Don't believe all that born-in-a-log-cabin hype. Only four United States presidents actually started out that way, Abraham Lincoln being the most famous. By the time the other three, Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan and James A. Garfield, entered the nation's highest office, they shared one trait with its other 40 occupants: All had achieved a certain measure of financial prosperity.
Despite two centuries of campaign rhetoric touting identification with the common man, the simple fact is that no truly poor individual ever has become president of the United States.
Can anyone grow up to be president? If history is a judge, not unless they first amass sufficient financial wherewithal to withstand often income-less political races. (If Sarah Palin runs for president she'll need that $10 million Forbes estimates she has earned in book advances and speaking fees over the past year.
Like citizens themselves, some presidents have been richer than others as they exercised their weighty responsibilities. Who were the flushest?
For our money, George Washington wins hands down. In the largely tax-free environment that characterized colonial America, he was considered one of its richest residents, a product of his shrewd business sense, a marriage to a wealthy widow and several inheritances. He benefited from an older brother's marriage into a powerful family, while early work as a surveyor helped give him a keen understanding of land.
Most of the wealthiest presidents came from distinguished families and had the benefit of inheritance, trust funds or access to family money besides whatever they accumulated on their own. Think the two Roosevelts, Theodore and Franklin. Only a handful of the wealthier presidents could be said to be self-made. Lyndon B. Johnson started out with humble origins but had achieved sufficient economic means from his Texas broadcast holdings by the time he reached the White House.
More recent U.S. presidents have been far from the poorhouse but, in our judgment, were not among the top 10 while in office. The two George Bushes, for example, grew up in privilege, attending Ivy League colleges and later benefiting from their own entrepreneurial efforts before entering elected politics. The elder Bush founded and sold an oil company while the younger Bush profited from the sale of the Texas Rangers, which he co-owned.
Image: George Washington (1789-97)
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