The Wealth Of Presidents


Soon after he became President, John Adams wrote forlornly from Philadelphia to his beloved Abigail about the exorbitant tost of maintaining his position. Glumly he declared, “I expect to be obliged to resign in six months because I can’t live. Fortunately, he had just received a gigantic cheese as a gilt from the state of Rhode Island. Perhaps, he mused, when his money was gone he could live oil the cheese.

If not all our Presidents have felt so discouraged about their personal finances, very few have been able to live without self-consciousness of their estate. They have learned that the American people respond ambivalently to the fact of a President who is wealthy: to some it implies that he is accustomed to managing large affairs successfully, but to others it seems to suggest that he cannot possibly be attuned to the needs of the ordinary citizen.

In general, though, regardless of how the bank account of a President-elect has stood on the eve of his inauguration, he comes before the public pleading directly or through his “image-makers” the humbleness of little means. This is the tribute he pays to the democratic idea that leaders ought to come from the modest middle of the ranks.

The classic picture of the acceptable President was provided by James A. Garfield’s campaign biographer, who wrote that Garfield had started from home on his rise to fame with his clothes in a bundle at the end of a stick over his shoulder. “Amid prayers and forebodings, the poor mother had bidden him goodbye, and he carried witli him her kiss and her blessing, as his only fortune.”

Lyndon Johnson after becoming President talked of his origins in this fashion: “I know what poverty means to people. I have been unemployed. I have stood in an employment office, waiting for an assignment and a placement. I have shined shoes as a boy. I have worked on a highway crew from daylight until dark for a dollar a day.”

Such rags-to-richcs stories, common from the midnineteenth century on, have long touched a responsive chord in a society that has made self-help and self-improvement a mark of distinction. Hut the relationship between wealth and high office docs not seem to have become a lively issue until the 1880’s—possibly because during that period Puritan America was trying to find moral justification for the relatively easier accumulation of money. An article about rich men in politics appeared in 1887 in The Chautauquan , the organ of the most famous self-education movement in America. The author, in defending politicians who were rich, asked rhetorically. “Would you deny to rich men the reward of political service or ambition simply because of their wealth?” He offered his answer: “[The] impecunious but unprincipled politician may do as much to damage political morals and corrupt the purity of government as any rich man will be likely to do.”

Still, the public as a whole remained uncomfortable that men of wealth should run for the Presidency, although not so uncomfortable that it would not elect them. As a result, a boyhood spent in poverty could be (especially for the millionaire candidate) an important advantage. It provided a presidential type suitable for the age of Horatio Alger. It suggested that despite wealth, the man’s character had been formed well in the stern school of deprivation. And if. in the process of explaining him to the country, the man could be made out to have been a Tom Sawyer—though never a shim urchin—then so much the better lor his chances, and for the country.

Despite the public’s apparent affection for poverty in the early life of a President, a triumph over that handicap is indispensable. No impoverished man has ever been elected to the Presidency. Of the four Chief Executives who were actually born in log cabins—Franklin Pierce, James Huchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and James A. Garfield—all had become moderately wealthy by the time they reached the White House, Fifteen years before Kuchanan became President, for instance, he was reported to have $120,000 “at work for interest.” (All sums of money are based on the value of the dollar in the era of the President being discussed.) Lincoln in 1861 had $9,000 invested in interestbearing securities besides owning a $5,000 house—a considerable achievement.

Nevertheless, being “rich from the start” has never been a roadblock to the top. For example, George Washington’s wealth, which made him one of the richest men in colonial America, played a leading part in obtaining preferment for him. In 1775 the men from Massachusetts had hung back from seizing the lull control of the Revolution in order to push Washington forward. They knew little of his qualities as a leader; they knew him chiefly as a man of means whose help they wanted. Halsted L. Ritter, the most careful student of Washington’s finances, concludes: “His greatness, in the last analysis, rests upon the fact that he was by nature and by thorough training the greatest businessman of his time.” At Washington’s death in 1799, Mount Vernon was worth about 8200,000. His average annual income must have been about 15,000 in the years just before his Presidency began.

Thomas Jefferson’s wealth also smoothed the way to political opportunity. Like all landowners, Jefferson was more easily able to free himself from the bonds of making a living than those engaged in business or in the practice of law. In 1782 only one man in Albemarle County in Virginia, where Jefferson lived, owned more slaves than he did.