Ken Burns has done it again. He has created yet another fascinating documentary – this time one about Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt as well as Eleanor. We’ve been watching the 9 part series on PBS all week. These two men had a great influence on the direction the government of the United States has taken (whether you like that direction or not).
The documentary acknowledges that both men and Eleanor were endowed with inherited wealth. Having that wealth allowed them to gain access to education, people and experiences that helped them become the men and woman they were. Without it, America may well have been a different place.
How did the Roosevelt wealth come about?
They built it over generations, just as my family is attempting to do. Is that really un-American as some folks seem to think now?
Teddy Roosevelt’s wealth
Teddy’s (and Franklin’s) ancestors colonized America way back in the mid 17th century. Each generation seems to have conserved, added to and passed along the family wealth. According to Conrad Black’s book Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom, wealth flowed from Manhattan real estate, dry good sales and importing of sugar from the West Indies – and they married into other wealthy families.
When his father died, according to the New York Times 1878: Theodore Roosevelt Inherits a Fortune he inherited $60,000, which is worth about $1.3 million in 2014. His father (“Thee” Roosevelt, Sr. was a participant in the Roosevelt family business of plate-glass importing – Roosevelt and Son).
According to Business Insiders The Net Worth of the American Presidents from Washington to Obama , Teddy’s estate had a net worth of around $125 million in today’s 2014 dollars. Although he did inherit, he lost most of that money on a ranch venture in the Dakotas and had to go to work as an author to earn money – along with any salary he earned during his many years of public service.
Right after college around 1883, he married and with his first wife bought 235 acres in Oyster Bay Long Island and built a home (Sagamore Hill) on it. This area is now one of the most valuable areas of Long Island.
Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) and Anna Eleanor Roosevelt.
FDR was wealthy in his own right – from inheritances, but his wife (Eleanor – also descended through the Roosevelt line) inherited even more wealth. Franklin’s trust fund paid out $5000 a year; Eleanor’s gave $7500 a year and this at a time when a store owner could expect to earn about $300 a year.
His parents were wealthy, his Mother Sara Delano having inherited several million dollars (not inflation adjusted, several million in her time), but she kept that and did not pass it along to Franklin during her life. Some of this Delano wealth was earned in the opium trade with China – by one of her ancestors.
From his father, according to Conrad Black’s, Franklin Delano Roosevelt: Champion of Freedom book, FDR inherited $120,000 (again not adjusted for inflation) in that trust that paid out the $5000 a year.
FDR had a privileged youth – traveling through Europe each year, learning to sail on his Father’s yacht, living amount the other wealthy New Yorkers, meeting many influential and wealthy contacts and going to exclusive schools. At his death, his estate was worth about $60 million in 2014 dollars, some of it in real estate in several states including his Springwood estate of 800 acres.
Roosevelt’s from many ancestral lines have managed to hang onto and even increase family wealth, side stepping the typical tendency of families to go from shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.
When each succeeding generation has a base upon which to build, and understands that they are responsible for building wealth as well, it becomes possible for families to give their heirs a better chance to make a real difference in the world.
Even though I admire the American ideal of being self made financially, and hope that we as a nation continue to present conditions to our citizens that allow that to happen, I also admire families who persist in building wealth across generations, as long as the members don’t become indolent rich who won’t contribute to society and the human endeavor.
What are your thoughts?