The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. History

InsideGov | By Alex Greer


In the first Republican debate, Ben Carson argued that when it comes to being a good president, “the thing that is probably most important is having a brain.”

While a high IQ does not guarantee success, it is true that intelligence is often associated with effective leaders. But does that trend hold true for U.S. presidents? Are the most successful presidents also the most intelligent?

With that question in mind, InsideGov ranked the 27 smartest presidents in U.S. history, using data from UC Davis professor, Dean Simonton. In a 2006 study, Simonton used historiometric methods to estimate each president’s IQ, analyzing information from their biographies and writings that would indicate a higher-than-average intellect.

This list is by no means definitive, but it should give a good sense of which presidents were highly intellectual. Interestingly, eight of the presidents on this list either never attended college or dropped out before finishing their degrees.

Simonton estimated four different IQ values for each president. We averaged all four IQs to get our ranking. President Obama was not included in the study. (According to the www.accademictip.org Obama’s IQ score is 130)

John Quincy Adams #1

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 168.8
College: Harvard University
Party Affiliation: Democratic-Republican
Number: 6th President
Years in Office: 1825 – 1829 (4 years)
State Affiliation: Massachusetts
Date of Birth: July 11, 1767
Like his father, John Quincy Adams was an esteemed lawyer and a formidable presence in court (he earned a law degree from Harvard). He was also a brilliant statesman, negotiating several key international treaties. Remarkably, Adams was fluent in at least four languages and regularly translated Latin and ancient Greek as well.

Thomas Jefferson #2

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 153.8
College: College of William and Mary (withdrew)
Party Affiliation: Democratic-Republican
Number: 3rd President
Years in Office: 1801 – 1809 (8 years)
State Affiliation: Virginia
Date of Birth: April 13, 1743
When speaking at a White House dinner for Nobel Laureates, JFK famously noted, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Jefferson certainly was a true Renaissance figure, studying everything from agricultural innovation to architecture.

John F. Kennedy #3

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 150.7
College: Harvard University
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Number: 35th President
Years in Office: 1961 – 1963 (2 years 41 weeks)
State Affiliation: Massachusetts
Date of Birth: May 29, 1917
At 43, Kennedy was the youngest person to be elected president. Although he frequently struggled with health issues, Kennedy was nonetheless an avid scholar and an ambitious statesman.

Bill Clinton #4

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 148.8
College: Georgetown University
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Number: 42nd President
Years in Office: 1993 – 2001 (8 years)
State Affiliation: Arkansas
Date of Birth: August 19, 1946
Clinton was elected to Phi Beta Kappa at Georgetown University and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where he studied philosophy, politics and economics. He also received a law degree from Yale.

Woodrow Wilson #5

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 145.1
College: Princeton University
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Number: 28th President
Years in Office: 1913 – 1921 (8 years)
State Affiliation: New Jersey
Date of Birth: December 28, 1856
Wilson earned a Ph.D. in political science and was chosen to be president of Princeton University, a position he held from 1902 to 1910. As president, Wilson was a key figure in the Progressive Movement and presided over World War I.

Jimmy Carter #6

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 145.1
College: U.S. Naval Academy
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Number: 39th President
Years in Office: 1977 – 1981 (4 years)
State Affiliation: Georgia
Date of Birth: October 1, 1924
Jimmy Carter is a case where a high IQ didn’t necessarily equate to a successful presidency. Before becoming president, Carter graduated with a bachelor of science degree from the Naval Academy and later took graduate courses on nuclear physics at Union College.

John Adams #7

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 142.5
College: Harvard University
Party Affiliation: Federalist
Number: 2nd President
Years in Office: 1797 – 1801 (4 years)
State Affiliation: Massachusetts
Date of Birth: October 30, 1735
Adams was a highly intellectual political theorist, historian, lawyer and politician. Growing up, he excelled in Latin school and was admitted to Harvard College at the young age of 15.

Theodore Roosevelt #8

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 142.3
College: Harvard University
Party Affiliation: Republican
Number: 26th President
Years in Office: 1901 – 1909 (7 years 26 weeks)
State Affiliation: New York
Date of Birth: October 27, 1858
Teddy Roosevelt was certainly one of the most intellectually curious presidents to occupy the White House. A prolific author, he published 35 books on subjects ranging from the War of 1812 to African game trails. He was also a respected naturalist and conservationist.

James Garfield #9

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 141.5
College: Williams College
Party Affiliation: Republican
Number: 20th President
Years in Office: 1881 – 1881 (26 weeks 12 hours)
State Affiliation: Ohio
Date of Birth: November 19, 1831
Garfield excelled as a student at Williams College, where he graduated second in his class. It was said that Garfield could write Latin with one hand and ancient Greek with the other.

Chester A. Arthur #10

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 141.5
College: Union College
Party Affiliation: Republican
Number: 21st President
Years in Office: 1881 – 1885 (3 years 26 weeks)
State Affiliation: New York
Date of Birth: October 5, 1829
Despite being one of the most intelligent presidents, Chester A. Arthur is generally regarded as being an inconsequential leader. Nonetheless, Arthur deserves credit for championing reform in a time of rampant political corruption.

James Madison #11

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 141.3
College: Princeton University
Party Affiliation: Democratic-Republican
Number: 4th President
Years in Office: 1809 – 1817 (8 years)
State Affiliation: Virginia
Date of Birth: March 16, 1751
As the “Father of the Constitution” and one of the key architects of the Bill of Rights, James Madison was certainly one of the most intelligent and influential U.S. presidents.

Abraham Lincoln #12

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 140
College: None
Party Affiliation: Republican
Number: 16th President
Years in Office: 1861 – 1865 (4 years 5 weeks)
State Affiliation: Illinois
Date of Birth: February 12, 1809
With an estimated IQ of 140, Lincoln is undoubtedly one of the smartest presidents. Despite never obtaining a college degree, Lincoln was a highly-respected lawyer and a skilled orator.

Franklin D. Roosevelt #13

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 139.6
College: Harvard University
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Number: 32nd President
Years in Office: 1933 – 1945 (12 years 5 weeks)
State Affiliation: New York
Date of Birth: January 30, 1882
In terms of influence, few presidents can match FDR’s 12 years as president. Roosevelt was also one of the most intellectual presidents to occupy the White House.

John Tyler #14

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 136.2
College: College of William and Mary
Party Affiliation: Whig
Number: 10th President
Years in Office: 1841 – 1845 (3 years 46 weeks)
State Affiliation: Virginia
Date of Birth: March 29, 1790
Tyler has an impressive pre-presidency career, serving as a governor, U.S. representative and senator. However, he had a fairly unimpressive presidency.

Millard Fillmore #15

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 136.0
College: None
Party Affiliation: Whig
Number: 13th President
Years in Office: 1850 – 1853 (2 years 36 weeks)
State Affiliation: New York
Date of Birth: January 7, 1800
Like Pierce, Fillmore failed to adequately address the issue of slavery. Although he never attended college, he helped found the University at Buffalo.

Franklin Pierce #16

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 134.8
College: Bowdoin College
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Number: 14th President
Years in Office: 1853 – 1857 (4 years)
State Affiliation: New Hampshire
Date of Birth: November 23, 1804
Not even a brilliant mind could save Pierce from a disastrous presidency. His failure to deal with the issue of slavery helped escalate the onset of the Civil War.

William Henry Harrison #17

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 133.9
College: Hampden-Sydney College (withdrew)
Party Affiliation: Whig
Number: 9th President
Years in Office: 1841 – 1841 (5 weeks 1 day)
State Affiliation: Ohio
Date of Birth: February 9, 1773
Sadly, William Henry Harrison’s presidency ended just 32 days into his first term, when he died of pneumonia. Before his presidency, Harrison gained fame for his military career.

Rutherford B. Hayes #18

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 133.9
College: Kenyon College
Party Affiliation: Republican
Number: 19th President
Years in Office: 1877 – 1881 (4 years)
State Affiliation: Ohio
Date of Birth: October 4, 1822
Like his predecessor, Ulysses S. Grant, Hayes struggled to reconcile the country after the Civil War. He is generally regarded as an unexceptional president.

Martin Van Buren #19

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 133.4
College: None
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Number: 8th President
Years in Office: 1837 – 1841 (4 years)
State Affiliation: New York
Date of Birth: December 5, 1782
Van Buren began reading law at the age of 14 and was admitted to the bar just seven years later. Along with Andrew Jackson, he was one of the most influential architects of the original Democratic Party.

George Washington #20

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 132.5
College: None
Number: 1st President
Years in Office: 1789 – 1797 (7 years 41 weeks)
State Affiliation: Virginia
Date of Birth: February 22, 1732
Washington managed to become the first U.S. president without a college degree. In addition to having a sharp political mind, Washington was also a skilled military commander.

Benjamin Harrison #21

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 132.2
College: Miami University
Party Affiliation: Republican
Number: 23rd President
Years in Office: 1889 – 1893 (4 years)
State Affiliation: Indiana
Date of Birth: August 20, 1833
Benjamin Harrison had a successful career as an attorney before and after his one-term presidency. He even represented the Republic of Venezuela against the United Kingdom.

Dwight D. Eisenhower #22

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 131.9
College: U.S. Military Academy (West Point)
Party Affiliation: Republican
Number: 34th President
Years in Office: 1953 – 1961 (8 years)
State Affiliation: Kansas
Date of Birth: October 14, 1890
Before becoming president, Eisenhower served as a five-star general in the army during World War II and was the Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces in Europe. Eisenhower also served as the president of Columbia University from 1948 to 1953.

Richard Nixon #23

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 131.0
College: Whittier College
Party Affiliation: Republican
Number: 37th President
Years in Office: 1969 – 1974 (5 years 26 weeks)
State Affiliation: California
Date of Birth: January 9, 1913
Nixon may have had the most scandal-filled presidency, but there’s no doubting his intelligence. Before he resigned from office, Nixon actually accomplished some major foreign policy goals and pushed for more environmental regulation.

Grover Cleveland #24

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 130.9
College: None
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Number: 22nd President
Years in Office: 1885 – 1889 (4 years)
State Affiliation: New York
Date of Birth: March 18, 1837
Cleveland couldn’t afford a college education but that didn’t stop him from becoming a successful lawyer. As president, Cleveland earned a reputation for his honesty and work ethic.

James K. Polk #25

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 130.2
College: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Party Affiliation: Democratic
Number: 11th President
Years in Office: 1845 – 1849 (4 years)
State Affiliation: Tennessee
Date of Birth: November 2, 1795
Polk has been called the “least known consequential president.” In his one term as president, Polk presided over the Mexican War, dramatically expanded the size of the country and overhauled the nation’s finance system.

William McKinley #26

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 130.2
College: Allegheny College (withdrew)
Party Affiliation: Republican
Number: 25th President
Years in Office: 1897 – 1901 (4 years 26 weeks)
State Affiliation: Ohio
Date of Birth: January 29, 1843
Although William McKinley dropped out of Allegheny College, he would later earn a law degree from Albany Law School. President McKinley was tragically assassinated just six months into his second term.

George H. W. Bush #27

The Most Intelligent Presidents in U.S. HistoryIQ: 130.1
College: Yale University
Party Affiliation: Republican
Number: 41st President
Years in Office: 1989 – 1993 (4 years)
State Affiliation: Texas
Date of Birth: June 12, 1924
Before he attended Yale, George H. W. Bush enlisted in the Navy and served until the end of World War II. He also had a successful career in the oil industry before turning to politics.

 

 

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