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1828: John Quincy Adams's Son Marries First Cousin At The White House

1800s | February 25, 2021

Daguerrotype of the south front of the White House, 1846. (Library of Congress/Wikimedia Commons)

When John Adams II married his first cousin in a small White House ceremony, the drama wasn't about how closely related the two were. Mary Catherine Helen had dated both of John's brothers before settling for the president's middle son, creating an incestuous love rectangle that only got worse after the wedding.

Keeping It In The Family

John Quincy Adams was a rarity in his family in that he found love outside of it. His father, President John Adams, married his third cousin, Abigail Smith, as had long been tradition. The political and industrial dynasties of the 19th century were obsessed with keeping bloodlines "pure," so marriages between third, second, or even first cousins were fairly common. Quincy, however, married the London-born Louisa Johnson, with whom he had three sons by the time the family took in Louisa's 11-year-old niece, Mary Catherine Hellen, in 1817 following the death of her father and illness of her stepmother.

A stereograph view of the Blue Room during the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant. (Jim Hood/Wikimedia Commons)

White (House) Wedding

Soon enough, each brother took a turn courting Hellen. First, she dated youngest son Charles Adams, who later claimed Hellen was the first person he had sex with and called her "one of the most capricious women that were ever formed in a capricious race." It's hard to blame him: She quickly moved on to George Washington Adams, the eldest, who Hellen actually agreed to marry first, but George was committed to completing his education before settling down. While he continued his studies, Mary traveled to Washington, where she met her third and final Adams boy, John, who was working as his father's secretary after his expulsion from Harvard. Over time, he and Hellen developed a connection, and she jilted her fiance.

On February 25, 1828, John Quincy Adams II and Mary Catherine Hellen were wed in what is now the Blue Room in the White House, but what should have been a happy occasion ended up kind of a downer when both Charles and George declined to attend. Judging from her correspondence, it seems their mother wasn't thrilled about the event, either. She later reported to Charles, "Madame is cool, easy, and indifferent as ever." Ouch.

John Adams II in 1820. (National Park Service/Wikimedia Commons)

The Adams Boys' Downfall

After the wedding, the happy couple moved into the White House and had two daughters, Mary Louisa and Georgina Frances, in rapid succession. It was a brief bright spot in a union that caused little else but sadness. After the birth of little Mary Louisa in December 1828, George dove headlong into alcoholism, and a year later, he fell overboard a steamboat and drowned. No one knows if his death was accidental or if he jumped. He was 28 years old.

Meanwhile, John Adams II, ever the underachiever, worked as the White House receptionist and became an unofficial punching bag for the media. When a newspaper columnist attempted to draw him into a duel and he declined, he was painted as a chicken. After his father left office, Adams took over a collection of family-owned flour mills and bungled the business so badly that his younger brother removed him from his position. The middle Adams stopped leaving his home, rarely dressed, and passed away with his father at his side after a short illness in 1834, leaving Mary Hellen Adams a widow at 31.

After Hellen's youngest daughter died five years later, she, too, withdrew from the world, spending the rest of her life watching over what remained of her family. Nearly 20 years after her father's death, Mary Louisa Adams, the eldest and only surviving daughter of John Adams II, married her second cousin, William Clark Johnson. As both were descendants of President John Adams, their marriage was the first to occur between two relatives of a United States president.

Tags: 1800s | marriage | the white house

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Jacob Shelton

Writer

Jacob Shelton is a Los Angeles based writer. For some reason this was the most difficult thing he’s written all day, and here’s the kicker – his girlfriend wrote the funny part of that last sentence. As for the rest of the bio? That’s pure Jacob, baby. He’s obsessed with the ways in which singular, transgressive acts have shaped the broader strokes of history, and he believes in alternate dimensions, which means that he’s great at a dinner party. When he’s not writing about culture, pop or otherwise, he’s adding to his found photograph collection and eavesdropping on strangers in public.