A Classification of American Wealth
History and genealogy of the wealthy families of America - Sponsors

 Part 1 : Colonial and Mercantile America  Part 2 : America in the Gilded Age
 Part 3 : America in the Twentieth Century  Encyclopedia of American Wealth

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Remarks to the compilation of the lists of "Wealthy Americans in politics and public office"

As with all other American Wealth classification lists, the lists of wealthy Americans in politics and public offices can be displayed according different keys in the headers : Name, state of residence and fortune.

The default setting is an arrangement by decreasing fortunes, expressed in US dollars of 2004 (adjustment for purchasing power).

The conversion of all fortunes into 2004 equivalents is necessary for these lists, since our wealthy Americans in politics and public offices have lived over a time span of some 250 years. To compare fortunes of different times we choose to adjust them for their purchasing power, using the US consumer price index. While this yields pretty satisfactory results for the period since 1900, it fails to reflect the real magnitude of older fortunes, since the 1800s were characterized by long periods of actual price stability or deflation.

In their excellent work "The wealthy 100", Michael Klepper and Robert Gunther therefore use the GNP deflator to adjust inter-temporal wealth figures. While this helps to convey a feeling for the real magnitude of these older fortunes in comparison to newer ones, it also contains a flaw, because comparing the economies of a nation with 5 million (1800), 50 million (1880) or 250 million people (1990), all creating wealth and claiming a share of it, is simply not a valid model.

Thus, while George Washington's consumer price adjusted fortune of $13.6 million seems small for a man who was among the ten richest Americans in his time, the figure of $23.75 billion we would get using the GDP adjustment, would simply not be realistic. 5 million people could never produce the GDP of 250 million people, even if leaving out the considerable impact of technological progress.

The better adequacy of the lower (consumer price adjusted) figure to appraise these elder fortunes can be further illustrated by the example of Thomas Jefferson, another early US president. We estimated his maximum fortune at $200'000 at the turn of the 19th century. When he died, he had debts of $105'000, apparently accumulated principally during the time of his two presidential mandates and justified by the cost of entertaining related to his functions. While it is quite possible to imagine that a statesman's entertaining would run through a fortune of $5'000'000 (expressed in US dollars of 2004), such can hardly be the case if we use the GDP adjusted figure of $6.3 billion.

Another remark is necessary as to the basic information for our wealthy politicians and public office holder's fortunes. Contrary to our other American Wealth classification lists, we used the highest available estimate of a person's fortune, plus the fortune of his wife and children (if dependent). The fortune may have been made prior, during or even after a person's time in office and does not reflect the monetary power of a given politician in his specific time of action, but more in absolute terms, regarding his lifespan. This simplification was necessary, since we do not have adequate information about the precise evolution of each person's fortune.


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