However, Aaron Blake at the Washington Post finds that controlling for inflation, in fact George Washington would be the nation’s richest president.... In today’s dollars, Washington’s net worth would amount to more than $500 million.I'm not after the basic claim of the article, which is that we've had a lot of presidents richer than Romney would be if elected. What interests me is the claim that George Washington was fantastically rich. I had never gotten that concept from readings of history. What I thought I understood was that he began quite modestly, as a surveyor -- I've been to places he surveyed, including the town in Virginia that now bears his name. His marriage to Martha Custis brought him some wealth, and his status as a war hero made it possible for him to obtain more, but I thought he was in debt for a long time after that, nearly until the war started.
That seems to be in accord with the Wikipedia article, which notes:
After retiring from the presidency in March 1797, Washington returned to Mount Vernon with a profound sense of relief. He devoted much time to farming and other business interests, including his distillery which produced its first batch of spirits in February 1797. As Chernow (2010) explains, his farm operations were at best marginally profitable. The lands out west yielded little income because they were under attack by Indians and the squatters living there refused to pay him rents. However most Americans assumed he was truly rich because of the well-known "glorified façade of wealth and grandeur" at Mount Vernon. Historians estimate his estate was worth about $1 million in 1799 dollars, equivalent to about $18 million in 2009 purchasing power.Eighteen million dollars is still quite rich, but it's nowhere near $500 million. Is the Washington Post as bad with numbers as everyone else in D.C., or is there some way of making sense of the claim?