There are no educational requirements determining the eligibility of a president in the Constitution. However, the roles and responsibilities of the office demand a certain level of intelligence and mental aptitude that is most easily established through academic accomplishments.
Nevertheless, seven of our presidents did not attend college. In fact, Abraham Lincoln only had a year's worth of formal education; Andrew Johnson probably had even less, while Grover Cleveland only had five years. Harry Truman, the country's 33rd president (1945-1953), was the last U.S. president without a college degree - and the only one in the past 119 years. The complexity and sophistication of modern governance make it unlikely though for a non-graduate to ever hold the office of president again.
A question that is frequently asked is, who was our smartest ever president? A tricky question, since we have absolutely no way of conclusively determining this. However, based on observations, records and citations, we think it would be fair to say that honor belongs to our third president, Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809).
The multi-lingual polymath is reputed to be ferociously intelligent, with an expert grasp on a wide range of subjects, including, but not limited to, mathematics, philosophy, archaeology, paleontology, history and architecture. On April 29, 1962, the White House organized a dinner in the State Dining Room to honor a visiting group of 49 Nobel laureates. President John Kennedy was quoted as saying then,
"I want to tell you how welcome you are to the White House. I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent, of human knowledge, that has ever been gathered together at the White House, with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone. Someone once said that Thomas Jefferson was a gentleman of 32 who could calculate an eclipse, survey an estate, tie an artery, plan an edifice, try a cause, break a horse, and dance the minuet."
Four more presidents deserve a mention, even if they do not reach the heights of Jefferson. First off, our second president, John Adams (1797-1801). Like Jefferson, he was also a multilingual polymath with the control of several languages, and if it wasn't for Jefferson, he would probably be on top of the list. Among the Founding Fathers (who were all men of exceptional qualities), Adams, alongside Benjamin Franklin, were reputedly the only ones capable of matching the sheer intellect of Jefferson.
Second on the list is our 28th president, Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921). The avid golfer learned German for the sole purpose of reading Heinrich Marquardsen's Handbuch des Oeffentlichen Rechts der Gegenwart (Contemporary Handbook of Public Law), to aid him in writing his doctoral dissertation ("Congressional Government: A Study in American Politics")! Wilson, who also practiced law, was a noted scholar and served as Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Economy at Princeton and Professor of History at Wesleyan University and Bryn Mawr College.
Next on the list is our 37th president, Richard Nixon (1969-1974). The former lawyer and Navy lieutenant never truly fulfilled his potential at the highest stage. What we do know is, Nixon has a habit of being the top student at every stage of his education, including at the prestigious and highly competitive Duke University School of Law. He was also a tremendous debater, and won numerous awards during his student days. He brought that talent with him to Washington, and made full use of it in his ascent to the presidency. At the age of 15, while still at Fullerton High School, Nixon scored an incredible 143 in an IQ test.
Last on the list is our saxophone playing 42nd president, Bill Clinton (1993-2001). With degrees from Georgetown and Yale, whiz kid Clinton was also a prestigious Rhodes Scholar at England's Oxford University. The Professor of Law at the University of Arkansas served as the state's Attorney General at the tender age of 30, before becoming Governor two years later. Clinton is known to have a very strong grasp on almost every subject under the sun, and is a voracious reader. However, like most highly intelligent people, Clinton often falls into the familiar trap of over thinking a subject.
Bob Woodward, in his 1994 book, The Agenda, recounted a comment made by his former aide, George Stephanopoulos.
"Clinton was more than capable of seeing and feeling different things at different times. This was the intellectual, ruminative side of his personality. Given Clinton's predisposition for deliberation, his inclination to listen sympathetically, at times too sympathetically, Stephanopoulos questioned whether Clinton too often pushed debate to the point of chaos. The process seemed confused. Stephanopoulos concluded that the staff had to stifle this tendency of Clinton's, so cleaner, clearer, faster decisions would be made."
Presidents with No College Education
Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, Zachary Taylor, Millard Fillmore, Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Grover Cleveland, Harry Truman
William McKinley, George Washington, William Henry Harrison
Calvin Coolidge, Franklin Pierce, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, John Tyler, James Buchanan, Chester A. Arthur, Warren G. Harding, Theodore Roosevelt, James A. Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, Ronald Reagan
James Madison, John Adams, John Quincy Adams, James K. Polk, Benjamin Harrison, William Taft, Herbert Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Barack Obama
George W. Bush (MBA)
Ulysses S. Grant, Dwight Eisenhower
How does the current list of candidates stack up against the giants from our past?