In March 1789, as he prepared to leave his beloved Mount Vernon and drive to his first inauguration in New York City, George Washington dashed off letters to his closest friends and nephews. Washington had not sought the presidency, preferring, after 15 years of warfare, to rusticate in retirement and tend his Potomac acres. To Henry Knox, his old comrade-in-arms, he wrote, “My movements to the chair of government will be accompanied with feelings not unlike those of a culprit who is going to the place of his execution.” But Washington had more than an abiding sense of civic duty drawing him back into public life: he was broke.
To his favorite nephew, George Augustine Washington, he confided in writing on March 31 what many of his old friends already knew: “Necessity (if this [his unanimous election] had not happened) would have forced me into (frugality) as my means are not adequate to the expense at which I have lived since my retirement to what is called private life.” In other words, he needed the job.
Recent news coverage comparing the assets and income of Mitt Romney with America’s presidents have wildly overstated the wealth of the Founding Fathers, who should be more appropriately labeled the Foundering Fathers. What the oft-quoted ranking of presidential fortunes by the gurus at 24/7 Wall Street completely misconstrues is that early Americans lived in a largely cashless society, where millions of acres were virtually worthless because nobody had any cash to buy or even rent them. The 24/7 report asserts that George Washington was far and away the richest of all presidents because he owned 60,000 acres and 300 slaves. In fact, he managed 35,000 acres that was largely on the frontiers of western Pennsylvania and present-day West Virginia, where many of his former Revolutionary War troops were his cashless tenants, unable to pay their rent.
Washington had lost half of his net worth in the revolution. He refused to accept any pay for his eight years as commander in chief. Paying his own expenses and feeding his staff of up to 16 hungry officers at every meal, he also shelled out for a network of some 500 spies in gold. When he put in his expense account at war’s end, Congress only blinked once, quibbling about $8, and reimbursing paying him $100,000-plus. In worthless Continental dollars that had depreciated by 9,000 percent since 1776. A British raid on Mount Vernon had stripped him of his livestock and many of his slaves. He could not sell two thirds of the slaves because they were Martha’s dowry and only she could sell or free them after his death.
Right after the revolution, Washington’s favorite, the Marquis de Lafayette, dropped by from Paris. Washington invited him to tour Washington’s western acres. Lafayette, more interested in his own nationwide tour of adulation, declined. Good thing: he would have witnessed Washington haranguing threadbare tenants who couldn’t pay for the gristmill he had subsidized or their land rents, leading Washington to bring suit to evict them in Pennsylvania’s Fayette County court. (The marquis might have appreciated the nice irony that the county now bears his name.
Landowners made up 95 percent of the population in the cashless post–Revolutionary War slump. Like them, Washington tried to sell land or rent it. He bartered for virtually everything he needed. He swapped fish caught in the Potomac for shingles, planks, nails, and rum for the field hands at harvest time. He abandoned tobacco planting and raised wheat, which he sold to neighbors to feed their slaves. With the cash he realized from wheat sales and from stud fees for mules he introduced into America because they ate less than horses, Washington paid white weavers he imported from England to turn flax he was raising into linen clothing for his workers, white and black, and to pay his taxes. He allowed his slaves to keep muskets to hunt for small game. To seek a solution to the lingering economic crisis, Washington agreed reluctantly to preside over a reform-seeking constitutional convention in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787, but he had to borrow the cash to get there and stay there for four months from his next-door neighbor, George Mason.
Washington’s cash-poor lifestyle was typical of other Founding figures. Jefferson accepted payment of debts owed him during the revolution in worthless Continental money, but, after losing the war, British merchants he owed refused to accept American currency. He never recovered financially. He even borrowed from his slave chef and body servant, James Hemings, brother of the famous Sally, when he accompanied James Madison on vacation. It took Jefferson 54 years to complete Monticello. Hordes of relatives and political favor seekers were in mortal peril if they arrived to freeload after dark. They could plummet through the unfinished floors of the mansion. In 1819 ex-President Jefferson co-signed a note for a political lieutenant in the next postwar depression and, when his henchman bellied up, Jefferson grew increasingly impecunious. When he died, Monticello and its slaves, all but five of his longest and closest household servants—were sold at auction to cover his debts, and the Jefferson heirs lost Monticello. James Madison fared little better in his post-White House years as, once more, a depression swept postwar America, making land sales, or sales of any kind, impossible.
It wasn’t only slave-owning Southerners who felt the pinch. Alexander Hamilton could only afford to stay briefly as a New York delegate to the Constitutional Convention. He made one six-hour speech and then went back to his 57 Maiden Lane law office to earn the money to support his seven children. On the run from the French Revolution’s guillotine, Prince Talleyrand was shocked to look through Hamilton’s office window one midnight and see the first secretary of the Treasury scrawling away, sans clerk, on his legal briefs. Hamilton’s land-rich father-in-law, Albany-owning aristocrat Philip Schuyler was cashless, too. When Hamilton died in a duel in 1804, Schuyler’s family couldn’t afford to bury him. Mourners packing St. Paul’s Chapel passed the hat for his burial expenses in the graveyard right across the street from the Wall Street he had created.
It seems to me futile to try to rank order the wealth of presidents and presidential wannabes over time. The value of land, stock, and livestock vary so widely and so wildly that it becomes little more than a pointless, if not purely political, guessing game. Wealth can only be counted if it’s liquid. Even Mitt Romney would drink something or other to that.