Louisa Adams in Saint Petersburg

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In 1809, Louisa Adams moved with her husband to Saint Petersburg, Russia. The six years the family spent there were very stressful for Louisa.

President James Madison made former Massachusetts senator John Quincy Adams minister plenipotentiary to Russia in 1809. Adams and his family lived in Saint Petersburg for six years (1809-15). Adams’ wife, Louisa, was very unhappy about the move, given the fact that she had already spent a part of her strained marriage being a diplomat’s wife in Berlin. Louisa was miserable in Berlin, and her time in yet another strange place would not be much better.

Turned Upside DownWhile Saint Petersburg, Russia, was one of the most beautiful European courts, rivaled only by Napoleon’s Paris, Louisa Adams did not enjoy her new home. Louisa had just suffered one of several miscarriages, and her two of her three sons were left behind in America. She was often ill, but insensitive John Quincy dismissed his wife’s complaints as hypochondria. To make matters worse, Russia was perpetually dark during the winter months, so daily routines were literally turned upside down. For example, the Adamses got out of bed at 11 a.m., dined at 5 p.m., had tea at 10 p.m., and partied until 4 a.m. Reclusive Louisa was forced to attend two or three parties every night. The combination of all these factors left Louisa depressed and exhausted.

The Worst Thing of All

Of all the heartache Louisa endured as a lonely diplomat’s wife in strange Saint Petersburg, nothing was worse than the death of her fourth child and only daughter, Louisa Catherine. When the baby was born in August, 1811, her parents were overjoyed. Little Louisa’s birth seemed to temporarily heal the rifts between John Quincy and Louisa. John Quincy even wrote that Louisa was “a faithful and affectionate wife, and a careful, tender, indulgent, and watchful mother to our children.”

Indeed, the Adams marriage was more loving during this period, but the happiness would not last. The following winter baby Louisa became very ill. She survived for several months, due to her mother’s care and attention. Sadly, baby Louisa Adams died in the summer of 1812. Mother Louisa was forever changed and wrote in her diary: “My heart is almost broken and my temper which was never good suffers in proportion to my grief. … My heart is buried in my Louisa’s grave and my greatest longing is to be laid beside her.” Louisa fell into a deep depression that she would battle until her own death in 1852.

A Dangerous Journey HomeThe Adamses finally left Russia in 1815. This should have been a happy experience for Louisa, but the journey was fraught with peril. First of all, they set out for the return trip in the dead of winter, and they nearly froze to death. On Louisa’s fortieth birthday, February 12, 1815, she, son Charles, and a French maid headed to Riga, where the snowdrifts were so deep that locals had to dig the family out of them. The carriage had to be converted to a sled. The weary travelers eventually reached Poland. Here, the carriage’s wheels were usable. After six weeks, the Adamses finally made it to Paris on March 23. In France, they were confronted by usually drunken soldiers, who had been defeated by Russian troops in war. The French soldiers were infuriated by the Russian Imperial Eagle insignia on the Adams’ carriage. Louisa saved the day by shouting, “Vive Napoleon!”

Sources:

  1. Barzman, Sol. The First Ladies, p. 53. New York: Cowles Book Company, Inc., 1970.
  2. Harris, Bill. The First Ladies Fact Book, p. 110-14. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal Publishers, Inc., 2005.
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