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Five U.S. Presidents Who Lost it All

February 14, 2011

In February we celebrate President’s Day, so now is a good time to reflect on some of the financial hardships a few of our Presidents endured and overcame. For many of these unfortunate Presidents, bankruptcy was not an available option. Fortunately, today’s federal bankruptcy laws make it easy to discharge honest debt and provide a fresh financial start.

Thomas Jefferson

Famous for founding the University of Virginia, drafting the Declaration of Independence, and serving as third President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson lived most of his life as a wealthy estate owner in Virginia. Unfortunately, Jefferson had a habit of living beyond his means and choosing poor investments. At the time of his death in 1826, Jefferson was found to be $107,000 in debt (between $1 and $2 million in today’s dollars). His family was forced to sell much of his property including Jefferson’s beloved Monticello.


Abraham Lincoln

A face that can be seen on Mount Rushmore along with Thomas Jefferson’s is our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. Before Lincoln was President, he experienced serious financial trouble as a failed shopkeeper in Salem, Illinois. Lincoln and a partner purchased a small general store on credit. The business failed and when his partner died, Honest Abe became liable for a $1,000 debt. His horse and surveying equipment was taken and sold, and Lincoln spent the next 17 years repaying creditors.


Ulysses S. Grant

In a scheme that seems like it was taken from today’s headlines, our 18th President lost $150,000 when Grant’s partner in a Wall Street investment bank swindled him. Grant liquidated all of his assets and transferred all of his personal possessions to repay his debt. Later that same year Grant signed a book deal that netted his family over $400,000 !


William McKinley

While serving as Ohio’s governor during the depression of 1893, McKinley found himself $130,000 in the red after a friend defaulted on bank notes McKinley endorsed. McKinley’s friends raised the money to bail him out, and four years later McKinley became our 25th President.


Harry S. Truman

By the time Harry S. Truman became a U.S. Senator, he had lost a future inheritance in a failed zinc mining operation, and was financially ruined when his Kansas City clothing store went bankrupt in the 1920’s. He continued to pay debts throughout his early career in Congress. Due to Truman’s sad financial state, Congress doubled the presidential salary. Truman and his wife were the first two official recipients of Medicare when Lyndon Johnson signed the program into law.


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