Of course, the fortunes of American presidents are vastly dependent on the economy at the times when they lived. For the first 75 years after Washington's election, presidents generally made money on land, crops, and commodity speculation. A president who owned hundreds or thousands of acres could lose most or all of his property after a few years of poor crop yields. Wealthy Americans occasionally lost all of their money through land speculation -- leveraging the value of one piece of land to buy additional property. Since there was no reliable national banking system and almost no liquidity in the value of private companies, land was the asset likely to provide the greatest return on investment, if the property yielded enough to support the costs of operating the farm or plantation.
Because there was no central banking system and no regulatory framework for commodities, markets were subject to panics in ways unknown today. The panic of 1819 was caused by the deep indebtedness of the federal government and a rapid drop in the price of cotton. The country's immature banking system was forced to foreclose on many farms. And the value of the properties that were foreclosed on was often low, because land without a landowner meant land without a crop yield. The panic of 1837 caused a depression that lasted six years. It was triggered by a weak wheat crop, a drop in cotton prices, and a speculation-induced leverage bubble in the value of land. These factors caused the U.S. economy to go through a multi-year period of deflation.
As a result of such factors, we see sharp fluctuations in the fortunes of the first 14 presidents.
Beginning with Millard Fillmore in 1850, the financial history of the presidency entered a new era. Most presidents were lawyers who spent years in public service. They rarely amassed large fortunes and their incomes often came almost entirely from their salaries. From Fillmore to Garfield, these presidents were distinctly middle-class. They often retired without the money to support themselves in anywhere near the fashion they were accustomed to while in office. Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, and Garfield had almost no net worth at all.
The rise of inherited wealth in the early twentieth century contributed to the fortunes of many presidents, including Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and both the elder and younger Bush. Another significant change to the economy was the advent of large, professionally organized corporations. These corporations produced much of the oil, mining, financial, and railroad fortunes amassed at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. The Kennedys were wealthy because of the financial empire that Joseph Kennedy built. Herbert Hoover made millions as the owner of mining companies.
The 20th century also saw the stigma of making money as a retired president begin to disappear. Calvin Coolidge made a large income from his newspaper column. Gerald Ford, who had almost no money when he was a Congressman, made a small fortune from serving on the boards of large companies. Clinton made millions on his autobiography.
We analyzed presidential finances based on historical sources. Most media evaluations of the net worth of presidents have come up with a very wide range, a spread in which the highest figure was often several times the lowest estimate. Most sources provided no hard figures at all. Largely, we have focused on the analysis of recent chief executives -- because it is much easier to calculate figures in a world where assets and incomes are a matter of public record.
One of the most important conclusions of our analysis is that the presidency has historically neither depended on nor assured wealth. Several U.S. presidents brought huge net worths to the job. Many lost most of their fortunes after leaving office. Some never had much money at all.