This is part four of a five part series on the wealthiest presidents (Part 1; Part 2; Part 3). Somewhat unsurprisingly, this list includes what many scholars agree are the best presidents in United States history, with J.F.K. being regarded as the worst of the group. All of these men accumulated their wealth in different manners; while some amassed a good portion of their wealth through inheritance, others were self-made men. The important common theme between all of these great men, though, was their enterprising nature. This carried over into all aspects of their lives and is undoubtedly part of what made them all such great leaders of this country. For any finance readers, this is also a fairly impressive referendum on the power of the time-value of money.
Spoiler Alert – There was a lot of money in cash crops…
2. Thomas Jefferson – $212 million in 2010 USD
Thomas Jefferson, or Tommy Jeff as I like to call him, is my personal favorite president. Although Jefferson’s primary source of fame comes from being the author of the Declaration of Independence and his term as the 3rd President of the United States, he has a plethora of other accomplishments outside of the realm of politics that would make him worthy of his notoriety in their own right.
T.J. was a true renaissance man: well read, cultured, and expertly practiced in many walks of life. He fluently spoke five languages, and was deeply fascinated by science, architecture, invention, farming, philosophy, and religion. Jefferson especially loved books and reading. He was an accomplished author, writing over 18 books in his lifetime. He even learned Gaelic in order to translate Ossian (The Scottish Homer). In writing this, it is dawning on me that Jefferson may have been the original Great American Nerd. Thomas Jefferson owned over 6,000 volumes in his library at one point. Although he sold them to the Library of Congress after Washington was burned in the War of 1812, mostly to help extinguish some of his debt, he could not stand a book-free life and used a good deal of the proceeds to buy more books!
Prior to his civil service, Jefferson was an accomplished Virginia lawyer and farmer, as most everyone was in those days. As an attorney, he represented many of Virginia’s elite thanks to connections he had through his mother’s side of the family. He was also an ingenious inventor, although not quite at the level of Benjamin Franklin. Tommy Jeff’s inventions include: The swivel chair (which he supposedly wrote most of the Declaration of Independence in); a revolving book stand, much like a Lazy Susan for book readers; an encryption system for passing letters around the government; and a system to help the Federal Armory develop interchangeable parts for its weapons.
Jefferson is still renowned today for the work he did at his home at Monticello. After its completion, he slowly tinkered with it over the next 20 years to incorporate aspects of European design he picked up as the US Ambassador to France. These changes included a mechanism that would swing open both French Doors by opening only one side, which in that day was probably akin to being able to control every part of your house with your voice (Think Tony Stark in Iron Man). His design of Monticello begat an entire branch of Architecture named after Jefferson.
Jefferson’s architectural exploits reached beyond his own home, as well. His love of architecture suited him well when he founded the University of Virginia, which today remains one of the top universities in the nation. He was the principal designer of the university’s campus and buildings. At the time, it was notable for being centered around a library as opposed to a church. This spoke to one of the core ideals of Jefferson – the separation of church and state.
Despite his wealth of accomplishments, Jefferson, like many early presidents, died deep in debt, owing well over $100,000 at the time of his death.