Money and Power: The Richest and Poorest U.S. Presidents

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JFK The Richest and Poorest U.S. Presidents Any way you look at it, being a former U.S. president is a nice gig: Between speaking fees, memoir advances, and a hefty pension (currently $199,700 per year), the job pays pretty well. Add in the fact that it follows a four- to eight-year run in a high-profile position that features a $400,000 salary and covers most expenses, and you're looking at a formula for long-term solvency.

Not surprisingly, America's presidents have generally been a wealthy lot: Of the 44 of them, only nine weren't millionaires at one point or another, and most managed to leave their survivors with a hefty inheritance. Based on research by 24/7 Wall St., here's a rundown of the wealth of our nation's leaders.

By far, the richest president was George Washington. In addition to his own real estate holdings, he also received a lot of land from his wife. In fact, the parcel that currently surrounds his Mount Vernon home is only a fraction of the more than 8,000 acres he once had. Add in the value of his 300 slaves, and you're left with a tidy sum -- an estimated $525 million in today's dollars. And, as frosting on the cake, there was his impressive salary, which represented 2% of the federal budget in 1789. In the context of today's budget, that would be more than $67.2 billion -- roughly 168,000 times Obama's salary!

Several other Founding Fathers either entered into politics with vast estates or built up their holdings while in office. For example, while Thomas Jefferson's estate was mired in debt by the time of his death, at their peak, the third president's holdings topped out at $212 million (again, in today's dollars -- which applies to all the figures the gallery below). The same is true of James Madison and Andrew Jackson, both of whom profited greatly from their time working for the government -- and both of whom ended up among the richest presidents.

Money and Power: The Richest and Poorest U.S. Presidents

Like his fifth cousin Teddy, FDR got most of his money through family holdings. Worth $60 million (in today's dollars) at his peak, he had residences in New York, Maine and Georgia. Then again, he didn't own his famous New York estate until after his mother died in 1941.

Hoover made his money as a mining company executive: After putting 17 years into the business, he ended up with a $75 million fortune -- and extensive holdings in various mining companies.

Few presidents came from more modest origins than LBJ,  but his investments in broadcasting, cattle and private aviation left him with a net worth that topped $98 million.

Madison's 5,000-acre farm was worth a lot, but much of his money derived from his positions as secretary of state and president. And while his fortune at one point reached $101 million, he ended up losing much of it as his farm became less profitable.

JFK had little personal money, but the value of the Kennedy family fortune has been estimated at as much as $1 billion. As one of the nine Kennedy children, JFK's portion would have made him the fifth richest U.S. president in history -- had he lived to inherit it.

Andrew Jackson made his money the old fashioned way: He married into it. Between his 1,500-acre estate and his extensive slave holdings, his fortune topped out at an estimated $119 million.

Teddy Roosevelt inherited an estimated $125 million trust fund, then lost much of it on a failed land venture. Still, his earnings from his writings and his 235-acre estate on Long Island left him in good shape.

Thomas Jefferson was also land-rich: Among other holdings, he owned 5,000 acres at Monticello. But his fortune -- which topped out at an estimated $212 million -- had plummeted by the time he died, and his family had to sell much of his property to pay off his debts.

The Father of his Country was also its richest president: Estimates of his wealth range as high as $525 million. Among other things, he owned 8,000 acres of prime real estate on the banks of the Potomac River -- as well as 300 slaves.

(Wealth is relatively easy to measure: Who's poorest -- that's a tougher thing to gauge. The following presidents are in the bottom tier. But we won't try to rank them in order.) 

It's well known that before he went into politics,  Truman was a haberdasher, but his men's clothing store nearly went bankrupt. His 18 years in Washington didn't net him a lot of money either, but he saved carefully and was able to live comfortably after he left office. He and his wife, Bess, were the two first recipients of Medicare.

"Silent" Cal Coolidge was not known for his flamboyance. After his presidency, he made a solid living as a newspaper columnist and memoirist, but most of his money was tied up in his home in Northampton, Mass.

Education isn't a particularly lucrative occupation, and Wilson's tenure at Princeton didn't leave him a wealthy man -- even though he was for a time the president of the university. Neither, for that matter, did his stints in the New Jersey governor's mansion and the White House.

Although Chester Arthur made a reasonable amount of money as a lawyer and politician, he died with less than $1 million in net worth, putting him among the less affluent ex-presidents.

A log cabin president like Lincoln, James Garfield spent much of his life in public service. In his case, it didn't pay very well: When he was assassinated in 1881, he was more or less penniless.

One of the most colorful men to occupy the White House, Grant lost his fortune when his son's business partner, Ferdinand Ward, defrauded his investors -- among them, the former president.

Andrew Johnson started out as a tailor before rising to become a mayor, a Tennessee state legislator, a governor, a senator and a president. Along the way, he made a small fortune, but lost half of it when his bank failed.

Abraham Lincoln was famously honest, which helps explain why he took on the debts of a deadbeat business partner. The decision left him deeply in debt -- a situation that was later somewhat rectified by his successful legal career.

James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln's predecessor, was also born in a log cabin. Unlike earlier presidents, he only benefited modestly from his years in public service: Estimates of his personal fortune place it at less than $1 million.

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Campaigning for the White House is an expensive business, so it's hardly surprising that many who won it came from America's richest families. Teddy Roosevelt and his fifth cousin Franklin Delano Roosevelt both came from one of New York's most storied families, and John F. Kennedy's father was famously wealthy. But it's hard to portray them as self-made men: After Teddy Roosevelt lost much of his family fortune in a failed cattle farm, he was able to salve his wounds with a substantial trust. FDR's famous estate in Hyde Park was only his for a few years: He inherited it when his mother died in 1941. And Kennedy's wealth was controlled by his father, who outlived him.

Among the self-made presidents, the real winners are Lyndon B. Johnson and Herbert Hoover. Johnson, who started his career as a school teacher, parleyed investments in broadcasting, cattle and personal aviation into a personal fortune estimated at $98 million in today's dollars. Similarly, Hoover parleyed his geology degree from Stanford University into a long, lucrative career in mining engineering (Interesting tidbit: Hoover claimed to be the California school's first student, allegedly because he was the first one in the first class to sleep in the dorms.)



The presidency, though, isn't always a sure path to riches: Several began and ended their public lives with little wealth to show for it. Some are names you'd expect: "Honest" Abraham Lincoln and "Give 'Em Hell" Harry S. Truman were famous for their upright morality, while the famously studious Woodrow Wilson and notoriously restrained "Silent" Calvin Coolidge were not known for their flamboyant tastes.

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But others on the list of the poorest presidents are surprising. Chester Arthur, for example, was a product of New York's notoriously corrupt political machine, but used his time in office to champion the very reform agenda that had once targeted him. Ulysses S. Grant presided over one of the most corrupt administrations in history, but when he left office, little if any of the river of filthy lucre that flowed through the White House during his tenure managed to stick to his fingers.

In fact, Grant may have the distinction of being the only president who was worth more dead than alive. In the final months of his life, as he was dying from throat cancer, he feverishly worked away at his memoirs. Ultimately, the project netted about $500,000 (in 1885 dollars, by the way), which provided for his family following his death. In a way, his wife, Julia, returned the favor: After extensive negotiations, she agreed to have Grant's body placed in a mausoleum overlooking the Hudson River in New York City. The imposing edifice -- cleverly named Grant's Tomb -- is the largest tomb in America.

In addition to living comfortably as a widow off the earnings from his book, Julia Grant eventually was laid to rest with him in Grant's Tomb -- right beside her husband.


Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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