John Quincy Adams’s diary that made him, well, John Quincy Adams:

Adams’s famous parents had great expectations and good advice.

Adams monitored the war’s developments from the homefront in Quincy, Massachusetts, with mother Abigail and siblings Charles, Thomas, and Nabby (a nickname for Abigail). Later, he accompanied his father through Spain, France, England and Holland on diplomatic missions. Here’s the inside back cover of his 1780 diary, where he sketched ships named the Frightful and the Horrid. Young Adams, who later ventured into casual pen-and-ink work, also drew Boston soldiers marching with musket balls and a whimsical mermaid. Thanks to his studies at the Leiden University and an adolescence in Europe, Adams returned to the newly formed United States with a cosmopolitan outlook.

(From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Awarded junior standing, he completed Harvard’s coursework at breakneck pace. From London, where his father was busy opening the first American embassy, Abigail reminded her son that education was a privilege. “If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect that you have had greater opportunites of seeing the world, and obtaining a knowledge of Mankind than any of your cotemporarys, that you have never wanted a Book, but it has been supplied you, that your whole time has been spent in the company of Men of Literature and Science,” Abigail wrote, adding: “How unpardonable would it have been in you, to have been a Blockhead.”

At first, Adams wanted to be a poet.

As a young man, John Quincy Adams dabbled in writing verses and odes. His diplomatic career kept him rattling along across continents, with plenty of travel time to hone the craft. “You will never be alone, with a Poet in your Poket. You will never have an idle Hour,” John Quincy heard from his father in 1781. He took the words to heart. He scribbled Romantic verse in his diary on the road, when congressional sessions dragged on, and in moments when he needed solace. Adams never thought he was very good at it.

His fame as a poet shone—briefly—in the twilight of his political years. But he couldn’t put down the pen, as he explained in this melancholy diary entry from October, 16, 1816: “Could I have chosen my own Genius and Condition I should have made myself a great Poet. As it is, I have wasted much of my life in writing verses; spell-bound in the circle of mediocrity.” Later, JQA wrote poems on demand for autograph-seekers.

Adams’s career path cut right through Napoleonic Europe.

By the early 1790s, as a fledging lawyer, John Quincy had turned to the family trade of foreign diplomacy. In this 1794 entry for July 11, his 28th birthday, he records observing President George Washington’s meeting with representatives from the Chickasaw nation. Adams celebrated the day surrounded by paperwork, much as he would for the rest of his professional life. His diary, which operated as catharsis and conscience for the budding statesman, at times sat idle as he pushed through drafting reports.

When he skipped a few days, Adams hustled to catch up the journal “in arrears.” Here, he modestly billed a line or two of big news at the top: his commission to serve as the next U.S. minister to the Netherlands, just as his father had done. So John Quincy looked to the family archive for a “course of reading” that would orient him to the job, digging through “large folio volumes containing dispatches from my father during his negotiations in Europe.” To tackle a thorny diplomatic field like Napoleon’s Europe, Adams made himself a syllabus and stuck to it—an instinct, that, like rereading the family papers for advice, became a lifelong habit.

JQA’s private life was filled with turmoil.

He loved Shakespeare’s tragedies and had strong feelings about quality opera, but Adams’s private life was rife with drama. After a moody courtship (he loathed her favorite books, she mocked his clothes), Adams wed Louisa Catherine Johnson (1775-1852), the sociable daughter of a Maryland merchant based in London. Between a string of diplomatic postings to Prussia, Russia, France and England, they had four children, of whom only Charles Francis Adams outlived his parents. Often, public service called Adams away from home. As a boy, he had fretted over his father’s possible capture and his siblings’ safety. As a husband and parent, John Quincy struggled to teach his children, through distant letters or Bible lessons, in matters of morality. In his diary, he always worried that he hadn’t done enough to protect them—no matter that some of his peers found him cold and grumpy at court. See this warm-hearted bit from his diary for September 6, 1818, as Adams settled into a new job as President James Monroe’s Secretary of State and drafted a formative new doctrine for what became known as the Era of Good Feelings: “Among the desires of my heart, the most deeply anxious is that for the good-conduct and welfare of my children.”

John Quincy Adams’s success came in Congress, not the presidency.

By antebellum political guidelines, Adams seemed like a natural choice for the nation’s highest office in 1824: a seasoned diplomat with founding-era family credentials. As president, he had finalized boundary lines with Canada, stemmed Russian advance into Oregon, established a policy to recognize a roster of new Latin American nations, and acquired Florida. But Adams’ plans for internal improvements, and his wider vision for developing national networks for the arts and sciences, met with little support, as did his bid for reelection.

After a vicious campaign, he was ousted by the Tennessean Andrew Jackson. This stark entry for March 4, 1829 reveals his hurt. Citizens converged for the inauguration festivities but early-riser Adams stayed in, shunning visitors, before taking a solitary ride in the afternoon. Adams, who had taught rhetoric at Harvard and preferred classical orations that nodded to Shakespeare and the Bible, bitterly disliked Jackson’s blunter approach. His successor’s inaugural address, Adams wrote bitingly, “is short, written with some elegance, and remarkable chiefly for a significant threat of Reform.”

On his way home, a fellow rider stopped the former president to ask if he knew who John Quincy Adams was, so that he could deliver papers? Barely a day out of office, Adams likely felt pushed aside to make way for a Jacksonian era bustling with new people, ideas and goods. He dove quickly back into politics, entering Congress to represent Massachusetts in 1831 and served until his death on the job in February 1848. While there, he successfully defeated the gag rule, and persuaded President Martin Van Buren to champion the bequest that brought the Smithsonian to life. If he was exhausted, “Old Man Eloquent” tried hard not to show it. He kept up his daily loop of congressional meetings, signed away fast poems for fans, and stayed up until four o’clock in the morning to compose speeches that he delivered from New York to Ohio.  

Adams’s views on slavery and race evolved over the course of his career.

(From the Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society)

Raised by two fervent antislavery advocates, Adams’ outlook on slavery—and what ending it meant for the American union—took many turns in his diary’s pages. When, in 1841, Adams took up the Amistad case and defended 53 captive Africans, the trial’s physical and spiritual toll was mirrored in his journal. The Amistad case weighed on him, and Adams pushed back. Over two days, he argued for almost nine hours, demanding the Africans’ liberty. His diary, like “a second Conscience,” kept ticking along in the trial’s aftermath. “What can I, upon the verge of my seventy-fourth birthday, with a shaking hand, a darkening eye, a drowsy brain, and with all my faculties, dropping from me, one by one, as the teeth are dropping from my head, what can I do for the cause of God and Man? for the progress of human emancipation? for the suppression of the African Slave-trade?” an elderly Adams wrote in his diary on March 29, 1841. “Yet my conscience presses me on—let me but died upon the breach.”

Want to read a president’s diary? Join the Adams Papers' first-ever transcribe-a-thon on July 15, or get involved in the Massachusetts Historical Society’s newly launched #JQA250 appeal.

The Russian-U.S. Relationship Goes Way Back to John Quincy Adams

Smithsonian Magazine

A statue of John Quincy Adams stands outside of Spaso House, the residence of the U.S. Ambassador in Moscow. In 1809, President James Madison asked Adams, at age 42 already one of America's most seasoned diplomats, to serve as the first American ambassador to Russia. The President needed a man with the prudence and the tenacity necessary to persuade the young Czar Alexander to respect the interests of the United States, a neutral power in the colossal battle between England and Napoleonic France. Adams would justify that faith, and earn that statue.

This was not Adams' first trip to a country most Americans viewed more in the light of legend than history. Almost 30 years prior, when Adams was 14 years old, his father, John Adams, sent him to serve as the secretary to Francis Dana, who was being dispatched to Russia to seek aid for the revolutionary cause. Catherine the Great refused to receive the American emissary, and neither diplomat nor secretary had much to do. But this remarkably perspicacious boy paid close attention to the world into which he had been cast. “The Sovereign,” he wrote to his mother Abigail, “is Absolute, in all the extent of the word. . . .And the nobility have the same power over the people, that the Sovereign has over them. The Nation is wholly composed of Nobles and Serfs, or in other words, of Masters and Slaves.” The system, he wrote, is disadvantageous even to the ruler, for the nobles continually rebel against absolute power.  Young though he was, Adams was very much a republican in the land of absolutism.

The Adams of 1809, the future president and son of a former president, was a man of wide experience. He had served as minister in The Hague and Berlin, and had represented Massachusetts in the U.S. Senate. Adams knew Europe well, but Russia was not Europe. Adams thought about Russia much as many Europeans thought about America—as a vast, dynamic, semi-civilized and almost dream-like place.

Even among the aristocrats who represented the nations of Europe in the Russian court, Adams cut a commanding, and quite forbidding, figure. “He sat in the frivolous assemblies of St. Petersburg like a bull-dog among spaniels,” as a British visitor put it, “and many were the times that I drew monosyllable and grim smiles from him and tried in vain to mitigate his venom.” Adams was not nearly so venomous towards other nations as he was towards America's former colonial master, but he was a stubborn and single-minded advocate. We know from Adams' own journal entries that he continually pressed Count Rumiantsev, Russia's foreign minister, to break with Napoleon's so-called Continental System, a series of embargos that kept English goods, whether carried by English ships or neutrals like the U.S., out of the ports of Europe. Russia had been compelled to enforce the system after suffering humiliating defeats by Napoleon’s army in 1806. Dozens of American ships had been bottled up in the Gulf of Cronstadt, outside of St. Petersburg.

Adams had an unexpected advantage over the much older men of the court, who had left their families at home: he had his young wife Louisa, their two-year-old son Charles Francis, and a pretty sister-in-law. While the 31-year-old Czar Alexander trained his wandering eye on Louisa’s sister, he and his wife Elizabeth were also much taken with Charles Francis. They had lost two children before the age of two, the last one only 18 months before the Adamses arrived, and they practiced their English with Charles Francis, though the boy was more comfortable in French and German.

Whether because of Adams' relentless prosecution of his country's cause, or the Czar's fondness for his family, or perhaps even Alexander's partiality to the United States, it had become clear by late 1809 that Russian policy was tilting away from France and towards the U.S. and other neutrals. On December 31, 1810, the Emperor issued a ukase lifting all restrictions on exports from Russia and on imports coming by sea, while at the same time imposing a heavy tariff on goods arriving overland, most of which came from France. Alexander thus broke decisively with the Continental System. This was a tremendous diplomatic triumph for the U.S., since most cargo carried to Russia by ship came in American vessels, whether the cargo was American or English. Napoleon concluded that he could not subdue Europe unless he invaded Russia, which he would do, ill-advisedly, 18 months later.        

In the early 19th century, when correspondence traveled no faster than a horse and carriage or a sailing ship, diplomats had a great deal of time on their hands. Adams engaged in learned banter—always in French—with his fellow ministers, several of whom were as erudite as he. (One of Adams' colleagues whiled away his time translating Horace's Latin Odes into Greek.) He went on long walks even in the blinding white winters, often meeting no one save the Czar himself, out with his carriage.

The most painful rituals were social. Adams and Louisa were invited to lavish dancing parties, balls, masquerades, luncheons and winter carnivals where ladies shot down ice hills on sleds. Everyone gambled, at cards and dice. Louisa was even more shocked at the debauchery than was her husband, who by now felt that he had seen everything. However, Adams barely survived on a modest American salary, and could reciprocate nothing, a source of great embarrassment.

Adams was deeply impressed by Russian piety, noting that even the gentry fasted for the 40 days of Lent—and then gorged themselves on the stupendous feats of Easter. Everything was strange and outsized. Men wagered on which day the ice on the Neva would break; and when, in mid-May, it finally it did so, the governor of St. Petersburg brought the Czar an ice-cold glass of river water, and the Czar rewarded him with a hundred ducats. The Russian palaces were vast, the furnishings dazzling. At Catherine's Winter Palace, the magnificent decorations were decaying from wanton neglect. But Adams found the gravestones of three imperial greyhounds—"Sir Tom Anderson, Duchesse, and Zemire"—with inscriptions written in impeccable French verse.

Adams never lost his fascination with Russia; nor did Czar Alexander's fondness for the United States flag. But the bond between the two nations, the one the defender of autocratic orthodoxy, the other of republican liberty, was not a natural one. After Russia defeated Napoleon and humbled France, the Czar placed himself at the head of the Holy Alliance, a league of princes dedicated to stamping out all traces of republican thought in Europe. In 1817, Adams became Secretary of State in the administration of President James Monroe. He was the chief intellectual force behind the 1823 Monroe Doctrine, which stipulated that since "the political system of the allied powers"—the Holy Alliance—was "essentially different" from that of the United States, the U.S. would "consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety." The New World, that is, would be republican, and the U.S. would be its guarantor. The ideological struggle that would come to define U.S. relations with the Soviet Union in the 20th century was thus prefigured by the friction between republican America and autocratic Russia.

Adams himself delivered a version of Monroe's speech—in the form of a note verbale—to Baron de Tuyll, Russia's minister to the U.S. He wanted Russia to understand that the United States would not tolerate any attempt to transplant authoritarian rule to North or South America.

The Adams of 1823, like the Adams of 1781, was a zealous patriot and a passionate republican. He would never permit his partiality towards Russia to supersede his defense of liberty.

James Traub is a Foreign Policy columnist, a lecturer in international relations at New York University and the author of John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. 

He wrote this for What It Means to Be American, a partnership of the Smithsonian and Zócalo Public Square.

Abigail Pareus, Non-Native Woman, in Borrowed Costume And Ornaments from Various South American Peoples and Aiming Dart Beside Pool on Estate; Aiming Bow and Arrow n.d

National Anthropological Archives
Skirt: Paraguay; Headdress Br Guiana; Necklace: Brazil;Robe: Tierra Del Fuego; Bow, Arrow: Peru

Black and white photoprint

Abigail Pareus, Non-Native Woman, in Borrowed Costume And Ornaments from Various South American Peoples and Aiming Dart Beside Pool on Estate; Aiming Bow and Arrow n.d

National Anthropological Archives
Skirt: Paraguay; Headdress Br Guiana; Necklace: Brazil;Robe: Tierra Del Fuego; Bow, Arrow: Peru

Black and white photoprint
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