Myth of America's rags-to-riches presidents

Almost all grew up wealthy. That doesn't mean they couldn't serve the less fortunate.

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Rudy Giuliani received $11 million last year in speaking fees alone. John McCain is worth between $20 million and $32 million, most of it earned the old-fashioned way: He married into it. John Edwards, a former trial lawyer, has assets of about $62 million. But they're all paupers compared to Mitt Romney, founder of a private equity firm, whose personal fortune is somewhere between $190 million and $250 million.

So what else is new?

As the presidential primary contests heat up, we're being treated to yet another round of "exposés" about the personal wealth of America's presidential candidates. And no one has received more attention than Mr. Edwards, the antipoverty crusader with the $400 haircut and a new $4.2 million home. "What Would Jesus Do With John Edwards's Mansion?" Fox News anchor Brit Hume quipped, in a typical jibe.

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These attacks reflect a curious American blend of romanticism and cynicism. On the romantic side, Americans like to imagine that their leaders once came from log cabins and other modest circumstances. In the cynical vein, meanwhile, they presume that a wealthy candidate could not – or would not – fight for the less fortunate.

But neither claim holds up to historical scrutiny. Despite the rags-to-riches mythology, American presidents have almost always come from the wealthiest sector of society. And despite their riches, some of these leaders have spoken valiantly and effectively for the poor.

Consider the first US president, George Washington, who grew up on a plantation with 49 slaves and more than 10,000 acres. After he died, biographers tried to paint him as a humble yeoman farmer. But during his presidency, Forbes magazine reports, Washington would have made its list of the 400 richest Americans!

Ditto for Andrew Jackson, regarded as America's first common-man president. Jackson grew up on an estate in South Carolina with slaves and a gristmill. He also attended a private academy, another mark of wealth at the time.

In the "Tippecanoe and Tyler too" campaign of 1840, William Henry Harrison swept into the White House by pretending that he had lived in an actual log cabin. He hadn't. Like his running mate, John Tyler, Harrison belonged to the elite crust of Chesapeake society known as the First Families of Virginia. Harrison's father inherited six plantations and served as Virginia's governor during the American Revolution.

Even Abraham Lincoln, who routinely touted his youthful poverty, was relatively well-to-do. At the time of Lincoln's birth, his father owned two farms of 600 acres along with several town lots, livestock, and horses. Five years later, Thomas Lincoln was listed among the richest 15 percent of property owners in his Kentucky community.

So there's nothing new in the personal wealth of today's presidential aspirants. Even the humblest of the major candidates, Barack Obama, scraped by on a $1 million income last year.

What is new, however, is the cynical idea that wealth will somehow infect a leader's political positions. If you come from serious money, the argument goes, you can't really represent people who don't.

Wrong again. Think of Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy, who both inherited vast sums. They felt that their riches gave them a special responsibility to aid others.

As a sophomore at Harvard, Roosevelt wrote a history thesis about his own family's "democratic spirit" in the face of enormous wealth. "They have felt ... that being in a good position, there is no excuse for them if they did not do their duty by the community," he asserted.

As president, Roosevelt would face charges of class treason – and, even, of communism – from his fellow patricians, who worried that his New Deal policies would cut into their affluence. "They are unanimous in their hatred for me," Roosevelt declared in 1936, "and I welcome their hatred."

So it's fair to say that plenty of rich Americans didn't give a hoot about the poor. As Roosevelt's example shows, however, it hardly follows that a vast personal fortune prevents you from identifying with people less fortunate. Sometimes it works in reverse: Your wealth makes you more sensitive to the plight of the infirm, the homeless, and the unemployed.

So why do Americans continue to believe that their leaders come from the salt of the earth? At its root, the log-cabin legend expresses a basic myth about America itself: that anyone can make it here. Work hard, and you can become whatever you want. Even president.

That's obviously false. But it's equally false to think that the economic status of a leader will determine his or her attitudes toward wealth, poverty, and everything else. Come primary time, then, let's look less at our candidates' homes and haircuts and more at their platforms and policies. And let's beware confusing one with the other.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of "Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century."

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