Most & least intellectual US presidents...

I’m just curious who the most and least intellectual US presidents were. I don’t mean just in terms of their diplomas, but also their propensity to take part in debates and discussions on complex issues as well as their intellectual curiosity.

I’ve heard it said Woodrow Wilson was a bit of a cold-fish intellectual.

For least intellectual? So many contenders, living and dead…

This will probably end up in Great Debates, since it’s hard to come up with objective information.

On a purely academic basis, Woodrow Wilson was a college professor and president before becoming a politician. And Thomas Jefferson has always had a reputation of a great thinker, as were other founding fathers like John Adams or James Madison.

Least intellectual was probably Warren G. Harding, who knew he just wasn’t smart enough for the job. One could also make a case for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, neither of whom showed much intellectual curiosity and tended to see issues in a very simplistic manner.

IMHO, but I’d nominate Thomas Jefferson as the most intellectual U.S. President. From Wiki:

I believe he was also something of a linguist.

Taft was on the Supreme Court after his presidency - intellectual lightweights don’t end up there.

I know this is some level of opinion in this, but I figured, though, that a president’s intellectual curiosity or lack thereof are pretty much undebatable. I don’t think GW himself would dispute his place among the least.

I know there is some element of debate to this.

I believe Lincoln and Clinton would both fall in the top ten somewhere.

Completely untrue. There is no possible objective scale. There’s not even the slightest possibility that “intellectual curiosity” means the the same to any two people.

This is obviously opinion and very likely wrong. He likes to remind his staff that he reads more than they do.

Not just some, but all.


Off to Great Debates with ye, laddie…



Reagan was, by most definitions, not at all intellectual. That doesn’t mean he was stupid. But he wasn’t terribly interested in intellectual pursuits or learning new things. By all accounts, once he got off work, he liked to watch comedies and westerns on TV, and that was pretty much Ronald Reagan’s life.

Of course, Carter was reasonably intellectual and a lousy President. Being smart is probably the most important part of the job, but being well-read is not the entire job.

What exactly does “intellectual” even mean really?

A lot of Straight Dopers enjoy asking and answering general questions, digging into topics and wading through new baskets of information. Others like puzzles and quizzes, and testing their mental acuity. Other sink their analytical spades into relationship questions, and some just like to be part of wide ranging snark fests. And finally like Chauncey Gardner, some just like to watch.

Are we true “intellectuals” or are we just info dilettantes?

Bush is widely known to be an expert on Virgil’s minor works, and has long been regarded as a great intellectual.

I think Andrew Johnson was the last president who didn’t go to college (had no formal education at all, for that matter).

In terms of both intellectual curiosity and intellectual accomplishment, Jefferson is the winner hands down.

Is this a whoosh? Seriously…are you kidding me?

Read what? Archie comics?

Bush does not read the newspaper and IIRC he has his briefings summarized (e.g. Condi Rice makes sure to read the NIE thoroughly so she can answer more specific questions for the president).

I’d have to say Jefferson was likely the smartest although there have been other sharp ones. GWB has to be a serious contender for the least intellectual though.

There was one president who reportedly could write Latin and Greek at the same time, being ambidextrous, and liked to do it to show off at parties. I can never remember who that was, but I’m sure it was one of the late-19th-century presidents.

That was James Garfield. #20.

Thanks! Doesn’t Garfield have the distinction of being the last president born in a log cabin? If I can somehow link those factoids in my mind, maybe I can remember it then.

I also seem to remember the first White House elevator was installed during his brief tenure and that his mother would amuse herself by riding up and down in it.

As for W, people who have met him say that he is pretty well read. He may not be a bookworm but he is not stupid, he is probably the most influential president for many years, his policys have shaped the early part of the century, much more than Clinton ever did.

Garfield who also published a new proof of the Pythagorean Theorem.

Andrew Johnson was illiterate until his wife taught him to read and write.

A more serious asnwer is Ulysses S. Grant. Although he tends to be remembered as President today only through hostile and biased historians (often Southern, and often Civil War veterans), his eight years as President were remarkably accomplished. The economic scandal which plagued his administration was stopped and prevented from getting worse because of him. A couple shady investors tried to his friends and brother to influence Grant, only to have their scheme collapse when Grant refused to play along and crushed the endeouver.

Likewise, he pursued a conciliatory policy of peaceful and fair assimilation of the western Indian tribes, forcefully continued a strong policy of black equality, and otherwise did a very good job. That the measures ultimately failed was due more to the fact that everyone and their brother wound up sabotaging his accomplishments in the last two years of his term and thereafter. Hence, we got Jim Crow and Indian massacres. Thereafter, he took a tour of the world, met with the leaders from most of the countries of the world, and wound up negotiating a treaty between Japan and China. This inadvertent goodwill tour impressed many foreigners, who had a dim and often unpleasant view of Americans, seeing them through the ethnocentric eyes of the English and the French, or only having met merchants and sailors. Grant later wrote, in his final years, a great memoir of the Civil War, which is in fact an excellent and book and reasonably accurate resource.

What Grant was not, however, was an intellectual. He was an indifferent student, and not particularly known for his love of reading or classical learning or the newer sciences. He was an active sort of man, an incrediblely good rider, and had a deep but wholly informal understanding of people. He was trusting to a fault and never judged a person before meeting him. But he was never much for book learning his whole life.