American presidents became bankrupt at a rate at least 20 times the national average. Most of their troubles came from real estate speculation, poor crop yields on the lands that they held, and botched and frequently highly risky business deals.
24/7 Wall St. looked at the finances of all 43 presidents and found eight that became insolvent at one time or another during their adult lifetimes. Jefferson had a passion for expensive homes, land, and personal property. Madison was a poor judge of real estate values and gambled that his plantations would produce outsized crop production. William Henry Harrison had bad luck with the weather which destroyed his wheat and corn.
By the middle of the 19th century, land ownership went from being common to unusual. Lincoln lost everything when the general store he owned with a partner failed. An associate of Grant’s son ran through the former Union general’s entire fortune. The depression of 1893 ruined the value of McKinley’s investment in a tin plate company. Truman lost the clothing store that he owned with a partner. Most presidents were honorable and paid off their debts to the extent that they were capable of doing.
As 24/7 Wall St. said in the introduction to its Net Worth of the American President’s article, the nation’s chief executives were men of their times, at least financially. What is striking is the extent to which many were gamblers. Some, like Hoover, bet and won. He became wealthy in the mining business. LBJ made money as a cattle rancher, a risky business depending on the national appetite for beef and, to some extent the weather.
It could be argued that men who are willing to lead the nation into war, annex millions of square miles of territory or drop the atomic bomb to end a war were by their nature risk takers. Whether that is a better trait for managing personal wealth or the nation’s fortunes is for history to decide.
The following is a review of the poorest presidents and their bad luck: