This is the fifth and final installation of our five part series on the wealthiest presidents. 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…
1. George Washington – $525 Million in 2010 USD
The Chief of all Commanders in Chief either had the most powerful force of will in history or he absolutely lived by the maxim “Sometimes it is better to be lucky than to be good.” Other than having wooden teeth (which, coincidentally, were really made of hippopotamus and elephant ivory), G.W. continuously seemed to hit it big. The foundation of his wealth came from multiple inheritances and an impressive dowry to make Martha his wife. He had considerable land holdings, which he eventually consolidated and turned into his 8,000 acre, five-farm plantation at Mount Vernon.
He continued to expand his wealth by diversifying his operations beyond tobacco farming to include wheat, flour milling, fishing, horse breeding (Thomas Jefferson believed Washington to be the fines horseback rider of the era), and later in life, he even distilled his own spirits. What I wouldn’t give to try spirits distilled by the Father of our Country. The marketability of that in today’s market would be staggering!!!
The majority of Washington’s wealth, though, came from the good luck and great fortune, which by many accounts can also be attributed to his powerful force of will and personality, of being chosen as the first President of the United States of America. Shortly after assuming the post, he determined that the presidential salary should be 2% of the Federal Budget!!! How this fact is not given more attention is beyond me. I am unaware of what that figure amounted to back in the day, but in 2012, Obama would have received $75 billion. Yes, you read that correctly, and yes, you may take a moment to digest that. In one year, Obama would have instantly become the wealthiest man in the world. It may well be the greatest grift of all time. Congress figured that out quickly though, because G.W. is the only president to be compensated under such an arrangement.
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.
3. John F. Kennedy – $125 Million in 2010 USD
Much like Teddy Roosevelt, JFK came from a supremely wealthy family. His family was believed to have been worth well over one billion dollars at the time of his assassination. Kennedy’s father was an incredibly impressive man in his own right – he made a fortune trading on the stock market and investing in commodities. Joe Kennedy also became the inaugural SEC Commissioner (Securities & Exchange Commission, not the SouthEastern Conference for you football junkies ). JFK’s wife was independently wealthy as well – she was the heiress of an oil fortune. Is there any way they did not sleep on a bed of money? Even if only for one night? Someone please dig this up.
As for himself, JFK made quick work of his time in the military, becoming a Lieutenant in the Navy and commanding a patrol torpedo boat in four short years, all after initially being disqualified for service with chronic back problems. After his service career was over, Kennedy made a meteoric rise through the political ranks. He served as a Congressman for six years, and then in the Senate for eight more years before being elected President in 1960. He never accumulated much wealth in his service, but then again, he did not need to. Much like Teddy Roosevelt, JFK grew up in a life of privilege and was able to enter into the realm of public service without having to worry about making ends meet – he could focus on politics and the philosophy of how to lead this country from a young age.
JFK’s actual worth was never truly determined because he never reached the point of inheritance. However, many scholars agree that he himself had the equivalent of about $125 million. His late widow, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, went on to marry Greek shipper Aristotle Onassis. Daughter to an oil baron, husband to a US President and also a Greek trade tycoon, Jackie knew how to work it. In her first year as the first lady, she spent $146,000+ on fashion… JFK’s entire salary as president at the time was $100,000. She herself died with an estate worth upwards of $70 million.
4. Theodore Roosevelt – $125 Million in 2010 USD
Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt might just be the coolest president in our nation’s history. He is the quintessential person who decides “You know what? I want to give that a try!” and then ends up being great at it. Not only would Teddy be great at whatever he did, but he had a magnetic nature – folklore followed him wherever he went. For example, when stories of T.R.’s refusal to shoot a captured bear on a hunting trip made its way across the nation, one cartoonist drew a picture of Teddy with the cuddly bear. This, in turn, inspired a toy maker to create a new toy – the Teddy Bear. He sent a letter asking permission from President Roosevelt to use his name in connection with the toy, and the President graciously granted him permission. The Teddy Bears blew up – women carried them around like women today carry tiny dogs in their purses. For something so trivial to spiral out of control into something as legendary as this was typical of Roosevelt’s life in the spotlight.
Roosevelt came from an extremely wealthy family, one of the few legitimate millionaires in that day and age. In today’s dollars, his inheritance and peak net worth is estimated to have been around $125 million. However, he squandered much of his inheritance in his early life, and caught a few fits of bad luck while living life as a Dakota Cowboy. He was a Harvard man who believed in public service, and became a prominent and respected politician at an early age. The man had one of the best collection of jobs I have ever heard of. His posts included – New York State Assemblyman, Rancher/Cowboy, Civil Service Commissioner, NYC Police Commissioner, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Governor of NY, Vice President, and President of the United States. He was also a prolific author, penning 18 books, including was was regarded as the pre-eminent account of the US Navy’s role in the War of 1812 for decades after its initial publication. Throughout all of this public service, he was able to amass enough wealth to purchase the 235-acre estate “Sagamore Hill,” which today sits on the most valuable real estate on Long Island.
Teddy’s life philosophy also begat a distaste for malefactors of great wealth – he was weary of wealthy businessmen who sat on their laurels and did nothing but watch their money grow. He was even more disdainful of those who lived off of great inheritances. This was all readily apparent in his famous 1910 speech in Osawatomie, KS: “No man should receive a dollar unless that dollar has been fairly earned. Every dollar received should represent a dollar’s worth of service rendered — not gambling in stocks, but service rendered.” Given this, it is not surprising that he did not sit on his wealth and was very pro-active with his inheritance.
5. Andrew Jackson – $119 Million in 2010 USD
Old Hickory is the most interesting and in many ways, most impressive man on this list. Jackson is the only one of these presidents to grow up with nothing and inherit nothing. Born a bastard when his father passed away weeks prior to Jackson’s birth, he was an entirely self-made man. He became a country lawyer on the Tennessee frontier, and later became a judge and Congressman. Jackson also enjoyed immense success in the military, rising to the rank of General. A side note for the sports fans out there – The University of Tennessee athletic teams derived their name from the Tennessee Volunteer Corps made famous by its role in the War of 1812, the Seminole War in Florida, and the Mexican American War. The Tennessee Volunteers of the two former wars were led by none other than Andrew Jackson.
He leveraged his success to buy The Hermitage, his famous 1,000+ acre plantation in Tennessee. He grew cotton, tobacco and wheat, and in time became one of the premier landowners in Tennessee. His military forays benefited him greatly in this manner, as well. His dealings with Native Americans in the Seminole War in Florida gave him great leverage to be able to negotiate the sale of land from the Choctaw Nation that would comprise much of Western Tennessee. He became maybe the greatest land prospector in the region, and (little known fact) went on to be one of the three co-founders of Memphis, Tenn. As is tragically common among many early Presidents, though, Andrew Jackson passed away deep in debt.