- Historic Sites
George Washington wouldn't believe it
June 1974 | Volume 25, Issue 4
What follows is a representative sample of Presidential costs.
Currently $200,000 plus $50,000 for expenses, both taxable as income under IRS law.
At the Constitutional Convention in 1787 Benjamin Franklin proposed that the nation continue the precedent established by George Washington as Commander in Chief of the Continental Army: the President would receive no salary; he would instead be regularly reimbursed for his expenses. Such a practice, Franklin argued, would assure the services of dedicated and disinterested statesmen who were truly committed to public service. To put a price tag on the office with a salary would only “sow the seeds of contention, faction & tumult, by making our posts of honor, places of profit.”
The delegates listened respectfully to Franklin’s plan, but moved perhaps by the conviction that corruption was more likely to result if the President were not paid, they provided in Article n for a compensation to be voted by Congress. To prevent the very tactic they had perfected in colonial government, where royal governors were bent to a legislature’s will by the attachment of salary resolutions to controversial legislation, they added the qualification that the President’s wages “shall neither be increased nor diminished during the period for which he shall have been elected.” (Both Grant and Truman received substantial raises at the beginning of their second term in office, but the legislation mandating the increase was passed before their re-election had been confirmed.)
In 1789 Congress set the salary at $25,000 despite George Washington’s request that he be permitted to serve without pay, as Franklin had suggested. In the end he found he needed every dollar provided for him.
The salary remained unchanged until after the Civil War. In 1873 it was increased to $50,000, in 1909 to $75,000, and in 1948 to $100,000, at which time a tax-free expense account of $50,000 was also included. Five years later Congress voted to treat the expense money as taxable income. The current salary was established in 1969. Despite stories that a number of Presidents in this century (Hoover, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy, in particular) refused to accept salary payments, official records indicate they were paid. Whether the moneys were then turned over to charity is not known.
No rent charged for occupancy of the White House. Current staff: seventy-five servants, cooks, and caretakers; twenty-one gardeners and maintenance personnel. Current budget cost: $1,375,000.
The original White House, built at a cost of about $400,000 and first occupied by the Adamses in 1800, was described by a contemporary journalist as “big enough for two emperors, one pope and the grand lama in the bargain.” Its twenty-three rooms, Abigail Adams suggested, would require at least thirty servants, an estimate remarkably close to the staff size that was maintained until this century.
The mansion was gutted by fire during the War of 1812, when the British burned the Capitol and other government buildings in retaliation for an American raid on the Canadian town of York (Toronto). Rebuilt at a cost of $500,000, the White House underwent further change and expansion in the twentieth century. Finding the family quarters cramped and scruffy, Theodore Roosevelt secured an appropriation of a half million dollars for renovation in 1902. In the next decade the west wing permanently removed the executive offices from the main house, and additional office space was provided by the construction of the east wing in 1942. In the 1950’s a separate executive office building took the overflow of the swollen Presidential bureaucracy, which now numbers fifty-four hundred employees.
Although Congress habitually provided funds for redecorating the White House as each new occupant moved in, general maintenance was ignored too long, and in 1948 the building was close to collapse. After young Margaret Truman’s piano broke through a floor in one of the family rooms, an engineering study proved the house unsafe. Some $5,700,000 was spent to renovate—in reality, rebuild—the entire structure. The outer walls, reinforced by steel frames and deep concrete footings, and all the original trim were preserved, but the interior was completely gutted and redesigned from the basement upward.