J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 05, 2016

How Rich Were the Early Presidents?

Wikipedia’s entry on the wealth of U.S. Presidents has been updated with an estimate—and, in the absence of full financial disclosure, it can only be an estimate—of President-elect Donald Trump’s wealth.

The original source for the other estimates is this article and chart from 24/7 Wall St.

Until 2017, these articles say, the richest U.S. President by far was George Washington. He had extensive land holdings, many slaves, and uncommonly successful plantations. Other southern planters—Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and Andrew Jackson—are also high on the list.

More recent very wealthy Presidents include several men who inherited large fortunes, such as Theodore Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, though none as large as the one Trump received on the death of his father. In the twentieth century we also see men who rose from modest upbringings to fortunes through business or marriage, such as Herbert Hoover and Lyndon B. Johnson.

This list estimates the net worth of Presidents at their height. In this modern media age, that height for some Presidents came after they left office as they earned money from memoirs, speeches, and other rewards of celebrity. In the case of Bill Clinton, his wife’s earnings are bundled with his own—which takes us back to how Washington became rich in the first place.

Lyndon B. Johnson was the first President to create a “blind trust” to insulate himself from his businesses—primarily radio stations that came to him through his wife. But biographer Robert Caro found that Johnson secretly stayed in touch with the both the general manager of the station and the primary manager of that trust.

After Watergate, Congress passed laws requiring government employees to either put their assets into a true blind trust or to divulge all those assets publicly, so that the public and press can look for conflicts of interest. Since 1989 the President is no longer liable to criminal prosecution for breaking that law, but it’s still an important ethical guideline.

After all, even George Washington faced the temptation to use the assets of the federal government for his own private benefit, as I’ll discuss next.

TOMORROW: The Treasury Department and Oney Judge.

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