America’s Smartest (and ‘Dumbest’) Presidents
Donald Trump often makes reference to having a superior intellect, once declaring himself to be a “very stable genius.”
Trump has refused to release his school transcripts, but presidential historian Barbara Perry has some thoughts about the former president’s brain power.
“I think he’s our most cunning president, and I think there is a certain amount of intellect that that requires,” says Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “So, maybe for some presidents, they make up for lack of native brilliance and intelligence with cleverness. And he obviously knows how to work a crowd, so I’m not going to take that away from him.”
In 2006, psychologist Dean Simonton set out to quantify the intelligence of U.S. presidents by estimating their IQ levels. Intellectual brilliance and openness to experience were among the factors Simonton used to get an idea of which presidents actually were geniuses.
Although Harvard graduate John Quincy Adams had the highest estimated IQ (175) of all U.S. leaders, Simonton says America’s third commander in chief, Thomas Jefferson (IQ 160), was the real genius with many achievements in different areas.
“He’s a great writer. As you know, he is the main author of the Declaration of Independence. He’s a great architect, designing not only his own mansion but also the original campus of the University of Virginia. He was a political theorist. He wrote a lot of political theory that forms the basis for our Constitution,” says Simonton, professor emeritus in the psychology department at the University of California, Davis. “He was a biblical scholar. He also was a pioneer in agriculture, including growing grapes for wine. And of course, he’s a great diplomat and a great president. So, he was a very amazing guy intellectually.”
Simonton’s analysis does not include any presidents after 2006. However, Perry uses a variety of factors, including native intelligence, grades, transcripts and what universities they attended, to assess America’s most recent leaders.
“Is it their own words [in speeches]? So that shows an independent thinker. It shows whether they are clever with the language. Are they elegant and eloquent in presenting their policies? Do they have a wit about them?” Perry says. “Their writing, their speaking, their ability to speak clearly. And then there’s independence of thought and actions. Are they writing independently? Are they thinking independently? Are their policies based on their ideas?”
Using these criteria, Perry puts Barack Obama in the “highest category of intellect,” pointing out that even his fellow students at Harvard University felt the future 44th president was “on a different plane than most of the other brilliant people in the classes.”
“I surely would put Obama and [Bill] Clinton in the top five,” Perry says. “There’s just an ability of those men to comprehend, to analyze and synthesize, that is, to me, a true sign of brightness.”
Simonton says it’s difficult to assess Trump due to limited information and because one of the 45th president’s favorite methods of communication was tweeting, which does not demonstrate a complexity of thinking.
As to the current president, Perry says Joe Biden isn’t among America’s brightest leaders.
“I just never found him particularly intellectually sharp or engaging,” she says. “I think you can see that from where he went to school, from his grades. He didn’t go to the top elite schools for undergrad or graduate school. … So, I just think he is of average intellect, but obviously he has parlayed that [into the presidency] by virtue, I think, of his personality.”
America’s presidents are “definitely smarter than the general population,” according to Simonton, who adds that leaders can’t appear to be too much more intelligent than their followers because people don’t follow leaders that they don’t understand.
Both Perry and Simonton agree that America’s earliest presidents were among the most brilliant.
“One of the reasons why we could have pretty bright presidents at the beginning is that they weren’t elected by the popular vote. They were elected by electors who were chosen by state legislators. … And if you have someone who is a leader of leaders — like a CEO, who is a leader of managers below — then they tend to be more intelligent,” Simonton says. “I’ve actually done research showing that prime ministers are generally more intelligent than presidents of the United States, because they’re chosen by other leaders. You have to be pretty smart.”
America’s least bright presidents include Warren Harding, whose time in office was rocked by scandal; Andrew Johnson, a tailor who never attended school; and Calvin Coolidge, who reportedly fell asleep in afternoon meetings if he missed his after-lunch nap.
Simonton says America needs leaders who are bright enough to understand complexity and break it down enough for the American public to understand.
“It used to be that being smart was an asset — having a high IQ, having an Ivy League education, and that kind of thing. The presidency has been, I think, dumbed down, and part of that is because we have so much more access to the presidency,” Simonton says. “There’s a correlation between intelligence and problem-solving ability. What that means is that most problems are complex, and highly intelligent people are more likely to be able to solve complex problems.”