The Wealth Of Presidents


That other upstate New Yorker, Martin Van Buren, also built a successful law practice and stayed alert for opportunity. Like Cleveland a thrifty man, he always saved a good deal of his income. Moreover, like Cleveland, he had the advantage of living in a community which was growing very rapidly. His large estate near Oswego rose steeply in value as western New York became more populous. Just as Cleveland would receive large fees as sheriff of Buffalo, Van Buren enjoyed them as surrogate of Columbia County. When he became President in 1837, the value of his fortune was estimated at about $200,000. A notable exception to the rule of wealth among lawyers-become-President was William McKinley. He went bankrupt during the depression of 1893, when he was governor of Ohio, and had to suffer the embarrassment of being “bailed out” by gifts from friends and the general public.

If the lawyers among the Presidents-elect have been better off than men of other professions, they have also been freer of monetary cares after leaving the White House. One of the few who were not was Woodrow Wilson. His Princeton salary—even as president of the university—was probably not much more than $6,000. Even adding to that sum an extra few thousand dollars for lecture fees and royalties on his books and articles, his total income probably never exceeded $10,000 a year. In view of what Taft had confided to him about the “profits” of the Presidency, Wilson must have been disappointed that he himself could save so little. While at the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919, he had to borrow money to pay his income tax. He had always hoped to own a house overlooking the Potomac River, but he could never afford to buy or build one. Only the generosity of friends made possible his purchase of the house on S Street where he spent his tragic last years.

A nice question that a number of moneyless exPresidents have had to face is whether they might capitalize on the fact of having been President. Wilson, for example, practiced law for about a year after leaving office, but this venture was unsuccessful because of the meticulousness with which he decided which clients he would allow his name to be associated with.

Today it is accepted that a former President can sell his recollections and live on the proceeds. The first to see this possibility was Ulysses S. Grant. There is no more pathetic story than that of Grant, though dying of cancer of the throat, manfully completing his Personal Memoirs of the Civil War, in order to provide for his family. He finished just a few weeks before his death. Published by Mark Twain’s firm, the two volumes eventually brought the Grant family $450,000.

Every President from Theodore Roosevelt’s day to the present who survived his term of office—except Taft and Wilson—has written an autobiography for a handsome sum. Wilson chose not to; he declined an offer of $150,000 for his memoirs of the Peace Conference. (It was also suggested that he permit his estimable History of the American People to be made into a movie, and that he write a biography of Jesus!) Taft’s Our Chief Magistrate and His Powers was not really an autobiography but a study of the presidential office. and as such reached a limited audience. Although Taft was not significantly enriched by the book, he did receive about a thousand dollars apiece for his magazine articles.

Theodore Roosevelt actually became a substantially wealthy man as a result of his post-presidential writing. He received $50,000 from Scribner’s Magazine for an account of his African adventures in 1909. Afterward, he became a contributing editor of Outlook at $12,000 annually. Calvin Coolidge received about $75,000 for his touching but very thin Autobiography; he also wrote a syndicated newspaper column which earned him $203,000 in the single year 1931 he worked at it.

Truman’s memoirs and other books and articles made him moderately wealthy. It is noteworthy, however, that although Eisenhower received special tax consideration for his Crusade in Europe , which was published in Truman’s time as President, Truman’s Memoirs , published during Eisenhower’s tenure, was not accorded a comparable privilege. This was a matter of considerable irritation to Truman.

The reason why former Presidents write about their lives is, of course, not merely to cash in on their years of glory. It is also an occasion to make a personal defense or to clarify the record. As a result, the publication of their books is more than a literary event: it is a part of the political process itself. Despite the fact that a profit is involved, therefore, the effort is generally applauded by the public.

Aside from writing, how can an ex-President without money support himself? It has been reported that when Truman was making ready to leave the White House he asked Secretary of State Dean Acheson how he thought he ought to conduct himself as a former President. Acheson is said to have replied, “… as the American people would have you conduct yourself.”