Estimated to have been worth a cool $525 million (in today's dollars), George Washington built his fortune through a mix of inherited and marital wealth, land speculation (thanks to an advantage he gained as a government surveyor) and diverse business holdings that included everything from hemp production to one of America’s most successful distilleries. He also raked in the bucks through his presidential salary, which was equal to 2 percent of the entire U.S. budget in 1789.
Like Washington, many of America’s earliest presidents made their fortunes off the land (and the slaves who worked it), but not all were as fiscally prudent as he was. Thomas Jefferson inherited much of his fortune from his father, and expanded it through land speculation and a series of government positions. Jefferson, however, was the ultimate spendthrift, blowing his $234 million nest egg on lavish entertaining and fine food. Jefferson was also a collector on a massive scale, with a particular passion for books. In 1815, he helped the government—and his bank account—when he sold his personal collection to the Library of Congress following a devastating fire. He used the money to pay off some creditors—and then promptly began buying more books to replace them. Unsurprisingly, he died deeply in debt.
Jefferson’s close friend and fellow Virginian, James Madison was the largest landowner in Orange County, Virginia, thanks in part to his 4,000-acre Montpelier plantation. But “Little Jemmy” left the White House a poorer man than he entered, thanks to a collapse in the value of his tobacco-producing lands. It didn’t help matters that his stepson, Payne Todd, was a profligate spender whose personal problems drained the Madisons' financial—and emotional—coffers. Before his death in 1836, Madison had gone through much of his estimated $101 million fortune, forcing his widow Dolley to sell Montpelier and its remaining slaves. She lived in relative poverty for the rest of her life, before finally receiving a cash influx when Congress purchased her husband’s papers a year before her 1849 death.
Andrew Jackson positioned himself as a man of the people, but he was far wealthier than his fellow citizens. Despite his hardscrabble, impoverished childhood, Old Hickory became a prominent lawyer and famous military commander, which, along with extensive landholdings, allowed him to amass a $119 million fortune.
By the mid to late-19th century, however, many of America’s presidents, like many Americans themselves, could no longer count on land ownership and agriculture to provide financial success. So it’s perhaps no surprise that this time period saw some of the nation’s poorest presidents, relatively speaking. Presidents Buchanan, Lincoln, Andrew Johnson, Hayes and Garfield may have been prominent attorneys and politicians before they entered the White House, but none was worth more than $5 million in today’s dollars. Ulysses S. Grant struggled to hold a job before winning fame on Civil War battlefields, and then lost what little money he had thanks to an unscrupulous business partner. Grant was only able to provide for his family’s financial future by writing a best-selling autobiography shortly before his death.
Theodore Roosevelt inherited a fortune built on his family’s shrewd investments in the industrial sector, then spent most of it on unsound investments of his own, including buying up large, unsuccessful tracts of land out West. He recouped some of his losses, however, on other real estate deals, placing him in the top 10 richest presidents with an estimated net worth of $125 million.
Herbert Hoover may have presided over the early years of the Great Depression, but he himself was in good financial shape during the worst of it. Despite being orphaned at a young age, he parlayed a mining degree into a $75 million fortune, serving as a prominent company executive and investor. He was also one of the first presidents to forgo his salary, donating it and much of his wealth to charity.
Like his fifth cousin Teddy, Franklin Roosevelt inherited great wealth, and married even more through wife Eleanor (TR’s niece). Unlike Teddy, though, he had someone who tried to restrain his spendthrift ways. For much of his adult life, his domineering mother Sara held the purse strings on his $60 million fortune. He did, however, later spend significantly on his passion project, the polio treatment center (and southern White House) at Warm Spring, Georgia.
One of the richer presidents in American history was followed by the person who was almost certainly the poorest. Harry Truman failed at nearly every business venture he tried, and only narrowly avoided declaring bankruptcy when a Missouri haberdashery business flopped. Politics provided a steady, but relatively unimpressive, salary, and he was worth considerably less than $1 million.
Which brings us to the big asterisk in the list. The Kennedy family wealth and mystique has led many to believe that America's 35th president was also its wealthiest. But while JFK's legendary father, Joe Sr., had amassed a fortune of nearly $1 billion through Wall Street, rum-running and Hollywood movies, it was held in a family trust for Jack and his (many) siblings. Kennedy certainly lived well, however, with access to a $10 million trust fund and a father willing to foot the bill for many of Jacqueline Kennedy’s designer frocks.
Given his rough exterior and lack of social graces, it’s perhaps surprising that the richest president of the last 50 years (before Donald Trump) was Lyndon Johnson. What little money his father had was lost when LBJ was young, and the future president worked as a rural school teacher. His marriage to Claudia “Lady Bird” Taylor helped turn his personal—and political—fortunes around. The savvy Lady Bird invested in a Texas-based radio and television station that she used to pay the bills and, some say, promote Lyndon’s career. The Johnsons also began buying extensive tracts of land, allowing them to amass a $98 million fortune.
The late 20th century saw a succession of presidents who may not have had much money before their presidencies, but cashed in after leaving the White House. Despite resigning in scandal, Richard Nixon made millions through real estate and post-presidential book and TV deals. Same goes for Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.
Ronald Reagan made his money not through his Hollywood film career, but as a longtime pitchman for General Electric, then added to it with his post-presidential autobiography. George and George W. Bush were born into wealth, then made millions more in Texas oil fields. And though they were both born poor, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have made (and will likely continue to make) money through book deals and the lucrative speaking engagement circuit. And Donald Trump, a real estate tycoon who inherited much of his wealth from his father Fred, has a net worth believed to be in the billions.