The 10 Smartest (and the Dumbest) Presidents in America’s History

Some presidents weren’t firing on all cylinders.

Warren Harding, hand down our dumbest Commander-in-Chief.
Photo Credit: Library of Congress

It is not unreasonable to expect the “Leader of the Free World” to be a pretty smart cookie. After all, as Commander-in-Chief of the armed forces, with codes to fire nuclear armaments, the ability to make life-and-death decisions, policy making, and just general 24/7 responsibility for the lives of 300 million American citizens, intelligence should be something we can take for granted. Right? Yet, just like the general population, there is a big disparity of intelligence among the elite group of men who have held the office of president. Some were brilliant, some were very dim bulbs. If we were to judge by the size of their vocabulary alone, it would seem that our presidents are getting dumber as the centuries roll by.

An interesting study by the Guardian graded presidential speeches by education level using the commonly used Flesch-Kincaid readability test. George Washington and his fellow Founding Fathers regularly registered reading levels in the 20s (i.e. a vocabulary reflecting 20 or more years of education). Today’s presidents barely register a 10. Whether this is a reflection on presidential intelligence or modern speechmaking strategies aimed at a vastly different electorate might be debatable, but it is no coincidence that the two Bushes had some of the smallest ranges in vocabulary of all. In any case, there is little doubt that the following presidents have exhibited extraordinary talents, both high and low. 

The Head of the Class:

Thomas Jefferson

Anyone who could compose the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” had a few things going for him. Not just a wordsmith, at which he had few equals, the third president of the United States was a whiz at math, philosophy, history, and the languages (he was proficient in French, Latin and Greek). And that was just as a college student at the College of William and Mary. He went on to become an accomplished architect (he designed the University of Virginia), horticulturalist, author, inventor, musician (he played the violin, cello and the clavichord), lawyer, ornithologist, paleontologist, archaeologist, and poet. John F. Kennedy, in addressing a room full of Nobel Prize laureates, once remarked, “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."

James Madison

Another brilliant Founding Father, our fourth president, James Madison, was as impressive an intellect as his colleagues Jefferson and Adams. Despite never having been a lawyer, he was the primary author of the very basis of the United States legal system, the Constitution, and its first 10 amendments, collectively known as the Bill of Rights. Madison, like Jefferson, was proficient in Latin, Greek, French, Italian, and Spanish, math, science, and history. Studying at the College of New Jersey (which later became Princeton), he was influenced by the philosophers Aristotle and John Locke, who in turn influenced his thoughts on liberty and democracy. 

John Adams

John Adams, our second president, rivaled if not quite surpassed Jefferson in the intellect department. While Jefferson penned the magnificent Declaration, it was the result of many meetings with Adams (and others, though none so influential). Where Jefferson was a relatively quiet man, Adams was the master of oratory. His impassioned speeches to the Continental Congress tipped the scales in favor of passing the Declaration. Said Jefferson, “No man better merited, than Mr. John Adams to hold a most conspicuous place in the design [of the Declaration]. He was the pillar of its support on the floor of Congress, its ablest advocate and defender against the multifarious assaults it encountered.” Long after their presidencies, Adams and Jefferson continued to correspond, in terms both combative and sympathetic. They were two brilliant peas in a pod, so connected they died on the very same day in 1826, five hours apart. That day? The Fourth of July. Of course.

Woodrow Wilson

Woodrow Wilson followed his presidential predecessor, James Madison, as a student and graduate of Princeton University. In fact, he did him one better. He became the university’s president in 1902, and in 1912, he became our 28th president. Of our 44 presidents, Wilson was the only one to hold a doctorate, and one of the few (which include Teddy Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama) to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, for his role in guiding the United States to victory in World War I, as well as his efforts to attain world peace through the fledgling League of Nations.

Theodore Roosevelt

Teddy Roosevelt, one of America’s most popular presidents, was responsible for our National Parks system, an avid hunter and taxidermist, and a lover of the outdoors. But Teddy’s intellect was formidable too. Home-schooled, Roosevelt was proficient in French and German, and was a strong science and history buff. Teddy possessed a photographic memory and was said to be able to memorize whole books. An accomplished multitasker (before the term was coined), he could dictate a letter at the same time he was reading (and presumably memorizing) a book. Roosevelt was the first U.S. president to receive a Nobel Peace Prize, for his work in settling the Russo-Japanese war. He once wrote, “Bodily vigor is good, and vigor of intellect is even better, but far above both is character.” Roosevelt had plenty of all three.

James Garfield

James Garfield, our 20th president, is relatively unknown among Americans today, primarily due to the fact that he only served 200 days before a crazed assassin murdered him. Never able to establish a legacy, Garfield nevertheless was celebrated in his time as a man with a remarkable mind. Born into poverty, he held a number of jobs before becoming a teacher and then turning to politics. Educated at Hiram College in Ohio and at Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., Garfield was a fierce debater, and like other presidential intellects before and after him, proficient in Greek and Latin. However, not only could he speak the languages, he could write in them. And not only could he write in them, he could write in two of them simultaneously, one hand writing in Greek, the other Latin! Garfield served heroically in the Civil War and was ardently opposed to slavery. A quote attributed to him makes one wonder whether, having had the time, he might have become a fine president: "[I]f a man is black, be he friend or foe, he is thought best kept at a distance. It is hardly possible God will let us succeed while such enormities are practiced.”

Dunce Caps

Warren Harding

How do you judge a president’s intelligence? One way is by observing his behavior, and by that standard, Warren Harding, America’s 29th president, on the short list as America’s worst president, was hands down our dumbest Commander-in-Chief. Harding was an indifferent senator who became a detached president. In his inaugural address, he said, "Our most dangerous tendency is to expect too much from the government and at the same time do too little for it." He certainly followed the latter. During his presidency, scandals lurked behind every door, and he was clueless about all of it. The Republicans nominated Harding partially because he was a handsome fellow and women were voting for the first time in 1920. Of course, Harding couldn’t bother to even be present when, as senator, he had a chance to actually vote for the bill granting women’s suffrage. But he did like women, at least judging from his numerous extramarital affairs. He also enjoyed alcohol-fueled parties in the White House, which was awkward, considering his presidency was smack dab in the middle of Prohibition. H.L. Mencken said of Harding, “He writes the worst English I have ever encountered. It reminds me of a string of wet sponges; it reminds me of tattered washing on the line; it reminds me of stale bean soup, of college yells, of dogs barking idiotically through endless nights.” 

George W. Bush

No one can really be surprised at Bush 43’s presence on the Dumbest President roster. After all, when entire books are compiled of “Bushisms,” his reputation precedes (and follows) him. He was a C student at Yale, where he no doubt was accepted due to his wealthy and distinguished political family, and no sane person would have predicted great things from him. Yet, as George W. said, “They misunderestimated me.” Despite dodging the Vietnam War by joining the Air Force Reserve, and failing at numerous businesses, he somehow parlayed ineptitude into becoming a do-nothing governor of Texas (where the governor, by state law, literally does almost nothing), and then 43rd president of the United States. As president, he enjoyed vacations, taking 879 days of leisure time, more than two years of his tenure. He also disregarded the threat from Al Qaeda, screwed up the search for Osama bin Laden, blundered into the Iraq War, checked out on Hurricane Katrina, presided over the beginning of the Great Recession, and generally managed to drive the country into deeper debt than ever before. In the immortal words of George W., "I'll be long gone before some smart person ever figures out what happened inside this Oval Office."

Andrew Johnson

Our 17th president was a drunk, a bigot and a terrible leader. Moving into the Oval Office upon the murder of Abraham Lincoln, it is hard to imagine two Presidents further apart in intellect or ability. Although a supporter of slavery, his ambition to be President kept him in the Union camp during the Civil War. No favorite of Lincoln or his wife, when he entered the hotel room in which the dying Lincoln lay, Mrs. Lincoln began screaming for him to get out. Off he went to his room and tied a mighty drunk on. He had to be awakened in order to be sworn in as the new President. One account describing him that day, said, "he had puffy eyes and his hair was caked with mud from the street." Still apparently drunk, he gave an impromptu “inaugural” address that was abusive of the defeated South and wildly inappropriate. As President, he imposed a harsh rule over the former Confederacy, made enemies in both the Republican and Democratic parties, and was eventually impeached (although narrowly escaping conviction and removal from office).

Gerald Ford

Gerald Ford, the 38th president, ascended the office upon the resignation of Richard Nixon after the Watergate scandal. A Yale Law School graduate, Ford also played football in college, and his jock side certainly dominated his academic credentials. Lyndon Johnson once remarked that Ford had been, “playing too much football without a helmet.” More colorfully, he opined, "Jerry Ford is so dumb he can't fart and chew gum at the same time." Despite his athletic background, Ford was memorably caught on camera tripping over steps, and was endlessly lampooned by comedian Chevy Chase on the then-fledgling Saturday Night Live. In a battle for his political life during the close-fought 1976 election, Ford debated Jimmy Carter on national television, where he proceeded to assert that Poland, a virtual puppet state of the Soviet Union, was not a Soviet satellite. The nation begged to differ, and he lost to Carter. For anyone who may doubt Jerry’s place on the dunce list, perhaps a quote from him will serve to convince. “If Lincoln were alive today, he’d roll over in his grave.”

Ronald Reagan

Fortieth president Ronald Reagan was no rocket scientist, his saint status among the current Republican Party notwithstanding. Famous for doodling during cabinet and policy meetings, in between gobbling down jellybeans, the Gipper was a middling athlete in college and a charismatic but mediocre Hollywood actor. Though his diary entries proved bestselling material after his death, they exhibited the same literary acumen as his acting abilities. Reagan remained detached from the day-to-day grind of his presidency, preferring to leave the details to his underlings, which led to scandals like Iran-Contra. He preferred giving speeches, and although dubbed “The Great Communicator," some of his classic quotes betray a less-than-nimble mind. As Ronnie once said, with a wink and a smile, "Facts are stupid things." 

Larry Schwartz is a Brooklyn-based freelance writer with a focus on health, science and American history. 
 
 
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