“O say can you see, by the dawn’s early light…” From emperors to kings and queens, there is none more important to Americans than the President of the United States. With patriotism to the red, white and blue and the promise of continual freedom, Americans gather together to elect the newest leader of the free world every four years with the hopes of change, peace, and good fortune.
With America’s history steeped in greatness thanks to forefathers like George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, today’s elections seem more like a popularity contest or a joke. As media coverage grows over candidates like Donald Trump and Kanye West’s promise for a 2020 campaign, the title of President seems to be a race focused more about money and charisma rather than on issues that matter.
In the spirit of the presidency and as we gear up for campaign season, we can’t help but wonder about our past presidents. Who were the smartest and what did they study? While it’s nearly impossible to say which President was in fact the most intelligent, we found the top 20 smartest U.S. Presidents based on their grades in school. From our country’s first Commander-in-Chief to our more recent presidents, let’s take a look at the history of the United States’ greatest leaders!
#20 – George Washington
The first President of the United States, George Washington was one of the smartest of our founding fathers despite being among the few who never graduated from college. Even at an early age, Washington knew the value of education but was faced with a tough choice at 11 years old when his father died, leading him to courageously quit school to help his family.
With only an elementary school education thanks to various tutors, the father of our country had an estimated IQ of 132. Astonishing, isn’t it? From his role as a competent military commander to the Commander-in-Chief, his intelligence and poise were well beyond what any classroom could teach. Washington even made sure his appreciation for education continued after his death by giving a portion of his wealth to three different schools. What a true example of greatness!
#19 – Rutherford B. Hayes
Perhaps not the best known or most liked, Rutherford B. Hayes served as the 19th President of the United States between 1877 and 1881 after serving in Congress and as the Governor of Ohio. Despite ranking in the bottom half of all U.S. Presidents, Hayes was both highly intelligent and capable with an impressive private school education from Connecticut, including knowledge of both Latin and Ancient Greek.
Languages weren’t the only part of education where Hayes excelled. Considered an academic standout, Hayes attended Kenyon College where he graduated with high honors as valedictorian in 1842. Hayes wasn’t done yet, however, as he went on to attend Harvard Law School and later opened his own firm in Ohio. Within a few years, the young lawyer moved to Cincinnati where his law practice boomed and his interest in politics grew. Committed to educational reform, the former President even served on the board of trustees at Ohio State University well into his retirement.
#18 – John Quincy Adams
Not to be confused with his father, John Adams, the second U.S. President (who we will see later on this list), John Quincy Adams served as the sixth President of the United States from 1825 to 1829. The son of a lawyer and former President, the apple obviously didn’t fall far from the tree as Adams received a stellar education that led him straight to the presidency.
With private tutors, including his father’s law clerk, who worked with him while he traveled with his father, the teenage Adams was already well beyond his years when he enrolled in Leiden University. Fluent in at least three languages, Adams translated the works of some of the greatest philosophers of all time before attending Harvard College where he graduated with both a Bachelor and Master of Arts. Like father, like son!
#17 – Martin Van Buren
Serving as the eighth President of the United States from 1833 to 1837, Martin Van Buren was one of the smartest Presidents to ever take office despite never graduating from college. With Dutch roots, the young Van Buren grew up in New York speaking Dutch and even Latin until finally learning English, making him the first President who spoke English as a second language.
Long before his presidency, however, the young Van Buren proved to be an outstanding academic. At only 14 years old, he stopped his formal education, despite excelling, to turn his attention to law. As a law apprentice to William P. Van Ness, Van Buren gained admittance to the bar. Before long, he was well on his way to becoming President as he served as Senator, Governor, Secretary of State and Vice President thanks to his outstanding credentials.
#16 – Gerald Ford
Succeeding Richard Nixon after his resignation in 1974, Gerald Ford became the 38th President of the United States. Despite developing a reputation as a bit of an oaf, Ford would have easily run circles around his critics both in the classroom and on the football field. With a football scholarship to the University of Michigan, Ford made valuable use of his time in the classroom, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Economics.
With multiple offers on the table to join the NFL, Ford’s heart just wasn’t in pro football. Instead, he enrolled in graduate school at Yale where he also became the assistant football coach. Graduating in the top quarter of his class with a Juris Doctor, Ford was later drafted in World War II before returning home and beginning his historical political career as both Vice President and President.
#15 – Franklin Pierce
Hailing from New Hampshire, Franklin Pierce became the 14th President of the United States in 1853 after serving as a Senator and U.S. Attorney. One of eight children, Pierce’s father was strict about his children’s education and enrolled Pierce in private school. The young Pierce, however, hated it and once walked over 12 miles to get back home. Once home, Pierce’s father fed him and made him return, a turning point in the young man’s life.
With a new appreciation for his education (and his father), Pierce graduated from Bowdoin College with 13 other students where he excelled in the field of law. Mentored by former New Hampshire Governor Levi Woodbury, Pierce became quite the success story thanks to his incredible memory and intuitive nature, both of which played a huge role in his successful campaign for President in 1852.
#14 – William Henry Harrison
Holding a few odd distinctions, William Henry Harrison was not only the ninth President of the United States, he was the final President born under British rule, the first to die in office, held the shortest term and was the oldest President for over a century until Ronald Reagan supplanted him. How’s that for having a few records?
Success, however, wasn’t anything new for the President. Starting college at just 14 years old, the young Harrison attended the Presbyterian Hampden-Sydney College where he learned Latin and French. Soon after, Harrison enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania where he attended medical school and was doing quite well until his father’s death left him penniless. Without money to pay for school, Harrison dropped out to pursue a career in politics, leading to the shortest presidential term in history after he died from pneumonia on his 32nd day in office.
#13 – John Tyler
With the death of William Henry Harrison after only 32 days in office in 1841, the United States looked to Vice President John Tyler for leadership. Serving as the 10th President from 1841 until 1845, Tyler’s prominent upbringing and private education made him a solid successor to Harrison despite being held in low esteem by many of his colleagues and, even later, historians.
Criticism, however, didn’t matter to Tyler who had spent much of his life making his own success. Enrolled in a prep school for the College of William & Mary at just 12 years old, Tyler graduated five years later and went on to study law. By the age of 19d, the young Tyler impressed his peers and the judge so much that he was admitted to the bar despite the age limit, which was never questioned thanks to his impressive law career.
#12 – Millard Fillmore
New York native (and noted Alec Baldwin lookalike) Millard Fillmore was the 13th President of the United States and served from 1850 to 1853. First named as Vice President under Zachary Taylor, Fillmore assumed the role of Commander-in-Chief after Taylor passed away unexpectedly from stomach issues. With his childhood spent in rural New York learning the cloth making trade, the new title as President was quite the accomplishment.
Before accepting his role as Vice President, however, Fillmore knew he was destined for more than trade work and, at 19 years old, left the cloth making industry to attend New Hope Academy. With his sights set on a law career, Fillmore graduated and moved to Buffalo where he became a law apprentice and was admitted to the bar. Though Fillmore’s educational record is far from extensive, it is impressive as he helped establish the University of Buffalo in 1846 and was named as the school’s first Chancellor.
#11 – Franklin D. Roosevelt
The first President on our list known for his political success, Franklin D. Roosevelt served as the 32nd President of the United States in the longest leadership in history lasting four terms and over 12 years. Helping to lead the country through the post-Depression era and again through World War II, Roosevelt was highly praised for his intelligence and ability during such troubling times.
Considered smart “but not brilliant” by many of his teachers, Roosevelt’s success story began long before his presidency. Attending Harvard College, Roosevelt studied economics and served as the editor for the school newspaper. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in history, Roosevelt went on to attend Columbia’s Law School for three years only to drop out after he passed the bar exam. The degrees didn’t matter, of course, since both Harvard and Columbia presented him with honorary degrees once in office.
#10 – James A. Garfield
Known for having one of the shortest presidential terms in history, James A. Garfield served just six months in 1881 as the 20th President of the United States before being assassinated. With over nine terms in the House of Representatives and an election to the Senate, Garfield’s early life and career were far from political but served to make him one of the most respected men on our list.
Raised in Ohio, Garfield attended and excelled at the Geauga Academy and later became a teacher while attending college at the Western Reserve Eclectic Institute. After three years, however, Garfield grew tired of the school and made his way to the prestigious Williams College in Massachusetts where he was salutatorian of his class in 1856. Highly respected by his elders and peers, Garfield returned to Ohio to teach and then served in the Civil War. Upon his return, he entered the political realm where he served as a Congressman for 17 years before winning the presidency in 1880 until his tragic death only a year later.
#9 – Chester A. Arthur
Once again, we find a President and his successor on our list with Chester A. Arthur, the former Vice President to James A. Garfield and the 21st President of the United States. With Garfield’s assassination, Arthur quickly stepped in and served from 1881 to 1885. Despite his struggles to overcome his early political affiliations with the Whig Party, the New Yorker led a solid presidency thanks, in part, to his outstanding education and sound mind.
Like Garfield, Arthur spent much of his early years as both a student and teacher while attending Union College in New York. From teacher to principal, Arthur attended the State and National Law School until graduation when he relocated and was admitted to the bar in 1854. With his career as both a teacher and lawyer established, Arthur quickly caught the eye of Ulysses S. Grant who appointed him Collector of the Port of New York, thus igniting his interest and career in politics.
#8 – Theodore Roosevelt
Known as one of the toughest and smartest presidents in American history, Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt served as the 26th President of the United States from 1901 to 1909. Taking over after William McKinley’s assassination, Roosevelt proved his ability and progressive ideals could succeed under his expert leadership thanks to his early education, law career and widespread support.
With much of his childhood spent homeschooled, Roosevelt established himself as a phenomenal and well-rounded student who entered Harvard well-versed in geography, biology and philosophy. Graduating magna cum laude with a Bachelor of Arts, Roosevelt enrolled in Columbia Law School where, in addition to focusing on law, he wrote a book on the War of 1812. Once out of law school, duty called as he served in both the National Guard and United States army until returning to begin his career in politics. From Governor to President and Nobel Prize winner, it’s no surprise that Roosevelt is considered one of the greatest of all time.
#7 – Jimmy Carter
Turning our attention now to one of the few presidents on our list that you can still find a colored photograph of, Jimmy Carter served as the 39th President of the United States from 1977 to 1981. Following Gerald Ford and preceding Ronald Reagan, Carter earned the reputation of being rather dull and simple like his predecessor, which was highly unwarranted due to his educational background.
Known for being extremely studious and an avid reader, Carter had high hopes of attending the U.S. Naval Academy in Maryland. After enrolling in Georgia Southwestern College and taking additional math classes at Georgia Tech, Carter’s dreams finally came true. Graduating from the Academy with a Bachelor of Science, the once-quiet Carter found his voice in politics, becoming a state Senator, Governor and then President. Like Roosevelt, Carter also earned a Nobel Peace Prize, which was awarded in 2002 for his humanitarian work.
#6 – Woodrow Wilson
Lost in the shuffle of the Roosevelt dominated 20th century, Woodrow Wilson was elected as the 28th President of the United States from 1913 to 1921. As the first and only President with a Ph.D., Wilson was known as both a politician and academic with incredible leadership skills deeply rooted in his early career as President of Princeton University and Governor of New Jersey.
The most educated President in American history, Wilson attended Davidson College until falling ill and transferring to Princeton University where he graduated in 1879. Continuing his education at the University of Virginia, Wilson was once again forced to leave due to illness. One home and recuperating, he enrolled in Johns Hopkins University and received his Ph.D. in political science. Staying with his first love, education, Wilson worked as a lecturer and University President before trying his hand in politics, which led to great success as both Governor and President.
#5 – James Madison
Hailed as the “Father of the Constitution”, James Madison was the fourth President of the United States and helped draft both the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Leading the country for eight years between 1809 and 1817, Madison’s prominent upbringing provided him with some of the finest tutors available, which helped him secure his role and ability as the country’s leader.
Despite expectations to enroll in the College of William & Mary when he was 16 years old, Madison instead made his way to New Jersey where he enrolled in Princeton University. Graduating in 1771, Madison stayed in the area to study political philosophy under the university president. As one of the founders of the American Whig Society and a noted politician, it wasn’t long before his political career took off, allowing him to serve as a Congressman and eventually the Secretary of State under President Thomas Jefferson before being elected President himself.
#4 – Bill Clinton
The fourth smartest and most recent President to appear on our list is William Jefferson Clinton who served as the 42nd President of the United States from 1993 to 2001. Sandwiched between the George Bush eras, Clinton’s education in law and early career in politics helped solidify his ability in leadership and policy throughout his time in the Oval Office.
With an outstanding high school career, Clinton earned numerous academic scholarships to attend Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. where he received his Bachelor of Science in Foreign Policy and served as class president. Winning a Rhodes Scholarship, the most prestigious in the world, Clinton attended the University of Oxford only to leave early in order to enroll in law school at Yale. Returning home to Arkansas with his Juris Doctor in hand, Clinton launched his career in politics, becoming the state’s Attorney General and Governor.
#3 – John F. Kennedy
The youngest President of all-time, John F. Kennedy, was also, unsurprisingly, highly intelligent. At only 43 years old, Kennedy became the 35th President of the United States serving from 1961 until his tragic assassination in 1963. With name recognition thanks to his prestigious family, it was no surprise that the young Kennedy put his private school education to use when he sought after and won the presidency.
Traveling to London after high school with his parents, Kennedy attended the London School of Economics, following in his older brother’s footsteps. Unfortunately, after falling ill, Kennedy was forced to return to the United States where he attended Princeton University until another health scare forced him to transfer to Harvard College. Finally in better health and able to focus on his studies, Kennedy made the Dean’s List and graduated cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in International Affairs before enrolling in Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.
#2 – Thomas Jefferson
Known as one of America’s Founding Fathers, Thomas Jefferson became the third President of the United States in 1801 and served until 1809. As the author of the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson’s fight for democracy and individual rights were simply part of his well-rounded education and interests spanning the arts, architecture, science and politics as evident in his collection of nearly 7,000 books.
Studying just about everything under the sun, Jefferson benefited from both private tutors and schools throughout his early education. By the age of 16, he enrolled at the College of William & Mary where he studied higher level math, physics and even violin. Despite his dedication, Jefferson never officially graduated and, instead, turned his attention to law. Well-versed in numerous languages and topics, not to mention having an estimated IQ of 160, America’s forefather dedicated himself to education when he founded the University of Virginia after his retirement from public office.
#1 – John Adams
Beginning our list with the first President of the United States, it only seems fitting to end our list with the second President, John Adams. Born in what is now Quincy, Massachusetts, Adams had little interest in politics and, instead, wanted to be a farmer because he disliked education and his teachers. Thanks to a new teacher and a new perspective, the Founding Father achieved great success in school, ultimately securing his seat in politics.
With a new appreciation for education, Adams was only 16 years old when he enrolled in Harvard College where he earned both a Bachelor and Master of Arts. While practicing law, Adams discovered his passion for writing, which led to his growing popularity as a published diarist with innovative ideas. The young forefather’s intelligence (with an estimated IQ of an astonishing 173) also made him an outstanding diplomat, leading to his expert negotiations of the treaty that ended the Revolutionary War.