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Before he became president, Barack Obama taught constitutional law at the University of Chicago Law School. He can speak with a professorial manner today. The Princeton academic Kwame Anthony Appiah even called him the Professor President. But Obama is hardly our first. At least half a dozen other presidents have been bona fide intellectuals. It’s not a bad route to the White House. The ability to formulate and articulate clear programs and principles is one way of rallying followers and winning office. But intellectual presidents often show characteristic weaknesses—inflexibility, hauteur—that can hamper them once they are in power. The best presidents—all formidable intelligences—came from outside intellectual ranks.

Several of our founding presidents were true scholars. During the Revolutionary War, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison drew up a book list for a congressional library (Congress didn’t buy it). After the War of 1812, when the British had burned Congress, President Madison persuaded it to buy former president Jefferson’s library. None of this reading was for diversion. Jefferson and Madison wanted to keep abreast of the latest work on history and political science.

Their learning helped frame their grievances against Britain. But it also convinced them that the American government under the new Constitution had gone off the rails, centralizing power, supporting bankers and merchants, and pursuing a pro-British foreign policy. Jefferson and Madison instead favored states’ rights, farming and revolutionary France. They founded an opposition party, the Republicans (ancestors of today’s Democrats) to expound these views, and found enough supporters, in a spread-out agricultural country still suspicious of its former colonial power, to hold office for a generation.

A century later another pair of intellectuals reached the White House. Theodore Roosevelt is hard to classify: His public persona, as rancher, Rough Rider and big game hunter was the opposite of bookish. Yet bookish he was, and proud of it. His History of the Naval War of 1812, published when he was 23, is still cited by historians. Two years into his presidency, he drew up a boastful list of his White House reading, which runs from Herodotus to Joseph Conrad. Woodrow Wilson, until his 50s, had the résumé of an academic: Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins, professor at various colleges, finally president of Princeton. His numerous books included studies of Congress and the Constitution, which offered first drafts of his governing style once he moved from Princeton to politics.

Like Jefferson and Madison before them, Roosevelt and Wilson were rebels, convinced that the political system could not handle the problems of the industrial age, or the rivalries of modern superpowers. They did not form a new party: Roosevelt was a Republican, Wilson a Democrat (indeed they hated each other). Instead they attached themselves to an intellectual fashion—the Progressive movement, inspired by strong-government social reformers in Britain and Germany— and sought to transform their parties from within. In a later generation their ideas inspired a second Roosevelt, Franklin— Theodore’s cousin, and Wilson’s assistant secretary of the navy.

An intellectual’s devotion to his own ideas can be inspiring. But devotion can slide into rigidity: My ideas are so great, how could I possibly change them? Jefferson and Madison hated war and military spending, and thought that America could better influence foreign countries by withholding its trade. When Jefferson became president in 1801, and made Madison his secretary of state, their vision seemed plausible, since Europe had taken a timeout from the Napoleonic Wars. Once fighting resumed, Jefferson and Madison stuck by their game plan, mandating increasingly onerous commercial restrictions, including an embargo from 1807 to 1809, which crippled the American economy. When war finally came in 1812, America, thanks to their scanty war preparations, was unready to fight it.

Wilson took America into World War I but saw himself at war’s end as a peacemaker. The fulfillment of his vision was to be the League of Nations. But Wilson irked his allies, who were more interested in looking out for themselves—Britain’s Prime Minister Lloyd George acidly compared Wilson to Jesus Christ—and frightened Americans who were unwilling to take on postwar responsibilities. Wilson would accept no compromises; when the Senate rejected membership in the League after a bitter struggle, it broke Wilson’s health.

Intellectuals don’t just fall in love with their thoughts; they fall in love with themselves for thinking them. The first father-son pair of presidents—John and John Quincy Adams— were vastly learned men. “I wish I owned this book,” John wrote of a tome he craved, “and 100,000 more that I want every day.” John Quincy read the Bible every year, varying the language to compare translations. But the Adamses let everyone know how smart they were—and they paid the price.

As president John Adams fought an undeclared naval war with a belligerent France. In midstream he switched from conflict to negotiation, without consulting his own Cabinet—“you are all mere children,” he told his secretary of war—thereby splitting his party as he stood for reelection. John Quincy Adams began his presidency by outlining an ambitious plan of public improvements— roads, canals, astronomical observatories—in his inaugural address. “It would be unworthy of a great and generous nation,” he declared, to think of the cost. But the nation did think of it; Henry Clay, his own secretary of state, called Adams’ program “entirely hopeless.” Not surprisingly, neither Adams served more than one term.

When intellectuals rate presidents they do not put their intellectual peers first. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt regularly top historians’ polls, and yet Washington and Lincoln had hardly any formal education, while FDR (Harvard, 1903) got gentleman C’s. All three were shrewd, and Lincoln was clearly sui generis, both a logician and a poet. They were thoughtful men, well aware of the ideas that animated the struggles of their time—revolution, secession, Depression and war. But their thoughts were always shaped by what they had learned in the schools of life and of politics. They knew the value of flexibility—when FDR told speechwriter Raymond Moley to take protectionist and free trade drafts of an upcoming economic address and simply “weave them together,” he may have gone too far, but presidents have to know how to bob and weave. And although they were all proud men, they knew how to mask it: The war hero, the frontier lawyer and the well-born pol were, in their different ways, accomplished performers in the arena of democratic politics.

The verdict is still out on Barack Obama. The Professor President can take comfort from his status, but he should also take warning. Brains can take a president to the threshold of greatness—and also maroon him there.


Originally published in the February 2011 issue of American History. To subscribe, click here