To the long list of firsts for George Washington—first in war, in peace, in the White House, and in the hearts of his countrymen—we can add yet another superlative: richest American president ever. His 60,000 acres of land afforded to him a $500+ million fortune, according to an analysis by 24/7 Wall St. that estimated the net worth of every U.S. president based on land, salary, and investments, adjusted for inflation.
For nearly a century after Washington's election, we were an agricultural economy, and most presidents made their money on land, crops, and commodity speculation. Presidential fortunes fluctuated wildly in these early years partly because, lacking a national banking system or sensible regulation, recessions were deeper and asset values rose and fell with alarming frequency. The panic of 1819, for example, was the result of a spectacular fall in the price of cotton and other commodities that devastated real estate. The panic of 1837 caused a depression that lasted six years for many of the same reasons. These panics show up in presidential net worth figures.
Beginning with Millard Fillmore in 1850, the financial history of the presidency entered a new era, where lawyers held a near-monopoly on public service. In the late 1800s, many presidents, including Lincoln, Johnson, Hayes, and Garfield, have practically no net wealth. But in the 20th century, with the rise of families like the Roosevelts, Kennedys and Bush’s, the highest office has often returned to the hands of the wealthiest Americans.
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