THE GREAT MEN of the Adams family have received their due in countless volumes. But, except for the irrepressible Abigail, their wives have seemed little more than footnotes to narratives detailing the monumental accomplishments of four generations of Adams men. The recent emphasis on the history of women and families has stimulated an exploration from a new perspective of the vast collection of Adams family papers. As a result, the resurrection of forgotten wives and less than successful children is beginning to add new flesh and blood to the history of the nation's most distinguished family dynasty.

In Louisa Catherine Adams, Jack Shepherd has brought to life the American prototype of the neglected political wife -- a bright, sensitive, attractive woman, who became the "victim of her husband's ambition." The manuscripts of Louisa Catherine and John Quincy Adams provide one of the best documented marriages in all history. With the fine touch of a novelist, Shepherd builds his story from these voluminous sources, which make possible a detailed study of the wife and children of the sixth president of the United States.

Adams was 30 in 1797 when he married Louisa Catherine, eight years younger. It was a union of opposites: she a "velvet-budding spirit," who had grown up as a "welcomed, carefree, and spoiled child"; he as "hard, cold, and purposeful as a stone wall," the son of demanding, strict New England parents. Instead of finding in marriage another indulgent father who catered to her every whim, she acquired a stern master who lectured his wife on her duties as the helpmeet of a man entirely devoted to public service. Adams and his family were wary of Louisa Catherine's birth to an English mother and of her European education and questioned her fitness for life in the virtuous American republic.

These limited prospects for marital bliss suffered a crushing blow when her wealthy father went bankrupt two weeks after the wedding. She never got over the feeling that everyone believed she had married the son of the president of the United States under false pretenses.

While enduring 12 pregnancies -- eight miscarriages and four births -- she dutifully followed Adams to Berlin, Quincy, Washington, and in 1809 to Russia. He accepted this last diplomatic assignment without consulting her, even on the decision to leave their two older sons in Massachusetts. Miserable at first in the inhospitable climate of St. Petersburg, where she buried her only daughter, Louisa Catherine eventually achieved a social triumph at the Czar's court and thereby contributed to the success of her husband's mission. He left her behind when he went to Belgium to settle the War of 1812, and she finally had to journey alone from Russia to France with her little son, just as Napoleon returned for the Hundred Days.

Reunited with her older boys in London, where Adams served briefly as American minister, Louisa Catherine enjoyed a short interval of relative contentment before the family returned to Washington in 1818. Through it all, Shepherd maintains, she had really been two women: "the outwardly docile, lovely wife of a hard-edged public man, and the seething inner captive searching for a way to break free."

She did "break free" during the six years Adams served as secretary of state and -- at least in the eyes of his mother and wife -- as heir apparent to President Monroe. She campaigned incessantly for a husband who would not and could not campaign for himself. "She gained, for the moment, status beyond being a mere woman." Shepherd contends that without her social skills Adams could not have been elevated to the presidency in 1825.

Once "imprisoned" in the White House with a powerless, disgruntled president, Louisa Catherine was again overwhelmed by her sense of inferiority. At times the couple hardly spoke to each other. She sought escape in illness, writing plays and gorging herself on chocolate. It took the suicide of their oldest son -- another sacrifice to the father's ambition -- to bring them together again as he left office. The death of their second son five years later brought them even closer together as they turned all their attention to the one remaining son. Fortunately, the "calculating" Charles Francis Adams had always taken his parents in stride.

The former president's return to the House of Representatives over his wife's strong objections proved fortunate for their marriage. His determined stand against slavery brought them into association with female abolitionists who were also champions of women's rights. Influenced by her mother-in-law's Revolutionary War letters and by the Grimke sisters, Louisa Catherine in old age could feel if not fully understand that her life had been a reflection of the restrictions imposed on all women. But some of her inner resentment turned to pride as she watched her mellowed husband die a northern hero, mourned especially by the women whose political potential he had belatedly come to recognize.

Shepherd's creative interpretation of this remarkable pair will leave historians questioning his uncritical and sometimes dogmatic use of the evidence on numerous points. Most serious, he acknowledged the need for but did not carry out a careful analysis of the accuracy of Louisa Adams' two autobiographical accounts, written in her later years, on which he depends heavily for her early history.

Nonetheless, Shepherd has succeeded magnificently in his objective "to elevate Louisa Adams onto the pedestal with her lofty and accomplished husband." And the book raises a question as fully relevant today as in her lifetime: how great is the private cost of public service?