I have gotten into this before, so I’m not going to rehash it too much, but I totally agree with you on JQA’s qualifications. On paper, there might not be any President more qualified than John Quincy Adams was. Unfortunately for JQA and the country, Presidencies aren’t served on paper and being an effective executive is different than being a top-notch diplomat or a first-class legislator.
With JQA, I believe part of the problem was his personality. He was stubborn and thin-skinned. As President, he was hesitant to compromise because of his confidence in the strength of his own intellectual powers — a confidence that wasn’t all that misguided since he was probably the most brilliant American alive at the time. But Adams was old-school and American politics was evolving into something closer to the “modern” populist politics that we might recognize today.
It’s also important to remember that the manner in which JQA won the Presidency — via the U.S. House of Representatives after no candidate won the required majority of Electoral votes handicapped the Adams Administration from the start. His political opponents — largely Andrew Jackson and Jackson’s supporters — tagged Adams with a “Corrupt Bargain” with Henry Clay which allegedly swung votes from Clay’s supporters to JQA in return for Clay being named Secretary of State, a position which had been the stepping stone to the Presidency since almost the beginning of the Republic. Adams and Clay denied any sort of “Corrupt Bargain”, but the damage was done. Everything that President Adams did from Inauguration Day on was an uphill battle and Andrew Jackson basically began the 1828 Presidential campaign in February 1825.
I personally don’t think that John Quincy Adams even liked being President. I think that he saw it as his duty to serve, but JQA’s gift (despite being stubborn, thin-skinned, prone to depression, and candid to a fault) was in international diplomacy and, as he proved after his Presidency, in representing his home state of Massachusetts in Congress where he was a fearless and indefatigable advocate. I really think that John Quincy Adams became President because he thought it was something that he had to do, but I don’t believe that he ever truly wanted it, and we know from his own words that he was beyond relieved once the burden of the Presidency was lifted from his shoulders.
Of course, John Quincy Adams isn’t the only man with a sterling resume and seemingly perfect qualifications to find himself a failure as President. None of the following Presidents will ever be mistaken as great or even good Chief Executives, but their qualifications prior to their time in the White House could not be denied:
•Martin Van Buren: Lawyer; New York State Senator, 1812-1820; U.S. Senator, 1821-1828; Governor of New York, 1829; U.S. Secretary of State, 1829-1831; Vice President of the United States, 1833-1837
•John Tyler: Lawyer; Member of the Virginia House of Delegates, 1811-1816, 1823-1825, 1838-1840; U.S. Representative, 1816-1821; Governor of Virginia, 1825-1827; U.S. Senator, 1827-1836; Vice President of the United States, 1841
•Franklin Pierce: Lawyer; Member of the New Hampshire State Legislature, 1829-1832 (Speaker, 1831-1832); U.S. Representative, 1833-1837; U.S. Senator, 1837-1842; U.S. District Attorney for New Hampshire; Brigadier General in the U.S. Army, Mexican War, 1846-1848
•James Buchanan: Lawyer; Member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, 1815-1816; U.S. Representative, 1821-1831; U.S. Minister to Russia, 1832-1833; U.S. Senator, 1834-1845; U.S. Secretary of State, 1845-1849; U.S. Minister to Great Britain, 1853-1856
•Andrew Johnson: Mayor of Greeneville, Tennessee, 1830-1833; Member of the Tennessee House of Representatives, 1835-1837, 1839-1841; Tennessee State Senator, 1841-1843; U.S. Representative, 1843-1853; Governor of Tennessee, 1853-1857; U.S. Senator, 1857-1862; Military Governor of Tennessee, 1862-1864; Vice President of the United States, 1865
Despite the obvious qualifications of the five Presidents listed, here is where they ended up in my first annual Presidential Rankings last year:
•Martin Van Buren: 29 of 43
•John Tyler: 19 of 43
•Franklin Pierce: 40 of 43
•James Buchanan: 43 of 43
•Andrew Johnson: 41 of 43