12/08/2011 04:55 pm ET | Updated Feb 07, 2012

When Statesmen Led the Nation

In contrast with many of the candidates seeking high office in America today, there was a time in our nation when presidents and presidential candidates represented the most brilliant minds among us.

By the time he was ten years old, for example, John Quincy Adams, our sixth president, had read Shakespeare's Tempest, As You Like It, Merry Wives of Windsor, Much Ado About Nothing, and King Lear. By 16 he had read -- among other things -- all eight volumes (more than 500 pages each) of David Hume's History of England, Catherine Macaulay's eight-volume The History of England from the Accession of James I to that of the Brunswick Line, William Robertson's three-volume The History of the Reign of Charles V, Robert Watson's two-volume The History of the Reign of Philip the Second, King of Spain, Thomas Davies's Memoirs of the Life of David Garrick, Edward Gibbon's six-volume epic The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and the two-volume landmark work in economics by Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. He also studied and translated, into both English and French, Caesar's Commentaries, Cicero's Orations, Virgil's Aeneid, Tacitus's Agricola, the works of Sallust, and some works of Horace and Ovid. He studied all the English poets -- Dryden, Pope, and so on -- and he spoke fluent French, German, Dutch, and Russian, as well as classical Latin and Greek.

At 18, when he entered Harvard as a junior, he had lived in England, France, Holland, with his father John Adams, while Adams was American ambassador in those countries. He then moved to Russia for a year to serve as secretary of the American legation under Ambassador Francis Dana -- at 15 years of age! -- and he traveled extensively through Germany, Poland, Sweden, and Denmark. Later, as American ambassador himself in Holland, Germany, Russia, and Britain, successively, he added Italian and Spanish to the languages he had mastered.

John Quincy Adams was a graduate of Harvard, which, according to the late historian Samuel Eliot Morison, "rendered her sons fit to serve their country, not by practical courses on politics and government, but by a study of antique culture that broadened their mental vision, stressed virtue, and promoted... the character appropriate to a republican form of government. American revolutionary leaders, both North and South... could never have rendered their distinguished services to the young republic without that classical learning which is denied to most Americans today." Although Morison wrote those words in 1936, "the character appropriate to a republican form of government" requires no less knowledge today than it did in the early days of our republic.

Not every president went to Harvard, obviously, but even those without a degree from Harvard or any college acquired the same or more education on their own. George Washington went to war before he could go to college, but he accumulated more than 3,000 books on law, political science, military science, economics, history, geography, the sciences, agriculture, literature, poetry and theater -- and he carefully studied each book, jotting notes on the margins of most and underlining key phrases throughout. Although he never earned a college degree, both Harvard and Yale awarded him honorary degrees, recognizing him as one of the best educated, most learned men of his day, as well as a national hero.

In contrast, Herman Cain, who just "suspended" (but did not abandon) his campaign for the presidency, complained to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I'm not supposed to know anything about foreign policy." Michele Bachman thought the Battle of Lexington, Massachusetts, which started the American Revolution, actually was in New Hampshire, and, in assessing the Civil War, asserted that slaves were actually happy and their masters merely misunderstood. Rick Perry wants to eliminate three government departments, but can't recall which ones, and Newt Gingrich, who married three times, admits to an extramarital affair while he was voting to impeach President Bill Clinton for the same impropriety. Mitt Romney, who now opposes a national health care plan identical to the one he championed in Massachusetts, promised voters on the Iowa campaign trail, "You'll see me more than you like," but never showed up.

Most American voters used to defer to the most educated and most experienced candidates in matters of governance. They believed in what President John Quincy Adams's grandson Henry Adams called "the Ciceronian idea of government by the best." Americans "chose men to represent them because they wanted to be well represented and they chose the best they had." And those they selected were "statesmen," not "politicians," accepting token "honoraria" for their services; not "pay."

Had Joe the plumber -- or even former candidate Herman Cain -- been among the settlers who helped found and build this nation in the 1700s and 1800s, both would almost certainly have deferred to the George Washingtons and John Quincy Adamses to run our government, while Joe focused on fitting pipes and Herman on baking pies. Now Joe the plumber -- and Herman the pieman -- pretend they know how to lead the nation. The question, if we let them, is where? Into the oven or, more likely, into the sewer.

Harlow Giles Unger is writing a biography of John Quincy Adams, which Da Capo Press will publish next year. He is the author of twenty books, including six biographies of America's Founding Fathers. His latest book -- also from Da Capo Press -- is American Tempest: How the Boston Tea Party Sparked a Revolution.