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.
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 New 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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
Tagged: Abraham Lincoln, Andrew Jackson, Barack Obama, Bruce Watson, Calvin Coolidge, Chester A. Arthur, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George Washington, Harry S. Truman, Herbert Hoover, Hudson River, James Madison