James Madison owned 5,000 acres. George W. Bush ran an oil business. But no president amassed more wealth than our first one. George Washington's net worth was equal to $525 million in 2010 dollars, according to a study from 24/7 Wall Street. By comparison, eight presidents -- including Lincoln, Grant and Wilson -- had net worths below one million dollars.
An arresting thought: President George Washington's salary was two percent of the total US budget in 1789.
It's interesting to see the list as a kind of shadow economic history of the United States. The first dozen presidents tended to have significant, but fragile, fortunes predicated on real estate and commodity speculation that was tied to fluctuating crop yields. James Madison, for example, amassed a $100 million fortune (remember, all numbers are adjusted for inflation to 2010 dollars) but died after significant depreciation of his tobacco plantation.
But our presidents' net worth numbers take a plunge in the mid-19th century after the Panic of 1837 produced a six year recession. 24/7 explains:
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 were often almost entirely from their salaries. From Fillmore to Garfield, these American presidents were distinctly middle class. These men often retired without the money to support themselves in a fashion anywhere close to the one that they had as president. Buchanan, Lincoln, Johnson, Grant, Hayes, and Garfield had almost no net worth at all.
Starting in the early part of the 20th century, many presidents came into office with significant inheritance through corporations (Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, and both of the Bushes). But since LBJ, five presidents from Nixon through Obama came from little or no inheritance.