Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Why Do We Seem to Always Elect Millionaires to the Presidency?

Several months ago I returned to a question that has bothered me since I first studied American history: “We do we Americans elect primarily wealthy men to be our president?” I have been some research for several months and eventually found a website that gave me some surprising answers. (Had I thought about the question and the potential resources for the answer, I would have gone there first: Forbes Magazine online).
Pondering the information that I obtained, I have a probable answer to my question: We elect wealthy men as president because we have always elected wealthy men as our president. Beginning with George Washington!
Our first president was also probably the richest (in relative terms) of all of our presidents and perhaps the only commander-in-chief who would have been listed on the Forbes 400 Richest in America. Not only did he inherit money and plantations from his father, but he married Martha Dandridge Custis, the “richest widow in the colonies.” When Washington died, his estate was valued in excess of $500,000.00—that is almost $15,000,000,000 in today’s dollars.
Moving right along, our third president—we skip John Adams, who was a lawyer and a farmer and had to earn his money the “old fashioned way”—Thomas Jefferson (1801-09), like Washington, also inherited wealth and Virginia plantations. He was born into one of the Virginia’s wealthiest families. Forbes reports than “only one man in Albemarle County, where he lived at Monticello, owned more slaves than he did.” Like John Adams, Jefferson was also a practicing lawyer; however, his clients were exclusively the wealthiest folks in America. Although “his income as a lawyer in the 1770s fluctuated between $1,000 and $1,800 a year," that’s still between $262,000.00 and $471,600.00 when compared with the unskilled wage earners between 1800 and 2005.
Chronologically, Andrew Jackson(1829-37)—considered to be a “commoner and back- woodsman” and “the common man’s president”—was the next millionaire we elected. In fact, Old Hickory was “one of the richest presidents of the 19th century.” Unlike Washington and Jefferson, Jackson didn’t inherit the bulk of his wealth. He made his millions via land speculation and from plantations he owned west of the Appalachian Mountains. Like Washington, Jackson was an army general; like Jefferson he was an attorney. According to Andrew Burstein, author of The Passions of Andrew Jackson, the real basis of his fortune were land deals that came to him in his capacity as a U.S. Army general. He and his army buddies were involved in negotiating the cession of land by Indians. "Then they went about [buying and] developing those lands," Burstein says.
Another army general who became a millionaire president was Zachary Taylor (1849-50). The son of a Kentucky planter, his family was extremely wealthy and had extensive landholdings in Mississippi, Louisiana and Kentucky. I may add that Taylor owned a plantation in Louisville and my Aunt Lill owned a house on land that was once a part of that plantation. Her house was located between the old Taylor Plantation house and the place where Zackary Taylor is buried in the Zachary Taylor National Cemetery. Though he was a career army officer and a hero of the Mexican War, he also attended to his cotton plantations. Taylor was fascinated by questions of credit and finance and came to be a master of money management. His wealth increased steadily; by the time he returned from the Mexican War his wealth was estimated conservatively at between $135,000 and $140,000. Most fortune was in slaves, valued at about $50,000. At the time of his sudden death in the White House in 1850, he was worth about $200,000—about in $973,000 2005 dollars.
Like Washington and Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt (1901-09) inherited his wealth: his grandfather Cornelius Van Schaack Roosevelt was one of the wealthiest merchants and bankers in New York City. According to Forbes, his inheritance allowed him a substantial income of $8,000 ($4,823,155.86 in 2005 buying power) per year, enough to support a large home and servants, but not enough for a townhouse in Manhattan. Roosevelt lost much of his fortune before he was president in an imprudent ranching endeavor in the Dakota Territories. After his presidency, Teddy wrote brooks in order to pay his bills.
Herbert Hoover (1929-33) could have easily spoken the line of made famous by his presidential predecessor, Calvin Coolidge, “the business of America is business,” since Hoover was probably the most successful businessman among the presidents—and one of the wealthiest. He made his money as a mining consultant and then by investing in mining operations. By 1908, he was earning $100,000 ($12,307,616.57 in 2005 dollars) per year and by the time he was forty, his estimated worth was between $1,000,000 and $5,000,000 ($123,076,165.72 to $615,380,828.62 in 2005 dollars). Hoover never took a salary as president: a humanitarian and philanthropist, he donated his salary to charity.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (1933-45) was another president who inherited his millions. A distant cousin of Theodore, FDR also came from an old money New York family: his father was an extremely wealthy investor and his mother was the heir to a China trade fortune. Because his mother lived until 1941, FDR never controlled the family fortune; however he was certainly able to spend it: during his years as president he spent an estimated $175,000 annually from his own funds above his presidential salary and allowances just to run the White House. When Roosevelt died at age 63 in 1945, his personal estate valued at only a bit over $1,000,000 (about $25,000,000 in 2005 dollars).
Another president who inherited wealth was John F. Kennedy (1961-63). My father always said that that the Kennedy fortune came from bootlegging during Prohibition; but since my dad was a Republican, I have always taken that with a grain of salt. Actually, Kennedy's father, Joseph, was the son of a successful bar owner and sometimes banker who became one of the U.S.’s richest men. Like Herbert Hoover, JFK never accepted a salary for being president and donated it to charity. Because his parents were alive when he was assassinated in 1963, John Kennedy never inherited even any of the family fortune, which was estimated to be about $850,000,000 in 1990.
Kennedy’s vice president and successor, Lyndon B. Johnson (1963-69), made his millions from TV and radio stations and Texas real estate, all after he entered politics at age 23. By the time Johnson succeeded Kennedy in 1963, his wealth was reported as $14,000,000 ($34,982,903.51 in 2005 dollars).
George Herbert Walker Bush inherited from his millionaire father and increased his fortune through Texas oil. In 1980 he reported an estimated wealth of $1.4 million ($4,798,788.08 in 2005 dollars). I have been unable to locate any estimate of George H. W. Bush’s wealth since 1980.
George W. Bush (2001-present), son of George Herbert Walker Bush, inherited family wealth and added to it through oil and investments, primarily in the Texas Rangers baseball team. He was much wealthier than his father was when elected president, primarily due to the $15,000,000 he made by selling his shares in the Texas Rangers (his initial investment: $605,000).
Who were the poorest presidents? I’ve not yet researched that question; however, from what I have discovered while researching the richest, our least wealthy president was Harry Truman. Even Abraham Lincoln, born in a log cabin (which wasn’t that unusual in the Kentucky of those days). Fifteen years before Lincoln became president, he was reported to have $120,000 “at work for interest.”
Some links you may find interesting:

I ain't no millionaire!


  1. Wonderful writing and research, Rev. Saint! This post must have taken a lot of work. Thank you for opening my mind to the issue of rich presidents.

  2. Do you think that it is possible for someone from a background of wealth to be able to represent the opinions and views of the'average' American family? I think not. So, why does the country elect wealth to represent them? You know what they say though... with money comes power. If you don't have it, you can buy it.

    Great post Nick!


  3. wow i didnt thank they was so rich

  4. seems to me that power and money go hand in hand. which comes first I don't know but i do know that the wealthy stick to their own and they weild a considerable amount of power just by virtue of economic power.

    The rich get richer.

  5. I couldn't imagine someone from the wrong side of the tracks becoming president. As was written above ... power and money go hand in hand. It sure is wrong, though !!
    Take care, Meow

  6. AZONOFAGUN: Thank you, Rex. I spread the research and writing over about three months and it began taking shape last weekend. By Sunday I decided that this post was done, unless I wanted to turn it into a book.

    JD’S ROSE: No, I don not think it possible for a person born into wealth can understand or represent the needs of those who have not inherited great wealth. For example, one of the Rockefeller clan, when running for public office in the 1950s stated that he did not think he could live on the $50,000.00 income of the “average American family.” In truth, the medium family income in the U.S. back in 1955 was $4,440.00, which was up 7% over 1954. In 1955, an income of $50,000.00 was the same in buying power as an income of $364,637.79 is today. ($4,440.00 has the buying power of $26,456.32 of today’s dollars). Mr. Rockefeller, who had been born with tremendous wealth, just didn’t get it.

    I think there are numerous reasons why we Americans elect those who are extremely wealthy to public office:

    First, as my post indicates, because we always have.

    Second, because it costs a lot of money to win an election. (When George Washing first ran for public office—the Virginia House of Burgesses, he was charged with a kind of campaign spending irregularity: with only 391 voters in his district, Washington is said to have purchased and distributed during his campaign more than a quart and a half of rum, wine, beer, and hard cider per person.

    Third, because it takes more and more money each year to finance elections. For example, George W. Bush took in a record $360 million for the 2004 election, easily exceeding the $193 million he raised four years earlier. Bush spent $306 million, another record.

    JODY: Yes, they are very, very rich.

    REVEREND PINK: Power and money do seem to go together. Unfortunately, that’s contrary to the perceived “dream” of the United States: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The U.S. is more of a plutocracy than a democracy.

    MEOW: Supposedly it was once every American boys dream that in the “land of the free” he could become President of the United States, no matter on what side of the tracks he was born. Unfortunately, the reality has been far different. For the first 50 years or so after independence, campaign costs were relatively low. In part, this was because the population was small and only white males who owned property (and, in some states, who belonged to the proper religious denomination) were allowed to vote or run for public office. Of the four million people considered U.S. citizens just after independence, only 800,000 (or one out of every five adults) could cast a ballot.

    I believe the big issue is related to inherited wealth. We overthrew rule by monarchy (inherited political power) not for rule by democracy, but for rule by plutocracy (inherited wealth).

  7. Truman was one of the poorer Presidents. David McCullough's excellent biography does a great job of chronicling his constant money concerns. Apparently Truman's financial condition after leaving office wa sone of the prime motivating factors in getting former Presdients a lifetime pension.

  8. My own opinion on this is: money breeds money.

    Once you start having money, you start traveling in certain circuts - meeting people who's having your back if you'll have theirs. So, as they pour millions into your campaign, you promise to drop a law or two that isn't in their favor.

    Men with money have more power then men without money. Besides, it's a completely exterior-issue: the wealthier, the more elegant a man looks the more appealing he is. Men want to be him - women want him. And everybody believe he got so wealthy because he's such an intelligent, clever man with a keen business mind (and never stabbing anybody in the back) fully aware of what needs to be done.

    Yeah, right!

    (great link - on the Wealth calculator especially!) ;)

  9. Amazing job on this Nick, as usual. Thank you!

  10. The *real* election is taking place right now, and we're not invited. Wealthy individuals and corporations are deciding, via their campaign donations, who will appear on the ballot in November.

    By the time we get to cast our vote, they have already won, and we have already lost.

  11. I wonder if Grant may not have been the poorest president.

    Thank you for writing this. T shall remember it the next time I vote. I really do not believe that the wealthy understand the rest of us.

  12. Nick, great research. I do know that it requires a great deal of money to win an election, but I am not cynical enough to believe that it must come from inherited wealth. Certainly stellar campaign fund raising, promising all things to all people, and a certain amount of charisma will get you pretty far. Not to mention, an honest election process. We are still a government, by the people, for the people and of the people regardless of who gets elected. We just need more people to stop being cynical and VOTE!

  13. Very interesting indeed . . . I knew about Andrew Jackson and not from history books. But the man isn't respected in the least by most American Indians and that is the reason why. Jackson broke many treaties and gained wealth from it.
    I think power and wealth go hand and hand. At least when it come to Presidents. G.W. Bush needs to get a new picture he doesn't look like that anymore. I always notice how old a president looks after his rein. They age fast and even money and power can't fix that.

  14. They not only have money to help fund their own campaigns, they also know all the other rich people who can help them get there. Do they really get how the rest of us live? No, not really.

  15. The Forbes 400, present and past, constitutes the largest and most reliable trove of data on who owns how much of America. The government does not collect information on wealth, only on income, so the annual Forbes effort is unique. I have been told by IRS people off the record that they have found the 400 a useful tool.

    The list is also a useful tool for anyone interested in power, the most important of the blessings great wealth confers. How much money, how much power? These 400 possess an aggregate $1.25 trillion. Imagine how many Congressmen that will buy.

  16. Hi Nick ~~ Very interesting post. I
    know a lot of money is needed to run their campaigns etc, but it is a great pity that they don't really know how most of the people live. In Australia it is compulsory to vote, (or be fined) and I guess that means we get a lot of informal votes or donkey votes (1234 etc) but I think most people vote for whoever they choose to.
    Thanks for your visit, and I certanly did enjoy my friend's visit. Take care Nidk, Regards, Merle.

  17. I think we elect rich people because, secretly, we all loathe poor people.

  18. LIMPY: I belive that you are right about Truman. I think that grant may also have been poor.

    HEART OF DARKNESS: I agree that money does bred money: I think, among other ways, its via compound interest. I think those common travelers help also, although I have read of those with "old money" looking down on those who have more recently become rich-say in the past 3 or 4 generations. I also concur that men with money have more power then men without money. However, there is a downside, if I interpret Edwin Arlington Robinson's poem, Richard Cory correctly:

    WHENEVER Richard Cory went down town,
    We people on the pavement looked at him:
    He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
    Clean favored, and imperially slim.

    And he was always quietly arrayed,
    And he was always human when he talked;
    But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
    "Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

    And he was rich—yes, richer than a king,
    And admirably schooled in every grace:
    In fine, we thought that he was everything
    To make us wish that we were in his place.

    So on we worked, and waited for the light,
    And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
    And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
    Went home and put a bullet through his head.

    LAURIE: Many thank you; it took a couple to months to put this own together. I'm glad I did before I lost MS Word, because that is how I save all of my drafts and notes. (See my latest blog).

    THOMAS: I agree. The next election is already in progress, in many ways.

    ANGUS XVII: Yes, I have thought about Grant as one of our lest wealthy presidents.

    PEACH: Thank you; the research went on and on and finally I decided that I had enough.

    As I found, many of our wealthier presidents did inherit money: Washington, Jefferson, the Roosevelts, Kennedy, the Bushes. However, Jackson made his own wealth, although it was based upon being a general and obtaining, unethically I believe, Native American lands. Johnson also made his own wealth, but again their are ethical questions concerning his business deals.

    Yes, we dot need more people to stop being cynical and vote, but that seems to be a major problem that my research indicated but I've yet to blog. In then last presidential election only 65% of the registered voters voted and in the 2006 primaries on 19% those eligible to vote in primary elections did so. I rather like what I understand is the Australian way: you are fined if you are eligible to vote and don't.

    NINA: I am sure that the story of Jackson and his treatment and stealing from Native Americans is well known among Native Americans. Jackson was the president who sent about 7,000 federal troops under the command of General Winfield Scott to round up about 17,000 Cherokees in camps before being sent to the West along the Trail of Tears.

    That picture is Bush's "official presidential portrait." Yes, he does appear to be much older now.

    SQUIRL: I believe you are correct. I understand that much of the record $360 million President Bush raised for the 2004 election came from oil tycoons and business executives who expected a return on their investments. I agree that those folks do not know how the rest of us live-or care.

    NVH: I have contemplated how many Congressmen that much money will buy-not to mention how many Presidents.

    MERLE: Thank you for the information that in Australia it is compulsory to vote or be fined! I really lie that!

    MALNURTURED SNAY: I agree, most wealthy people do look down on the rest of us.

  19. Absolutely fascinating read....fascinating.

  20. This is an excellent and most informative article. Thank you.

  21. Good article. I did no't realize how wealthy presidents have been.