Universally and instantly recognizable, the President of the United States – the heads of state and government of the world’s largest superpower, the commander–in-chief of the US Armed Forces, the omnipotent and oft-termed “Leader of the Free World” – requires no long-winded or flowery introduction. What does require clarification, however, are the notions of “smartness” and “dumbness”. What makes someone smart or dumb? Is it their level of education? Their talents? Their actions? Their achievements? Their IQ? Their intellectualism?
Apart from the obvious answer (that it is one’s ability to ask a string of rhetorical questions) “smartness” is a concept that is open to a range of interpretations, so it is conceded that the assessments made in this article are open to debate. However, to stifle Internet debate (a.k.a. “flame wars”) this article will not base its assessment on policy decisions made by the respective presidents, and, furthermore, accepts that the act of holding the presidential office in itself demonstrates some inkling of intelligence.
This section of the article deals with the most interesting of the presidents that can be deemed intelligent. Whilst some might bemoan the lack of Obama or Kennedy, who are undeniably intelligent, the presidents here either have madder skillz or achievements that outshine them.
Thomas Jefferson (3rd President, from 1801-1809)
No matter how one interprets “smartness”, Thomas Jefferson would unequivocally qualify. The principal author of The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s talents could constitute a book; the following catalog barely does them justice. During his teenage years at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, VA, Jefferson became incredibly proficient in philosophy, mathematics, history, French, Latin and Greek. “Pfft-“, some hipster reader will undoubtedly say, “-Wikipedia knows all of those things- and Jefferson couldn’t Wikipedia like I Wikipedia!” In this obtuse and poorly articulated response lies a valid criticism – the ability to merely retain knowledge from books may not constitute smartness. But Jefferson was more than just book-smart: a polymath – which is a person distinguished in many varied fields, and not an obnoxious exponential equation – he was also an accomplished archeologist, author, inventor, lawyer, musician (talented in the cello, clavichord and violin) ornithologist, paleontologist, poet and speechmaker. And before you interrupt with some obscure insult, hipster, his architectural and horticultural prowess was such that he designed the University of Virginia (which he himself founded) and the Poplar Forest. This ridonkulous amount of talent was recognized by later president John F. Kennedy when he addressed 49 Nobel Laureates, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House – with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone."
John Adams (2nd President, from 1797-1801)
Another Founding Father was John Adams, whose dinners with Jefferson (amongst others) resulted in the American Declaration of Independence, the screenplay to the 1996 blockbuster smash hit starring Will Smith, the document where the American colonies announced and justified their secession from the British Empire. With his polymathic fingers in every pie, it is unsurprising that it was Jefferson’s hand that predominantly penned the Declaration, but it was John Adams who championed it in Congressional debates. Adams’ oratory was so dedicated and effective that Jefferson wrote in a letter , “No man better merited, than Mr. John Adams to hold a most conspicuous place in the design. He was the pillar of it’s [sic] support on the floor of Congress, it’s [sic] ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.”
James Madison (4th President, from 1809-1817)
Often included with the Declaration of Independence, in terms of historical and societal significance, are The Constitution and The Bill of Rights. Another close friend of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, was largely responsible for these two fundamental documents. He was a major proponent behind the drafting and ratification of The Constitution, and he codified Jefferson’s belief of the primacy of liberty by tabling The Bill of Rights before Congress. Similar to Jefferson, he was broadly educated from a young age, learning Latin, Greek, French, Italian, Spanish as well as mathematics, history and science. In 1769, he continued his tertiary education at the College of New Jersey (which was later to become Princeton), and his study of the philosophies of Aristotle and John Locke no doubt shaped his thoughts on constitutionalism and liberty. Despite slight dabbling in law, he never made the bar, which makes his drafting of the two most fundamental legal instruments even more noteworthy. As a result of his education and his contributions to the legal sphere, James Madison was ranked as the second most intelligent president in a study conducted by political scholars at the Siena Institute (Jefferson obviously came first).
Thomas Woodrow Wilson (28th President, from 1913-1921)
Exactly 110 years after James Madison first set foot in the hallowed halls of the College of New Jersey, a young man named Woodrow Wilson graduated from there. This same man would return a few short years later, in 1890, to join the professorial faculty and shortly after that, in 1902, assume the position of President of Princeton. He must have liked the title “President”, for in 1912 he stood and won the presidential election. Wilson remains the most academically qualified president, being the only one thus far to receive a doctorate. His 1885 PhD treatise titled, "Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics" no doubt prepared him well for his life in politics, and in 1919, Woodrow Wilson was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his leadership during World War I. It therefore seems…(puts on sunglasses)…that WWI really needed its WW. YEAAAAAAAAAAAAH!
Theodore Roosevelt (26th President, from 1901-1909)
Woodrow Wilson’s ascendancy to the presidential office was as a result of his rivals William Taft and Theodore Roosevelt splitting the Republican vote . Similar to Wilson, Roosevelt, after whom the teddy bear is named, was also a published academic, writing several acclaimed histories. He was also a keen hunter and naturalist, journeying to Africa and South America where he stuffed and mounted many queer beasts (taxidermically speaking, ye of dirty mind). Roosevelt’s interests stemmed from his primary homeschooling, which resulted in a strange and varied academic aptitude: he was strong in history and biology, French and German, but not in mathematics, Latin or Greek. Apart from these academic qualities, Roosevelt had an incredible mind: he was said to have an eidetic (photographic) memory and could memorize entire books. He had a phenomenal ability to carry out several tasks at once, apparently able to dictate a letter to one secretary, a memorandum to another, and casually read a book, all simultaneously.
James Garfield(20th President, from March- September 1881)
Another president with talents so phenomenal that they are barely credible is James Garfield. He was not only the first ambidextrous president, but also multi-lingual: unlike Roosevelt, he excelled at Greek and Latin. That in itself is nothing to crow about – all the other presidents previously mentioned were proficient in multiple languages – but what was incredible was that he could write in both languages simultaneously – Greek with one hand and Latin with the other! Garfield’s freakishly awesome talent can only be described as pen-omenal.
As raised before, the notion of smartness is very subjective; depending on which criterion one uses, one can reach very different assessments. This section considers presidents who exhibited both smartness and dumbness depending on different criteria.
Richard Nixon (37th President, from 1969-1974)
If one uses the Intelligence Quotient test as a determinant of smartness, then Richard Nixon is the smartest , with his IQ of 143 least ability to avoid making crucial mistakes. This is finding was evidenced by Nixon being the only president forced to resign from office.
Bill Clinton (42nd President, from 1993-2001)
Another president whose scandalous actions lead to their public humiliation was Bill Clinton, whose affair with Monica Lewinski and later perjury about the matter rocked, shocked and rolled the country. Whilst Clinton finished his term with the highest approval rating of any president since Eisenhower, it was put forward that the scandal derailed the election campaign of Al Gore, and in any case, the perjury resulted in the revocation of his license to practice law in Arkansas. However, whilst the affair may have been a dumb decision, or as Clinton describes it, “a terrible moral error”, Clinton is anything but dumb, when one considers his education. The recipient of many scholarships, the most prestigious being Oxford University’s Rhodes Scholarship, Clinton is an alumnus of the august Georgetown, Oxford and Yale universities. He graduated from the latter with a Juris Doctorate, and assumed a professorial role at the University of Arkansas before entering politics.
Abraham Lincoln (16th President, from 1861-1865)
Unlike Bill Clinton, Abraham Lincoln had very little schooling – only having formal tuition for 18 months. By this criterion, one might judge him as dumb, but that would be jumping the gun. An avid reader, Lincoln educated himself, a process that he described as “stud[ying]with nobody.” Through his study, he managed to master law and was admitted to the bar in 1837. Giant in stature, he became a giant in statute: he soon developed a reputation for being a ferocious and formidable cross-examiner. This legal success indicates a man of prodigious natural talent, and it is arguable whether this makes him smarter than one who is formally taught. What may further inform one’s view on the matter is that Lincoln is the only president to have registered a patent: a buoyancy device to right ships in rough weather.
This is the section you have no doubt been waiting for - the one that deals with the comparatively less talented presidents. Like tequila shots, the judgments proclaimed in this section should be enjoyed liberally and with a pinch of salt – and one should savor, rather than revile, the burn and the acerbity.
Warren G. Harding (29th President, from 1921-1923)
Perhaps not a household name, Warren Harding is the worst of the first men; he has the ignominy of being ranked America’s least intelligent president. Although the Siena study does not specify how it reaches its conclusions, a consideration of Harding’s conduct during his term yields much insight into this Nein-stein. His presidential term was rocked by scandals greater than either Lewinsky or Watergate: nepotism ran free and many of his friends thus appointed (known as “The Ohio Gang”) were involved in bribery and embezzlement scandals. Although the White House was not subject to the same scrutiny and transparency of today, the shady dealings were so brazen and gormless that they quickly came to light. However, the only thing dumber than these peccadilloes (and it’s not his middle name, Gamaliel) is Harding’s barely hidden consumption of alcohol at private parties in the White House. Why is this dumb? Well, Harding’s presidency coincided with the Prohibition. Also, being apparently handsome, Harding was nominated to try to secure the vote of women in the 1920 election (the first time women voted in America). When it became apparent that his wife was treated as a waitress at these parties, and that he engaged in multiple extra-marital affairs, he disenfranchised and isolated his key demographic.
Calvin Coolidge (30th President, from 1923-1929)
With the sudden death of Harding in 1923, his Vice-President Calvin Coolidge ascended to the presidency. Despite such insightful statements as, “When a great many people are unable to find work, unemployment results”, Coolidge qualifies as one of the dumbest presidents in a very different capacity: although well educated, Coolidge was a shy and taciturn president, and in this sense could be considered the dumbest of all. There are many anecdotes that are testament to his silent nature, the best of which being an exchange between him and a Washington socialite. The socialite said that she had bet her friends that she could extract three words from him; Calvin replied coolly, “You lose.”
Ronald Reagan (40th President, from 1981-1989)
Ronald Reagan had the complete opposite personality to the reserved Coolidge. A jovial, showy celebrity, Reagan acted in well over fifty films before entering politics. However, he features in this section for more conventional reasons than Coolidge – he demonstrated none of the characteristics that are traditionally ascribed to smartness. Talented neither academically nor musically, his spheres were the dramatic and the athletic. He could not be considered an intellectual, nor an author of any merit (his diaries, although wildly popular, are neither literary nor academic) and his only invention was this side-splittingly savage satirical joke. The most convincing evidence of Reagan’s dumbness ironically comes from the words of his supporters. Wrote Martin Anderson, one of Reagan’s longstanding advisors, “his drafts contain thousands of facts and figures. Sometimes he lists his sources in accompanying documents. In one case, for an essay on oil, he appended them. At times he cites his sources in the text.” Great Scott! The man used facts and citations: that should wipe the disbelieving smile off Doctor Emmett Brown’s face.
Andrew Johnson(17th President, from 1865-1869)
Andrew Johnson became president after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and though those were both literally and metaphorically large shoes to fill, he did a particularly poor job of it: the Siena study ranks him as the third dumbest and all time worst president. Like Lincoln, he had no formal education, and like Reagan, his vocation (a tailor) is not one that is traditionally associated with smartness. Unlike either of them, he had no redeeming characteristics. Despite supporting Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, he was the South’s most dogmatic and most bigoted proponent of slavery. Whether or not he was aware of the inherent contradiction, there was an ulterior motive for this union: the devious Johnson was trying to worm his way into the Oval Office (nothing to see here, ye dirty minds, move along). This motive was realized when he was announced as Vice-President in Lincoln’s successful 1864 presidential campaign. However, in dumbness par excellence, he appeared at the inauguration drunk, and his inaugural speech was cut short after he made abusive and inappropriate comments. His later presidency fared little better - stubborn and uncompromising, he alienated both parties and was eventually impeached.
Gerald Ford (38th President, from 1974-1977)
A Yale Law School graduate, Gerald Ford was also an accomplished football player. Unfortunately, his smartness is closer to that of a jock than a judge. This was noted by his rival Lyndon B. Johnson, who accused him of “playing too much football without a helmet” and claimed, "Jerry Ford is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time." Moreover, it has been suggested that Ford’s honesty, in contrast to the Agnew-Nixon lack of integrity, made him the ideal presidential candidate. Perhaps, but it also makes him an ideal candidate for this section. An honest politician? That’s either plain naïve or an elaborate Cretan paradox. And for those unconvinced by this watertight line of argumentation, consider some of Ford’s words of wisdom: “If Lincoln were alive today, he’d roll over in his grave”, and, “I watch a lot of baseball on the radio.”
George W. Bush (42nd President, from 2001-2009)
Of course we saved the best for last. It isn’t really necessary to justify Dubya’s appearance in this section –and nor do we have the space – but it’s good fun to reminisce nostalgically over his well documented failings. Like Ford, Bush graduated from Yale (although he only managed a C-grade average ) and also like Ford, perplexing, contradictory or painfully banal self-evident observations (yep, they are a real pain in the ass) emerge, unchecked, from his mouth. But unlike Ford, the sheer rate and frequency of these mistakes were so incredible that recording them went beyond cheap political points-scoring: they demanded cataloging for posterity’s sake, lest future generations forget or disbelieve their existence. A neologism had to be coined to describe them, and so “Bushism” entered the American vernacular. The Complete Bushisms, all 13 pages of them, are available here. As a result, the Siena study found him to be the second dumbest president of all time. And perhaps worse still, not even Google can save him from being considered just a tad slimy.