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The Wealth Of Presidents
At least one President was a multi-millionaire. Another had gone hroke. Several had made fortunes in land speculations or memoir-writing, while one had lost everything in trade. Two were so well-off they refused the salary; another considered resigning because he couldn’t live on it. One thing all have discovered: The American people, who have elected some rich men and some poor men (though no beggars or thieves), are never indifferent to
October 1966 | Volume 17, Issue 6
Yet if the Virginia Presidents were well-to-do in their heyday, their economic star was waning. Jefferson found in his last year as President that his expenses were $8,000 more than his salary, and at his death in 1826, he was practically bankrupt. Jefferson’s “Great Collaborator,” James Madison, experienced a comparably painful decline in his personal wealth. When he died in 1836, he too was living in relative poverty.
Another Virginian, James Monroe, made up his mind early in his career to live as well as Jefferson—and as near as possible to him. The building he bought, known as Monroe House, still stands, as a part of the University of Virginia. But Monroe’s wealth was more apparent than real. Recent research by Lucius Wilmerding, Jr., has shown the extent to which Monroe spent his years of retirement in trying to obtain reimbursement for money which he said the federal government owed him for salary and expenses while on diplomatic missions.
John Quincy Adams in 1831 stated his opinion of Monroe’s situation with self-righteousness and a patent lack of sympathy: “Mr. Monroe is a very remarkable instance of a man whose life has been a continued series of the most extraordinary good fortune, who has never met with any known disaster, has gone through a splendid career of public service, has received more pecuniary reward from the public than any other man since the existence of the nation, and is now dying, at the age of seventy-two, in wretchedness and beggary.”
Actually, the Virginia Presidents were the victims of bad luck. They were born to wealth in the tobacco country, but within their lifetimes the economic basis of their patrimony had become eroded. All died concerned over the rise of the Kentucky country as a competing tobacco region, and all but Washington lived to feel the impact of cotton-growing as well.
It is instructive that being born of comfortable parents, even after the Virginia dynasty had passed, has been the rule for prospective Presidents throughout American history. Martin Van Buren, for example, who later was an ardent spokesman for the small businessman, came by his viewpoint naturally. He was the son of a prosperous farmer and tavern-keeper from upper New York State. Ulysses Grant, too, had had a good start. His father was a reasonably successful tanner who owned leather-goods stores—property said to be worth between $100,000 and $150,000.
James Buchanan’s father was another farmer-turnedshopkeeper. His accumulation of the world’s goods enabled him to send his son to Dickinson College. Franklin Pierce’s father, a farmer-turned-politician, was able not only to send his offspring to Bowdoin College but later to give him his first political plum, a local postmastership. Rutherford Hayes’ father was a successful farmer and whiskey-distiller. Although he died too soon to help his son, he had a brother who sent Rutherford through college and then through Harvard Law School. James Garfield, remembered as “the Canal Boy” (his stint in that role lasted only ten days), was in fact reared on a thirty-acre farm run by his parents; the family lived in Spartan fashion but not in penury. Moreover, Garfield, like Hayes, had an uncle who staked him to a college education.
The pattern was familiar quite early in the nineteenth century. Presidents were the scions of men-onthe-make. If they knew poverty at all, it was the kind which increasingly affluent Americans always “remembered” rather than experienced. As the money economy developed after the Civil War, people recalled the old days of money scarcity and labelled them, instead, days of poverty, even though they had not been characterized by personal suffering.
The pattern continues to show up in the Chief Executives of the twentieth century. Calvin Coolidge’s father, a farmer and storekeeper in rural Vermont, made an annual profit of $1,200 on a stock of goods worth $10,000. He was easily able to see that his son received a college education. When Calvin as a young lawyer earned $500 a year, he was for the first time freed of dependence on his father’s support. No less important, Coolidge had an inheritance from his grandfather, which he used to set himself up in practice.
To cite an even more recent example, General Eisenhower’s father was a farmer and businessman often “busted” by overoptimistic schemes. But if he could not provide luxuries for his children, he helped teach them the advantage of getting an education. When the youthful Ike was working in a creamery in Kansas, his chief aim was to save money to go to college. Warren Harding was the son of a farmerturned-homeopathic doctor, who was able to send his son to college. Herbert Hoover had a loving uncle who reared him and gave him a modest cash stake to help him through Stanford University.