Michael B. Sauter, Ashley C. Allen, and Douglas A. McIntyre: The Net Worth of the U.S. Presidents: Washington to Obama





[Michael B. Sauter, Ashley C. Allen, and Douglas A. McIntyre are editors of 24/7 Wall St.]

Having examined the finances of all 43 presidents (yes, 43; remember, Cleveland was president twice), we calculated the net worth figures for each in 2010 dollars. Because a number of presidents, particularly in the early 19th Century, made and lost huge fortunes in a matter of a few years, the number for each man is based on his net worth at its peak.

We have taken into account hard assets like land, estimated lifetime savings based on work history, inheritance, homes, and money paid for services, which include things as diverse as their salary as Collector of Customs at the Port of New York to membership on Fortune 500 boards. Royalties on books have also been taken into account, along with ownership of companies and yields from family estates.

The net worth of the presidents varies widely. George Washington was worth more than half a billion in today's dollars. Several presidents went bankrupt.

The fortunes of American presidents are tied to the economy in the eras in which they lived. For the first 75 years after Washington's election, presidents generally made money on land, crops, and commodity speculation. A president who owned hundreds or thousands of acres could lose most or all of his property after a few years of poor crop yields. Wealthy Americans occasionally lost all of their money through land speculation--leveraging the value of one piece of land to buy additional property. Since there was no reliable national banking system and almost no liquidity in the value of private companies, land was the asset likely to provide the greatest yield, if the property yielded enough to support the costs of operating the farm or plantation.

Because there was no central banking system and no commodities regulatory framework, markets were subject to panics. The panic of 1819 was caused by the deep indebtedness of the federal government and a rapid drop in the price of cotton. The immature banking system was forced to foreclose on many farms. The value of the properties foreclosed upon was often low, because land without a landowner meant land without a crop yield. The panic of 1837 caused a depression that lasted six years. It was triggered by a weak wheat crop, a drop in cotton prices, and a leverage bubble in the value of land created by speculation. These factors caused the U.S. economy to go through a multi-year period of deflation.

The sharp fluctuations in the fortunes of the first 14 presidents were a result of the economic times.

Beginning with Millard Fillmore in 1850, the financial history of the presidency entered a new era. Most presidents were lawyers who spent years in public service. They rarely amassed large fortunes and their incomes were often almost entirely from their salaries. From Fillmore to Garfield, these American presidents were distinctly middle class. These men often retired without the money to support themselves in a fashion anywhere close to the one that they had as president. Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, and Garfield had almost no net worth at all....

1st George Washington (1789-1797) $525 million His Virginia plantation, "Mount Vernon," consisted of five separate farms on 8,000 acres of prime farmland, run by over 300 slaves. His wife, Martha Washington, inherited significant property from her father. Washington made significantly more than subsequent presidents: his salary was two percent of the total U.S. budget in 178....

16th Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) less than $1 million To the log cabin born. Lincoln served as an attorney for 17 years before his presidency. He owned a single-family home in Springfield, Illinois....

28th Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) less than $1 million Wilson received modest compensation as head of Princeton and Governor of New Jersey. He never served in any position that provided him with a reasonable income. Wilson had a stroke in office and died five years later....

30th Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929) less than $1 million Coolidge's father was prosperous farmer and storekeeper. "Silent Cal" Spent five years as an attorney, and almost two decades in public office, which included time as Governor of Massachusetts. His net worth derived primarily from his home, "The Beeches," in Northampton, Massachusetts, the advance from his autobiography, and the money he made from his newspaper column....

33rd Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) less than $1 million Truman was a haberdasher in Missouri and nearly went bankrupt. He served 18 years in Washington, D.C. Despite his modest income, he was able to save some of his presidential salary....

35th John Fitzgerald Kennedy (1961-1963) Although he never inherited his father's fortune, the Kennedy family estate was worth nearly $1 billion dollars. Born into great wealth, Kennedy's wife was oil heiress. His Father was one of the wealthiest men in America, and was the first chairman of the SEC. Almost all of JFK's income and property came from trust shared with other family members....


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