Who were the smartest presidents of the United States? It’s not the same question as rating the effectiveness of presidents, and I’m not writing this to open up a debate on modern presidents. I’m just having a geeky history moment here. I purposely made the president in my book, WILDFIRE RUN, very intelligent, and it made me start wondering about actual presidents.
Back when I was teaching, I did quite a bit of research into the different forms of intelligence, because I quickly learned from the reactions to my lectures that not all people learn well from books and note-taking, and that intelligence comes in many forms.
Richard Nixon is reported to have had the highest measured I.Q., but intelligence tests have only been in common use for the past hundred years, and not all the twentieth century presidents were tested.
For example, James Garfield could write in Greek with one hand while simultaneously writing in Latin with the other. That has to be a sign of higher brain power, since writing coherently with one hand in a person’s native language is difficult enough.
We could also look at which presidents attained advanced degrees. Many presidents have had law degrees, but only Woodrow Wilson had a PhD. His degree was in history and political science and before he was president of the U.S., he was president of Princeton University. Looking at advanced degrees, though, skews the results toward twentieth century presidents, and those who came from families with higher incomes. Harry Truman didn’t have the chance to go to college, but is arguably one of the best read presidents. Seven presidents had no formal education at all, including Abraham Lincoln.
Some scholars have used the ability to write well as a measure of intelligence. Many presidents have written their own speeches, but most were not gifted speech writers. Jefferson and Lincoln are considered to be among the most eloquent. If anyone has ever been bored by the repetitive campaign speeches of modern candidates, it must have been interesting to listen to Benjamin Harrison. He gave 140 different speeches in a 30 day period, all before the invention of the teleprompter.
Mechanical ability is clearly one type of intelligence that many of us don’t possess. I wanted to find information about presidents who were good at taking apart engines and putting them back together, because I assume some could, but that information wasn’t easily found. I had to go back and look at degrees again for clues. Both Herbert Hoover and Jimmie Carter had engineering degrees. Patents could also provide a hint. Abraham Lincoln the only President to hold a patent. After some bad experiences on ships, he filed his Patent #6,469 for “A Device for Buoying Vessels Over Shoals”.
Interestingly, very few presidents have had documented artistic ability, which is one measure of creative intelligence. Dwight Eisenhower took up oil painting late in life, and became a proficient painter.
Several presidents have played musical instruments, but none were considered to be particularly talented, except possibly Thomas Jefferson and Harry Truman. Jefferson played the cello, the clavichord and the violin. Truman played the piano very well and loved music, but never believed he had enough talent to be a professional musician.
Of course, I’m still waiting for a president to match who might be the all-time smartest fictional president, West Wing’s Josiah Bartlet (one ‘t’ to distinguish him from the actual Josiah Bartlett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence). Bartlet’s Nobel Laureate in Economics will be hard to beat.
Which President noticed the White House was about to fall down?
On a presidential related note, ever wanted an easier way to memorize the presidents in order? Check this post out and see if it helps: https://deegarretson.wordpress.com/2010/09/19/how-to-memorize-the-presidents-in-order-x-men-version/
And for fun, which President was a good cook? (recipe included)