The Wealthiest President

Most historians agree that George Washington was the wealthiest president.  Historians estimate his land, slaves, and other holdings to be worth over $525 million adjusted for inflation.  That money came from more than just farming.  Washington seined the Potomac for fish, ran a mill, and operated one of the nation’s largest distilleries, selling more than 10,000 barrells of rye whiskey annually.  He also used farming techniques that were innovative for the time, such as dredging the Potomac and placing the muck on his fields, for fertilizer; rotating crops from year-to-year, so as not to wear the soil out; and planting wheat instead of tobacco, which was particularly labor intensive and hard on the soil.

Several articles I’ve read claim that Thomas Jefferson was the second wealthiest president in history, worth about $212 million.  I question whether he was ever that wealthy, for three reasons.  First, while it’s true that Jefferson inherited 3,000 acres and dozens of slaves from his father, Jefferson’s father-in-law bequeated him substantial debt in 1774.  Second, Jefferson did not have nearly the scope of profitable activities outside of farming that Washington had, and he was not as quick as Washington to reduce his dependendtcy on tobacco.  Third, Jefferson was a spendthrift.  For example, Jefferson spent substantial resources building Monticello on a hill far from water – which made construction expensive.  Jefferson also spent $800 a day on groceries – mostly wine – while he was in the White House.   In light of the decreasing profitability of his land (and hence, one must conclude the value of land), and the debts Jefferson had, it seems difficult to believe that his net worth was really $212 million, adjusted for inflation.

Mitt Romney’s net worth is supposedly somewhere between $190 million to $250 million.   Given my views on Jefferson’s net worth, I think it likely that Romney would be at least the second wealthiest president in United States history if he is elected.  But he may even become the wealthiest president.  The Washington Post, for example, notes that given the industry he was in (private equity) and the time in which he was particularly active (the 1990s), Romney’s wealth may be closer to $1 billion.   That would make Romney the wealthiest president in U.S. history.


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