Great Moments in Presidential Debt

Properly managing one's finances seems like it should be a prerequisite for running a country. But these U.S. leaders could have used more dead presidents in their wallets.


Prior to becoming president, Harry Truman's ventures in private business earned him more trouble than profit. He lost several thousand dollars investing in a fruitless zinc mine, and even more money funding a short-lived haberdashery in Kansas City. Eventually he began to view politics as a more stable career than business. Even as a senator, Truman was forced to borrow money and live more modestly, as he sent much of his income home to support his farm in Missouri.

Upon leaving the White House in 1953, Truman refused to exploit his former office as a stepping stone into the business world. This left him with just a small plot of land off which to live. He hoped that his memoirs would bring in extra cash, but between paying the ghostwriters and the taxes, Truman netted just $37,000 from the book. His insolvency grew so pathetic that President Eisenhower passed the Former Presidents Act in 1958, which created a pension for Truman. The former president made use of every last bit of it, leading an active life until his death at the age of 88.


During the 1700s, tobacco rarely turned a consistent profit. So Thomas Jefferson, like many plantation owners of his time, lived in perpetual debt. Eager to look the part of a Virginia gentleman, Jefferson borrowed money for expensive clothes, furniture, and wine. He continued to indulge in this lifestyle through his presidency and into retirement. Jefferson's beloved country estate of Monticello was especially draining on his finances. Its high ceilings and large windows led to excessive heating costs, and its flat roof and cavernous skylights leaked with every rainfall. by the time Jefferson was in his late seventies, the neglected bills had piled up and doubled with interest.

To lessen his financial woes, Jefferson started selling off the things he loved. He sold his entire collection of books to a Congressional library and even hatched a plot to give away a large parcel of land in a statewide lottery. When news of the lottery (and its purpose) reached his former colleagues, generous donations poured in. Despite these efforts, Jefferson died in debt. Two decades later, his grandson finally paid off the founding father's tab.


In 1881, former president Ulysses S. Grant settled into his retirement with what seemed like a prudent investment in his son's Wall Street firm, Grant & Ward. But when the younger Grant's partner, Ferdinand Ward, absconded to Canada with all the money, Grant found himself short $150,000.

Grant considered it a matter of personal honor to pay back the debt in full and rejected any financial assistance. He sold off much of his land, but it wasn't enough to cover his losses. To generate more income, the former general wrote a series of articles about his Civil War exploits, which the ever-humble Grant doubted anyone would read. Surprisingly, the articles were a huge success, and Grant's longtime friend Mark Twain convinced him to pen his personal memoirs. Completed just before his death in 1885, Grant's autobiography became one of the best-selling books of its time -earning more than half a million dollars.


The article above, written by Brian McMahon, is reprinted with permission from the Scatterbrained section of the May-June 2011 issue of mental_floss magazine. Get a subscription to mental_floss and never miss an issue!

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