The Wealthiest Presidents – And The Poorest

George WashingtonEarlier this year The Atlantic estimated the net worth in today’s dollars of all 44 U.S. presidents that have served to date. The rich ones and the poor ones aren’t always the ones you might have guessed:

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 at the times when 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. …

One of the most important conclusions of this analysis is that the presidency has little to do with wealth. Several U.S. presidents brought huge net worths to the job. Many lost most of their fortunes after leaving office. Some never had any significant money at all.

[View a slideshow with details of the wealth of the presidents at The Atlantic]

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  • Liam_McGonagle

    Interesting article. What I take away from it:

    1. Despite the fact that the first generation of these guys were undisputably torchbearers of Enlightenment ideals, they definitely did NOT personally subscribe to a Tea Bag-friendly rabble rousing populism. Though Jackson in particular is often so portrayed, he clearly rejected mob rule. He basically threatened to nail Calhoun’s states-rights nuts to the wall during the Nullification Crisis of 1832.

    2. Real need for secure national currency. In order to avoid the weird turbulence that seems to have led to the ultimate financial ruin of many of these guys, we need strong government oversight. No question about it.

    3. Questions: Do the net worth figures presented really make sense? I mean besides the severe limits of comparability in standards of living under such socially and technologically diverse conditions, the directionality of some of the figures just doesn’t seem to make sense.

    For instance, how consistent is it for the author to say that Jefferson had a $212 million net worth and later on the same page say that he was severely in debt in his later years? He ended up so poorly off that his beloved Monticello had to be sold in order to pay off his debts.

    http://wiki.monticello.org/media/wiki/index.php/Debt

    Yeah, these stats have limited practical utility, so I’m not too worked up about it. But I can’t help but get the feeling that the net worth figures were cherry picked. It’s not clear whether they’re intended to represent net worth at the date of their deaths, at the end of their presidencies, at any other specific period or an average during a certain period of interest. So what’s the specific $ figure intended to convey to us?

  • Liam_McGonagle

    Interesting article. What I take away from it:

    1. Despite the fact that the first generation of these guys were undisputably torchbearers of Enlightenment ideals, they definitely did NOT personally subscribe to a Tea Bag-friendly rabble rousing populism. Though Jackson in particular is often so portrayed, he clearly rejected mob rule. He basically threatened to nail Calhoun’s states-rights nuts to the wall during the Nullification Crisis of 1832.

    2. Real need for secure national currency. In order to avoid the weird turbulence that seems to have led to the ultimate financial ruin of many of these guys, we need strong government oversight. No question about it.

    3. Questions: Do the net worth figures presented really make sense? I mean besides the severe limits of comparability in standards of living under such socially and technologically diverse conditions, the directionality of some of the figures just doesn’t seem to make sense.

    For instance, how consistent is it for the author to say that Jefferson had a $212 million net worth and later on the same page say that he was severely in debt in his later years? He ended up so poorly off that his beloved Monticello had to be sold in order to pay off his debts.

    http://wiki.monticello.org/media/wiki/index.php/Debt

    Yeah, these stats have limited practical utility, so I’m not too worked up about it. But I can’t help but get the feeling that the net worth figures were cherry picked. It’s not clear whether they’re intended to represent net worth at the date of their deaths, at the end of their presidencies, at any other specific period or an average during a certain period of interest. So what’s the specific $ figure intended to convey to us?