- - Monday, September 18, 2017


“The chief business of the American people,” Calvin Coolidge said, “is business.” The 30th president didn’t say much, but he often said memorable things. But we never had a businessman president until Donald Trump.

Mr. Trump guards his economic particulars, which are a source of interest and speculation by a lot of Democrats, including Robert Mueller, the special prosecutor who is prowling through the president’s business affairs, if not always the so-called Russian connection he was originally assigned to investigate. The business affairs of presidents have always fascinated their critics and constituents.

A lawyer, President Coolidge blossomed into a politician and as vice president (under Warren Harding), and like most of his fellows of the time, he was an advocate of smaller government and laissez-faire economics. He advocated racial equality when it wasn’t necessarily popular.

Presidents, like President Trump, often made business a profitable sideline, or tried to. George Washington, for example, more than adequately husbanded the commercial affairs of the well-endowed widow he married. He was a gentleman planter between episodes as a soldier, an innovative farmer, experimenting with new crops, fertilizers, crop rotation, tools, and livestock. By his death in 1799 he had expanded the plantation from 2,000 to 8,000 acres along the Potomac, with more than 3,000 acres under cultivation.

Thomas Jefferson, perhaps because of an ostentatious lifestyle, seemed to always owe money to somebody. After he died his family auctioned Monticello, his memorably fascinating mansion, but his surviving daughter nevertheless relied on public charity.

James Madison suffered similar difficulties at Montpelier, his plantation, which usually lost money. His stepson, an inveterate gambler, accumulated debts that Madison paid as a matter of honor, and he was forced to sell half of the plantation to do it. He said he wanted to free his slaves, but sold some of them to pay off debts.

James Monroe ran his plantation into the fertile ground. Before he died he asked Congress to pay his family’s debts and was granted $30,000, a lot of money at the time, but not enough to save his 3,500-acre plantation “Ashlawn,” and a house in Paris.

John Quincy Adams wrote that “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 72, in wretchedness and beggary.”

Harry S Truman may have been the least well-fixed of all the presidents. He accumulated less than $1 million, as reckoned in today’s currency, and retired to Missouri in 1953 with only his Senate pension. Congress did not grant presidential pensions until 1958. In his memoirs, Mr. Truman said once he was done in Washington he and his wife Bess drove home in their old Plymouth and once there, he took the suitcases up to the attic and they settled in as plain citizens.

Nobody knows for sure how much Donald Trump is worth, but he’s surely the nation’s richest president ever. He is said to have inherited $40 million from his father, and Bloomberg News estimates his worth now at $2.9 billion. The Donald claims he’s worth much more than that because he thinks his name alone is worth $3 billion. But it’s a buyer’s market, so who knows?

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