America’s smartest (and “stupidest”) presidents
Donald Trump often refers to his superior intellect, once stating that he is a “very stable genius.”
Trump has refused to release his school transcripts, but presidential historian Barbara Perry has some thoughts on the former president’s mental capacity.
“I think he’s our most cunning president, and I think that takes a certain amount of intelligence,” says Perry, director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. “So maybe some presidents make up for their lack of innate brilliance and intelligence with quick wits. And he obviously knows how to work with the 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 assessing their IQ levels. Intellectual genius and openness to experience were among the factors that Simonton used to get an idea of what kind of presidents were actually geniuses.
Although Harvard alumnus John Quincy Adams had the highest IQ (175) of any U.S. leader, Simonton says that America’s third commander in chief, Thomas Jefferson (IQ 160), was a true genius with many accomplishments in various fields.
“He is a great writer. As you know, he is the main author of the Declaration of Independence. He is an excellent architect who designed not only his mansion, but also the original campus of the University of Virginia. He was a political theorist. He wrote a lot of the political theories that formed the basis of our Constitution,” says Simonton, Professor Emeritus in the Department of Psychology at the University of California, Davis. “He was a Bible scholar. He was also a pioneer in agriculture, including growing grapes for wine. And, of course, he is a great diplomat and a great president. So he was a very amazing guy intellectually.”
Simonton’s analysis does not include presidents after 2006. However, Perry uses many factors, including local intelligence, grades, transcripts, and the universities they attended, to evaluate America’s most recent leaders.
“These are their own words [in speeches]? So this is indicative of an independent thinker. This shows how smart they are with language. Are they elegant and eloquent in presenting their policies? Do they have wit? Perry says. “Their writing, their speech, their ability to speak clearly. And then there is the independence of thought and action. Do they write independently? Do they think independently? Are their policies based on their ideas?
Using these criteria, Perry ranks Barack Obama in the “highest category of intelligence,” pointing out that even his fellow students at Harvard University believed that the future 44th president was “on a different plane than most of the other brilliant people in the classroom.”
“I would definitely put Obama and [Bill] Clinton is in the top five,” Perry says. “That’s just the ability of these people to comprehend, analyze and synthesize, that is, for me, the true sign of genius.”
Simonton says assessing Trump is difficult because of limited information and because one of the 45th president’s favorite ways to communicate was through tweets that don’t show the complexity of the mindset.
As for the current president, Perry says Joe Biden is not among America’s brightest leaders.
“I just never found him particularly smart or attractive,” she says. “I think you can see it from where he went to school, his grades. He didn’t go to the best elite schools for undergraduate or graduate studies. … So, I just think he has average intelligence, but apparently he used this [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 seem much smarter than their followers because people don’t follow leaders they don’t understand.
Both Perry and Simonton agree that America’s first presidents were some of the most brilliant.
“One of the reasons we could have had some pretty smart presidents in the beginning is because they weren’t elected by popular vote. They were elected by electors who were chosen by state legislators. … And if you have someone who is the leader of the leaders — like a CEO who is the leader of the managers below — then they tend to be smarter,” says Simonton. “I have done research showing that prime ministers tend to be smarter than the presidents of the United States because they are chosen by other leaders. You must be very smart.”
America’s least colorful 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 at afternoon meetings if he missed his afternoon nap.
Simonton says America needs leaders who are smart enough to understand complexity and break it down enough for the American public to understand.
“It used to be that being smart was an advantage—having a high IQ, an Ivy League education, that sort of thing. I think the presidency has been screwed over, and part of that is because we have a lot more access to the presidency,” Simonton says. “There is a correlation between intelligence and the ability to solve problems. This means that most problems are complex, and highly intelligent people are more likely to be able to solve complex problems.”
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