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

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Michael B. Sauter, Ashley C. Allen, and Douglas A. McIntyre

Images President (Term) Why They Lost Everything
16th Abraham Lincoln (1861-1865) An ambitious but poor young man, Lincoln’s early life left him in financial ruin. When he was in his 20’s he bought a general store with a friend and business associate – an investment he would later regret. Before the store went bankrupt Lincoln sold his share in the venture. However, his partner died shortly afterwards and Lincoln was forced to absorb his debts. He was taken to court by the store’s creditors and lost ownership of his only remaining assets: a horse and some surveying equipment. His later career as an attorney eventually brought Lincoln out of complete poverty.
18th Ulysses Simpson Grant (1869-1877) His brief, illustrious career as our nation’s highest-ranking general notwithstanding, Grant never earned a great deal of money and often lived well beyond his means. This was especially the case after his presidency, when he and his wife traveled the world, dining with foreign dignitaries and staying in expensive hotels. In 1881, Grant’s son, Buck, convinced his father to enter an investment partnership with an associate of his, Ferdinand Ward, for $100,000. Ward mismanaged and embezzled Grant’s assets, and when the firm of Ward and Grant went bankrupt, the former was sent to prison, and Grant was left with hundreds of thousands in debt. He went bankrupt, and was only able to save his family further financial hardships by selling his civil war memoirs for nearly half a million dollars – published shortly after his death.
25th William McKinley (1897-1901) While McKinley spent most of his life in relative financial stability, the depression of 1893 bankrupted an investment he had made with a friend in a tin plate company. His final debts reached an estimated $130,000 and McKinley was forced to file for bankruptcy. In order to pay off his debts, McKinley solicited some of his friends to help him manage his estate and sell off his property. Instead, his friends exercised various connections and raised the sum of money on their own, much to McKinley’s perpetual shame.
33rd Harry S. Truman (1945-1953) One of the saddest cases of presidential hardship, Truman, was relatively poor throughout his life. He borrowed against his meager future inheritance and invested in a zinc mining operation, which failed and lost him most of his investment. Truman later performed various menial jobs, which barely kept his family afloat. However, the real financial disaster occurred when the clothing store he owned with a friend went bankrupt in the wake of extreme deflation. Truman lost his $30,000 investment, but never declared bankruptcy, despite urgings from friends and family to do so. Truman continued to pay debts throughout his early career, and was still thousands of dollars in debt when he began his tenure as a senator. It was Truman’s sad financial state that inspired the doubling of the presidential salary, which he received after the fact. Truman and his wife were the first two official recipients of Medicare when Lyndon Johnson signed the program into law.