Selected readings from American Phoenix: John Quincy and Louisa Adams, the War of 1812, and the Exile that Saved American Independence
John Quincy Adams
Putting aside their proverbial swords, the men then enjoyed dinner. They agreed to share the newspapers that they recently received, the French Moniteur to Adams and English newspapers to Caulaincourt.
“So now I see the whole front of Armstrong’s offense is omitting to go to court, and presenting notes too full of truth and energy for the taste of Emperor Napoleon,” he wrote in his diary after returning home in his carriage.
Compared to Armstrong, maybe John was making some progress. Perhaps participating in the customs and social outings of the Russian court was important after all. No matter his lean purse, he could find other ways to earn success—as long as kissing the culture didn’t violate his moral principles.
John’s diplomatic dinner duel with Caulaincourt led him to change one of his habits.
“I have made it a practice for several years to read the Bible through in the course of every year. I usually devote to this reading the first hour after I rise every morning,” he noted in his diary.
He often turned to commentators, mostly English ones, to further understand many passages. “Imperfect as my method is, I regret none of the time thus bestowed.”
Many people who attempt to read the Bible through in a year do not finish the feat by New Year’s Eve, much less before the end of September. “During the present year, having lost very few days, I have finished the perusal earlier than usual.”
What to do? He began again, starting with Genesis but with a twist. He chose to read the Bible in another language—French. “I have begun this time with Ostervald’s French translation, which has the advantage of a few short reflections before upon each chapter.”
Choosing to read the Bible in French had another benefit: he could improve his ability to speak the French language in the process. Perhaps he could also better duel in diplomacy against the Cain-like Caulaincourt.
* * *
“I immediately saw by their distressed countenances that bad news had come to us.”
By the third week of May 1811, Louisa was growing more and more uncomfortable with the woes that come with the last trimester of pregnancy—such as fatigue, backaches, and the occasional fleeting contraction. After enduring the coarseness of the two old codgers at Count Romanzoff ’s party, she avoided the social swirl by spending time among supportive intimate friends. With sisterly admiration, she praised the Spanish diplomat’s wife: “Went to visit Madame Colombi—She is so gay; so sensible; and so attractive it is impossible to know her without loving her.”
Though she found comfort in her small sorority of diplomatic sisters and satisfaction in championing female virtues, her heart continued to sail as a ship through rough waters. Any day a vessel carrying letters from home could arrive in St. Petersburg. While such correspondence might bring the greatest joy—such as the handwriting of her Boston birches—she was oh too fearful that some letters might carry words of woe. Her greatest anxiety was receiving tragic news. Now that day had come.
As soon as she walked into the study the morning of May 23, 1811, she knew something awful had happened. Her husband’s ashen face and her sister’s tears along with the limp, soiled papers they held in their hands spoke louder than any words. Fear gripped her so intensely that she could hardly breathe as she asked what was wrong. Their hesitation only made her heart beat faster.
“They could not conceal it from me.”
Yes, they had received correspondence from home. Yes, the news was bad.
Abigail was the messenger. After learning of an opportunity to send mail to John and Louisa by way of an outward-bound ship, she had written three letters in January 1811. In the first two she dished enticing political news, particularly pointing out the appointment of Massachusetts’s Lieutenant Governor Levi Lincoln to the US Supreme Court. She joyfully noted that Lincoln “accepted only to keep the place warm for JQ Adams whenever he returns.”
Abigail sought to fortify the possibility through her own prediction: “I would fain believe, what has long been impressed upon my mind, that you are destined to serve your country in her most essential and important interest for years yet to come.”
Then suddenly, tragic news had arrived in Boston from Washington City. Abigail had no choice but to write another letter. With great heaviness of heart she’d picked up her pen on January 24, 1811.
“I thought it best to communicate to you the sudden death of Mrs. Hellen, who was at church on Christmas day and buried on the New Year,” Abigail had written of the death of Louisa’s sister Nancy and her infant. “She died in childbirth.”
Nancy was two years older than Louisa. They were as close as two sisters could be. John and Louisa had lived with Nancy and her husband, Walter, at their home on K Street, while John was a US senator. As Adams labored on Capitol Hill, Nancy and Louisa had spent hours swapping ideas about motherhood, playing the piano, and riding horseback. Often Nancy and Louisa had listened to Adams as he read aloud from the classics in the evening. Nancy was the one who’d convinced John to accompany her to President Madison’s inaugural ball so he could show his support in case Madison wanted to appoint him to a position in his administration. Now her flashing smile and zest for life were gone. She left behind three children.
“Say to your wife that I enter her grief and most tenderly sympathize with her, and Kitty; however we may live, there is not any religion by which we can die, but the Christian which gives us the glorious prospect of life,” Abigail had written with as much tenderness, understanding, faith, and hope as she could muster.
Though Louisa’s greatest fear—the death of her son George or John—had not come, the news and its timing with her own delicate condition caused her great alarm.