Although the U.S. presidency seems to be a ticket to wealth after leaving office thanks to book royalties and speaking fees, not all former occupants have chosen to pursue this commercial path. Some former presidents have engaged in humanitarian and philanthropic endeavors, while others have only scraped by after vacating the White House.
Memoirs and Speeches
Memoirs and speaking engagements are common for former presidents. This route has been an easy and respectable method to harvest cash after leaving office. Bill Clinton, who left office in 2001, received a $15 million advance to write his memoirs, according to tax returns released by Hilary Clinton in 2008 during her run for the White House. Those tax returns show that the Clintons earned $109 million in eight years, according to the New York Times. The Clintons have also been generous and made $10.2 million in charitable contributions during that time.
George W. Bush reportedly received an advance of $7 million for his memoirs. Bush earns considerable income from speaking engagements, and it is estimated he receives between $100,000 and $150,000 per speech. The Center for Public Integrity estimates that Bush earned around $15 million during the first 15 months after leaving office.
Humanitarian and Peacemaker
Jimmy Carter served a single term as President, leaving office in 1981, and he has worked as a diplomat and humanitarian since then. Carter and his wife founded the Carter Center, a nonprofit group dedicated to "human rights and the alleviation of human suffering" through conflict prevention. The Carter Center engages in initiatives to support greater democracy, freedom and improved health. Carter made a secret visit to North Korea in 1994 to help negotiate a treaty regarding nuclear weapons. He has also been involved with diplomacy in the Balkans, the Middle East and other areas. Carter received the Noble Peace Prize in 2002 for his years of work to help prevent war, support of human rights, and improve social and economic development.
Harry Truman became President in 1945 after the death of Franklin Roosevelt. Truman was elected to a second term, leaving office in 1953. When Truman left office, he had to live on a $112.56 monthly pension from his service as a Colonel in the U.S. Army Reserve and whatever he saved of his salary while in office, according to historian David McCullough. This was probably not much, as Truman and his wife later moved back to Missouri to live with his mother-in-law.
Truman refused to accept any fees for speaking engagements, consulting or lobbying after leaving office as he considered this an attempt to "commercialize" the presidency. He did write his memoirs, but netted only $37,000 after paying taxes, and the office staff needed to help write the book. In 1958, Congress passed the Former Presidents Act. The law awards pensions and other benefits to former occupants of the White House. This law was motivated in part by Truman's financial issues after leaving office.
Back to Public Office
John Quincy Adams was the sixth president and served a single term. He left office in 1829 after losing a bitter election campaign to Andrew Jackson. Adams headed back into political office and was elected to the House of Representatives as congressmen from Massachusetts for nine terms. Adams also ran unsuccessfully for governor of Massachusetts in 1834.
From Riches to Rags and Back to Riches
Ulysses Grant served two terms in office and presided over a tumultuous time in American history as the impact of the Civil War was still affecting the political landscape. Several years after leaving office in 1877, Grant became involved with brokerage firm Grant & Ward. In 1884, Grant & Ward was forced to file for bankruptcy after becoming indebted to Marine National Bank, which also failed spectacularly that year. Grant was wiped out by the bankruptcy of Grant & Ward.
This precarious financial situation forced Grant to start writing his memoirs, an idea that he had resisted since the end of the Civil War. He received a $25,000 advance, which is equivalent to approximately $600,000 in today's dollars. Grant's memoirs were published after his death in 1885 and became a huge success. They earned $500,000 for his wife and other heirs.
The Bottom Line
The U.S. Presidency is arguably the most coveted position in the world. In the modern era, it has led to enormous wealth for presidents after they leave office. These riches may lead many citizens to have less respect for the position of U.S. president, yet there's something distinctly American about seizing an opportunity to make money and get ahead.