24/7 Wall St. has examined the finances of all forty-three presidents. This article provides 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.
In the case of each president 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 over 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 US 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.
The rise of inherited wealth in the early 20th Century contributed to the fortunes of many presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and both of the Bushes. The other significant change to the economy was the advent of large professionally organized corporations. These corporations produced much of the oil, mining, financial, and railroad fortunes amassed at the end of the 19th Century and the beginning of the 20th. The Kennedys were wealthy because of the financial empire built by Joseph Kennedy. Herbert Hoover made millions of dollars as the owner of mining companies.
The stigma of making money from being a retired president also began to disappear. Calvin Coolidge made a large income from his newspaper column. Gerald Ford, who had almost no money when he was a Congressman made a small fortune from serving on the boards of large companies. Clinton made millions of dollars from writing his autobiography.
24/7 Wall St. performed an analysis of presidential finances based on historical sources. Most media evaluations of the net worth of presidents have come up with a very wide range, a spread in which the highest figure was often several times the lowest estimate. Most sources provided no hard figures at all. Most of these efforts have focused largely on the analysis of recent chief executives. That is because it is much easier to calculate figures in a world where assets and incomes are a matter of public record.
One of the most important conclusions of this analysis is that the presidency has little to do with wealth. Several brought huge net worths to the job. Many lost most of their fortunes after leaving office. Some never had any money at all.