The Wealth Of Presidents


A proper start in life for a future President, therefore, has involved not only the silver spoon but also the chance to move up the ladder—almost invariably with the help of higher education. The way has never been made smoother by diligent labor as a wage earner. The best arrangement has been to escape as quickly as possible from the thralldom of manual work. James Polk was born with an unusually frail constitution that exempted him from laboring on his father’s farm and pointed him instead toward obtaining an education. Millard Fillmore, the son of a tenant farmer, was bound to a cloth-mill owner as a woolcarder. He realized early that this was not a way to fulfill his burning “ambition for distinction.” For a similar reason Andrew Jackson did not work long as a saddler’s apprentice. And Andrew Johnson made his years as a tailor’s apprentice pay handsomely, but not in the employment of his own skill as a craftsman. In a short time he had five or six tailors working for him in his shop and he rented out a second shop he opened. (His rising fortunes led him to purchase land and, although he later liked to recall his skill with a needle, his real-estate holdings rapidly became his prime livelihood and his wedge into the world of affairs.)

Zachary Taylor’s case is an interesting one. The son of a Kentucky planter, he chose a career in the army, not usually a royal road to financial success. In Taylor’s day, a lieutenant’s wage was !30 a month, and even a major, who might have twenty years of service by the time he got his oak leaves, received only $50. But Taylor had a keen eye for the main chance, and his father helped him find it. The elder Taylor in 1810 gave him a 324-acre farm near the family’s plantation. The son sold his gift at a profit of seventy per cent and invested the proceeds in Kentucky lands. These he soon sold for more than twice what he had paid for them. His fortune having reached $16,000, he invested $2,000 in cash in a small Louisiana plantation that cost $6,000 altogether. In its first year the plantation netted Taylor a profit of $1,500, which he deemed disappointing.

Taylor was fascinated by questions of credit and finance and came to be a master of money management. His wealth increased steadily. Although not all of his investments flourished (in the 1830’s he lost heavily in his Kentucky speculations), by the time he returned from the Mexican War it was estimated conservatively that he was worth between $135,000 and $140,000. The bulk of this fortune was in slaves, valued at about $50,000. But $11,000 was in bank and utility stocks, $7,500 was out on loan, three warehouses he owned were earning $600 a year. At the time of his sudden death in the White House in 1850, he was worth about $200,000.

Speculation did not always reward its practitioners among the future Presidents with success. William Henry Harrison, another army man, is an example of one who was never able to get very far ahead in the daily struggle to take care of his wife and children. The scion of a famous Virginia family—his father had signed the Declaration of Independence—he had to make his own career, because he was a third son. After a glorious term of service in the army, Harrison, still a young man, made an effort to prosper as a civilian. He held a number of territorial posts until he became the governor of the Indiana Territory at $2,000 a year.

This was a large salary, and Harrison drew it for twelve years, but he had eight youngsters to support and see through school. As a result, in the fashion of the day, Harrison tried his hand in various undertakings, like a distillery and a sawmill. He also dabbled in land ventures, but did not succeed in them. In fact, to cover his losses, he found himself draining off the modest profits of his 2,800-acre Ohio farm.

More and more, Harrison came to think that a high public position with a good salary would solve his financial problems. John Quincy Adams stated the case with his customary bluntness: “This person’s thirst for lucrative office is absolutely rabid.” He compared Old Tippecanoe to “a hound on the scent of a hare.” Elected to the Senate in 1825, Harrison shortly afterward got himself named minister to Colombia. Travel in Latin America seems not to have interested him as much as the $9,000 salary and the additional sum of $9,000 for outfitting. In anticipation of the appointment he borrowed $10,000 from the Bank of the United States.

On Harrison’s return to the United States his creditors pounced on him. Plagued by his own obligations, he was also saddled with the debts of his sons. Moreover, bad weather damaged the wheat and corn crops on his farm. As a consequence, he was forced to sell much of his land—and even that did not altogether wipe out his obligations. Possibly if he had lived (he served in the White House for less than a month), his presidential salary would have enabled him—as public wages had sometimes enabled him in the past—to speculate profitably again and to absorb the losses from speculations that went awry.

No one will ever know. What we do know is that for only a handful of men has the Presidency itself been a source of wealth. William Howard Taft confided to Woodrow Wilson on the eve of transferring the White House to him that he had saved $ 100,000 during his term of office. Calvin Coolidge is believed to have saved about $50,000 a year while Chief Executive.