Investing

America's Poorest Presidents: Bankruptcy, Insolvency and Extreme Financial Hardship

Douglas A. McIntyre
Images President (Term) Why They Lost Everything
3rd Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) Despite an ostentatious lifestyle – or perhaps because of it – Jefferson owed money to various creditors throughout his life. He inherited debt from his father-in-law as a result of unusual estate planning and was a creditor to many unreliable debtors. His main source of income, “Monticello,” proved inadequate to cover his debts. Poor management of his estate and price fluctuations of commodities cost Jefferson dearly. Towards the end of his life, he was so severely in debt that he petitioned the state of Virginia to auction off his land; the state refused. After he died, his estate was was auctioned off, and his surviving daughter was forced to rely on charity.
4th James Madison (1809-1817) At his “Montpelier” plantation, Madison suffered similar difficulties to Jefferson. While his various agriculture businesses were occasionally profitable, in the end they lost him money. His stepson, a gambler, racked up debts. Madison absorbed these obligations and was forced to sell half of Montpelier to pay them off. Although he may have wanted to free his slaves, his financial troubles prevented him from doing so, and he was forced to sell some of them to pay off debts. Some historians suggest that he had his memoirs published posthumously in order to better provide for his family.
5th James Monroe (1817-1825) Monroe ran his plantation into the ground. At the end of his life, he petitioned Congress to relieve some of his family’s debt and was granted $30,000. It turned out to be insufficient and he was forced to sell his home in Paris and his 3,500 acre “Ash Lawn” estate. On Monroe’s misfortune, John Quincy Adams wrote “Mr. Monroe is a very remarkable instance of a man whose life has been a continued series of the most extraordinary good fortune, who has never met with any known disaster, has gone through a splendid career of public service, has received more pecuniary reward from the public than any other man since the existence of the nation, and is now dying, at the age of seventy-two, in wretchedness and beggary.”
9th William Henry Harrison (1841) While serving as the Ambassador to Colombia in 1829-1830, Harrison was forced to manage his farm from abroad. When he returned to the states, he discovered that bad weather had destroyed his crops. At the same time, his creditors were all demanding payment. On top of his own heavy obligations, his sons also owed substantial amounts. Harrison spent much of the time after his return to America trying to get his finances in order, and was forced to sell off most of his land. By the time he reached the White House, he was still reportedly in debt. His untimely death, only one month after entering office, may have been the only thing that prevented him from reaching total insolvency.