Thursday, June 05, 2014

Why Do We Seem to Always Elect Millionaires to the Presidency? (redux)

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 comment:

  1. Thank you for all of the information and links.