A First Lady’s 200-Year-Old Anti-Smoking Campaign

A little science and a whole lot of mom guilt.

Thursday is the Great American Smokeout, an annual event sponsored by the American Cancer Society to help people quit smoking. It goes back over 40 years, to a time when people constantly smoked everywhere — in hospitals, in cars full of children, on game shows full of celebrities — back to a time when I assumed no one knew the true dangers of smoking. But as I recently discovered, serious warnings about the dangers of tobacco actually go back over 200 years in the United States.

The most popular early anti-smoking voice was Dr. Benjamin Rush. I know him best for two things: 1) Helping John Adams and Thomas Jefferson reconcile after a decade of silence, and 2) Being a huge proponent of “bleeding,” or removing way too much blood from patients to treat most illnesses. (We dug into his bloodletting ways in our podcast episode “Benjamin Rush to Judgment.”)

Rush was dead wrong about bleeding but he was eerily prophetic when it came to smoking, accurately describing tobacco as a stimulant and a vile cancer-causing weed in his 1798 piece Observations Upon The Influence of the Habitual Use of Tobacco Upon Health, Morals, and Property.

In that essay, he shared one particular Revolutionary War story told to him by Aaron Burr to illustrate the devastatingly addictive nature of tobacco: “The greatest complaints, dissatisfaction and suffering” from the marching soldiers “were from the want of tobacco. This was the more remarkable, as they were so destitute of provisions as to be obliged to kill and eat their dogs.”

I’m not sure if future first lady Louisa Adams read this grisly medical paper written by her family friend, but she shared Dr. Rush’s sentiments. On July 1, 1819, she wrote what I can only describe as the most terrifying, guilt-inducing anti-smoking letter I’ve ever read — to her 11-year-old son, Charles.

Louisa wrote:

“I cannot understand to what purpose you should take the cigars as you are too young to smoke, and you too well know my antipathy to the practice to do that which I have so long labored to destroy in your brothers. To you it would be of the most fatal consequence as it would deeply injure your lungs, which are already weak, and throw you into a decline, a state of suffering from which you would only be relieved by death.

…It is a wretched and disgusting habit of the most pernicious tendency, as it produces a constant thirst which inevitably leads to that most dreadful and loathsome one of inebriety; sinking whole families in shame and ruin—I write to you as to a man, for you have sense above your years, and it is to that sense that I address myself.

…Remember that one of the greatest advantages of education is, that it teaches us to curb our passions, and to check all unruly desires; and our religion strongly forbids their gratification—remember my son that we are sent into this world for noble purposes, and that it is our duty early to check, nay to root out if possible all our evil propensities—and follow the example of your father, who has weaned himself from all those habits which might have led to ill but which his taste and studious habits led him naturally to indulge.

Be timely warned my son, and avoid cigars, they are the baneful enemies of sobriety, and if you persevere at your early age in using such a stimulus, your health, your happiness, your peace of mind, may and will be ruined for ever, and your mother who so dearly loves you, may have to rue the day you were born, instead of rejoicing to sign herself the most affectionate of mothers.”

Teenage John Adams II, artist unknown.

Two days later, Louisa wrote another scathing anti-smoking letter to her other son, John. She wished him a happy 16th birthday and then proceeded to scold him about how succumbing to the temptation of smoking was an unforgivable failure of morality:

“I have so entirely relied on your obedience to my wishes as it regards smoking that I was a little surprised, nay hurt, to learn that you still persevered in the odious habit of smoking cigars — The practice is every way odious, very expensive, and extremely hurtful.

At your age you require no stimulus whatever; on the contrary you should rigidly abstain from everything of the kind as its tendency is extremely injurious both to your health and morals and its consequences fatal to your honor and your future peace — You have both example and warning and remember should any ill befall you, double nay triple censure must fall on all your heads and bring down added shame on the heads of your parents.

I so repeatedly recur to this subject, my beloved son, because you live in the center of vicious and ensnaring example and because I tremble lest your mind become familiarized with a vice which may thus lose half its horror and lead to everlasting mischief. To you I look to show to your youngest brother how easy it is to vanquish yourself and to sacrifice a temporary gratification for a lasting good and prove your duty and your love for your heavenly and your earthly parents by early acquiring the habit of controlling your passions and your tastes and every hour rise in that virtue which leads to heaven and the consciousness of which cheers every hour of a long life and soothes even in the pangs of death.”

Louisa’s pleas went unanswered, and her fears went into overdrive when she heard what young John was up to. She immediately wrote to him, “I was mortified to learn from a gentleman who had seen you that you were, to use his expression, ‘an inveterate smoker.'”

Her previous guilt trips had not worked; she had to try some different tactics. She told John that smoking was “particularly disgusting to our sex” and tried to appeal to his role model status, warning him of “the fatal consequence which might result to Charles from your example whose health must be materially injured by this abominable practice which acts as a stimulus to every bad passion.”

The teenage John countered her points with the irrefutable argument that he chose to smoke cigars because they were good.

This did not go over well.

Louisa responded, “My dear son had you not found them good you would not have indulged the practice; it is because they are so good that I am so afraid of their pernicious effects—If they were not good you would have no merit on abstaining from them.”

She knew that smoking was so bad because it was so, so good. That’s a hard thing to explain to an adolescent, so she went the common parental route of trying to scare the hell out of him:

“All artificial excitements are dangerous and at your time of life, when nature itself is almost too prompt, it is particularly necessary to watch lest you may stumble; and it is much more easy to check or nip a vice in the bud than to root up a bad habit, once formed, the roots of which spread so wide and frequently in strings so fine that the germ that still remains is often imperceptible even to ourselves, until by their rude and rapid growth we find ourselves overwhelmed, and every effort to eradiate the evil proves fruitless, and plunges into irremediable destruction.”

I’d like to imagine what cigarette packaging would look like if Louisa Adams wrote the Surgeon General’s warnings.

To summarize her arguments against smoking:

  1. It will kill you.
  2. It will kill your brother.
  3. It will make you beg for the sweet release of death.
  4. It will bring shame to your family who will rue the day you were born.
  5. It’s expensive.
  6. It pairs nicely with alcohol.
  7. It’s unattractive to the ladies.
  8. Your pubescent brain is too dumb not to love it.
  9. You’ll burn in hell.

I have to say, there’s a lot right with that list.

Though her health warnings about smoking were prescient, she was not immune to some odd contemporary beliefs, including the fear that playing the flute posed an even greater danger to her son George’s lungs than smoking.

She gave George this interesting advice right after telling him to give up the flute: “Eat freely of fresh vegetables and avoid meat, taking as much milk as your stomach will bear, and leave off smoking cigars.” The milk part was so important that she added, “If you can procure it, take some milk warm from the cow every morning — I dare say you might make an agreement with some woman to supply you.”

I dare say that milk-binging advice might make you a little queasy, but I choose to see Louisa Adams as a resourceful woman with innovative answers to her son’s problems. Got an oral fixation with cigars and/or flutes? Try replacing that fixation with something healthier, like a cow’s udder. No cow of your own? Try seducing a milkmaid.

She was truly a woman ahead of her time.

If you’re one of the tens of millions of Americans still using tobacco (I quit 12 years ago, after smoking for 9 years), then you may not be ready to give it up for yourself. But if you’ve read this far, maybe you’ll consider doing it for Louisa Adams. Before you plunge your lungs into irremediable destruction, think about putting down that vape pen, throwing out those cigarettes, and chugging as much hot fresh milk as you can handle.

Quitting: it does a body good.

Founders Online



  1. Piffany
    November 23, 2019 / 12:27 am

    Do you really think Mrs Adams was suggesting anything other than “buy milk from a woman who owns a cow”?

    • Howard Dorre
      December 1, 2019 / 7:42 pm

      It is an udderly ridiculous suggestion.

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