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Comparing Presidential Salaries

July 8, 2010

In the year 1873 the congress of the United States passed a bill that provided a large wage increase for the President and other senior members of Congress.  The congressmen received a salary increase from $5,000/year to $7,500/year.  President Ulysses S. Grant faired even better–his salary increased from $25,000/year to $50,000/year.  These numbers seem paltry by today’s standards, but in the late 19th century the President’s wage would have been comfortable indeed.  Using the Consumer Price Index to show the difference in salaries that inflation makes, Grant’s salary today would have jumped from just over $460,000/year to $925,000/year.  By comparison, President Obama collects $400,000/year.  Grant’s signing of the bill might be considered somewhat greedy, perhaps excessive.  The same year that he signed his raise into law there was a stock market crash and a rise in inflation that sparked a six-year depression.  The following year congress was forced to repeal the “salary grab” bill, but the presidential salary remained unchanged and Grant continued to receive his cushy paycheck.

Far from the hallowed corridors of Washington, there was another presidential salary debate brewing in Utah.  This president was the prophet of the LDS church, Brigham Young.  His “apostate wife,” Ann Eliza Young, was in the process of divorcing him, and the paperwork from that trial shows a widely divergent assessment of Brigham’s assets.  In her sensational book Wife Number 19, this anti-polygamist and feminist made this amazing claim in court of her husband’s net worth:

That I was the wife of Brigham Young, the defendant; that while I was living with him, and performing the work mentioned in the bill already filed, he aquired enourmous property, of the value of several millions of dollars, and was now the owner of at least eight millions.

That I had no means of knowing his exact income, but was sufficiently informed to allege that it was at least forty thousand dollars a month (1876, p. 556).

It is impossible to not be astonished by her claims.  I admit disbelief that his income could be this large.  By today’s standards, he would be valued at $148 million with the income of $740,000/month.  There is no doubt that Ann Eliza saw a great deal of wealth in the hands of the Mormon president–her many vivid descriptions of his wealth, businesses, property, and lifestyle were documented in her autobiography.  However, it is easy, even as an anti-polygamist myself, to chalk up her claims as excessive.

Brigham had the opportunity to reply to Ann Eliza’s claims against him.  His answer can be found in her book, the Central Law Journal or the NY Times archives.

Defendant denies that he is or has been the owner of wealth amounting to several millions of dollars, or that he is or has been in the monthly receipt from his property of forty thousand dollars or more.  On the contrary, defendant alleges that, according to his best knowledge, information, and belief, all his property, taken together, does not exceed in value the sum of six hundred thousand dollars, and that his gross income from all of his property, and every source, does not exceed six thousand dollars per month (Young, 1875, p. 559).

Brigham’s claims to fortune were far less grand than his wife’s charge, but according to the standards of the day he was making a quite a plush salary.  He asserted that all of his property was valued, by todays standards, at slightly over $11 million, and his yearly salary would equal $1.3 million.  The widely disparate figures that the embittered spouses laid to the court’s assessment is a cause for concern.  If we are to view Ann Eliza’s numbers with a degree of suspicion, we should be equally suspect of Brigham’s own figures.  After all, both stood to gain or lose a significant amount of money in alimony and both would likely be tempted to alter the sums in their own favor.

President Young made the petition to the court to not grant alimony to Ann Eliza based upon his already overburdened pocketbook.  At the time of his divorce to Ann Eliza in 1873, he had already married 55 women and was the father of as many children.  He claimed that these were heavy financial burdens, and this is no doubt true.  But his significant income still raises many questions.  How did Brigham achieve his wealth?  Is it appropriate for the leader of a religious organization to make (by his own estimations) almost 50% more than the President of the United States?  How was Brigham’s polygamy beneficial to Utah society if he only had children with 15 of his 55 wives?  Is Brigham’s income an indicator of his own personal success or a display of apostasy (2 Nephi 26:29)?

A bishop then must be blameless, the husband of one wife, vigilant, sober,

of good behaviour, given to hospitality, apt to teach; Not given to wine, no striker,

not greedy of filthy lucre; but patient, not a brawler, not covetous (I Tim. 3:2-3).

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13 Comments leave one →
  1. July 8, 2010 2:44 pm

    Thing you’re missing here Stephanie is that Brigham Young held a lot of different roles:

    1. Father/husband of a large family with many people to support

    2. Governor of a new territory

    3. Trustee for the funds of the entire LDS Church

    There just wasn’t the same kind of accounting discipline back then that is required of today’s organizations. It is almost impossible to separate Brigham Young’s personal finances from the finances of the LDS Church at large (though he tried his best to do so). People just don’t get how informal, and rough-and-ready corporate and government finance was back then.

    The most honest of men with the highest standards of integrity would have accounting practices that would horrify reporters on the financial beat today. This didn’t mean the men were dishonest, it just meant that accounting and finance was unsophisticated.

    Whether you know it or not, you have merely observed here that Brigham Young was trustee for the tithing funds of the early LDS Church. A rather innocuous claim – unless you have some independent evidence of wrongdoing. Because simply having a lot of cash flow doesn’t cut it. You have to demonstrate what it was used for.

    He could have had all the money Eliza Young alleged he did (which I agree with you – is quite unlikely) and still not be guilty of any wrongdoing if he was merely administering the money on the Church’s behalf.

    The danger of presentism is one we always have to guard against as students of history.

  2. July 8, 2010 2:48 pm

    An interesting Brigham Young quote from Journal of Discourses 12:127:

    “You may ask what I am going to do? I am going to get rich, for I calculate to give considerably more to gather the poor than any other man; because I want to be richer than any other man. I want more, because I believe I know what to do with it better than most of men.”

    The historical record seems to indicate that this wasn’t an idle boast. The guy was quite frankly, formidable.

  3. Ethan permalink
    July 8, 2010 6:11 pm

    Brigham Young continues to be perhaps the most misunderstood figure in American history.

    Brigham and his family had the same problem that Emma had in post Joseph Nauvoo, trying to sort out the blurry line between personal and church assets. Brigham funneled almost all of his wealth into building the kingdom. Most of it was actually the Church’s. Much of it ended up in the pockets of European travel agents as immigrants poured in. Much of it went to infrastructure and welfare and such. As Seth says, he was the trustee for the Church and therefore was the manager of Church funds.

    US Presidents do not funnel their salaries to build highways, provide education or fight wars. I am sure that Obama is banking every penny of his salary, not to mention the millions he’ll personally make post presidency.

    Brighams’ lifestyle in Utah was very reasonable. To imply, even for one second, that Brigham Young was some sort of imperial monarch who lived in some Deseret Versailles is laughable and naive. This is actually one of the better documented aspects of Brigham’s life.

  4. July 9, 2010 1:24 am

    Seth

    I don’t think I am missing the bigger picture about his influence in the territory and church and need for funds to support his family. I alluded to the large size of his family (55 wives+55 of his own children). I can certainly understand why he would need a very significant cash flow to support his family. That doesn’t seem the real point to me. Here are the bigger questions. Where did the money come from? Where was the dividing line between church offerings and his own purse? Why was he free to marry and bear children in numbers far above the majority of his peers while paying for these activities out of the church coffers?

    You said:He could have had all the money Eliza Young alleged he did (which I agree with you – is quite unlikely) and still not be guilty of any wrongdoing if he was merely administering the money on the Church’s behalf.

    I’m curious. Would you endorse the idea of a religious leader making independent personal decisions (i.e., having an enormous family) that cost average parishioners significant amounts of money? What gave Brigham the right to marry to this degree? He was placing a heavy financial burden upon the church in a time period when there were more men than women in Utah. Brigham was presumably just as poor as his traveling companions when he arrived in Utah, yet by the end of his life he somehow had the funds to support a massive family.

    Seth, you have a remarkable degree of common sense. You are able to discern that perhaps Ann Eliza got a bit carried away in her figures. I wish you could approach Brigham Young’s finances with the same honesty.

    Stephanie

  5. July 9, 2010 1:33 am

    Ethan

    Brighams’ lifestyle in Utah was very reasonable. To imply, even for one second, that Brigham Young was some sort of imperial monarch who lived in some Deseret Versailles is laughable and naive. This is actually one of the better documented aspects of Brigham’s life.

    Ethan, you always have a way of phrasing things. Deseret Versailles? Very funny. 🙂

    Seriously, though, I’m not sure which documented sources you are referring to, but if an average man has only 1 wife and 5 children he will require significantly less to live on than someone with 55 wives and 55 children. This is just common sense. Those wives and children could be living much more hand-to-mouth than the average man’s family but it would still cost much more to support the larger family. Now, if Brigham Young was the co-founder of Google as well as LDS church president there would be very little to discuss. We could know that he gained his funds in a secular manner and out of his own ingenuity. But he clearly gained his funds through church work. The “luxury” of having multiple wives was paid for out of the churches own funds.

    Stephanie

  6. Ethan permalink
    July 9, 2010 4:58 am

    Steph,

    You are underestimating the sulf sufficiency of the early LDS. These were industrious achievers. Brigham did indeed have income and property from his own endeavors, he wasn’t skimming tithes for a yacht or anything. He owned and operated agricultural enterprises and other businesses that supplied his family with income. Along with this spirit of self reliance was coupled principles of consecration. Some of the wives, like my ancestor Emily Partridge who lived and managed a SLC dairy farm with her children, were virtually not dependent on Brigham’s income. It was no cakewalk, but these people knew how to support themselves and had a spirit of independence.

    Most families in the rest of pioneer America were no better, perhaps more miserable since they lacked the cohesion and synergy of polygamy which, like it or not, was incredibly efficient.

    We need to be careful when labeling the money we’re talking about. Some was Church money that Brigham managed for the Church. Some was his own earnings from his own efforts. As Seth points out the accounting and deliniation was pretty lax in the mid 1800’s. It wasn’t Goldman Sachs. There was some dispute after his death about who owned what, but it was hardly the scandal you make it out to be. Brigham in vastly underrated, especially among LDS.

  7. July 10, 2010 9:42 pm

    Ethan,

    According to George D. Smith, author of Nauvoo Polygamy, Young was married to about 35 living women in 1873.  Using figures from Wikipedia, the number may be as low as 30-31 since some of his wives had divorced him by that point.  A number of women that he had married had died prior to his divorce from Ann Eliza.  Assuming the lower of these numbers it is reasonable to think that Brigham had 30 wives in 1873.  Dividing $6000/month among thirty wives works out to $200/month per wife.  In today’s figures that would be an annual salary of about $44,000/year per wife.  Ann Eliza claims she lived like a pauper when she was married to Young and denied that she was allowed even the barest essentials for her living.  She claims the favored wives received the best of everything while the less favored wives had to scrimp by on next to nothing.  At 23, Amelia Folsom became the “favorite wife” of the then 66-year-old prophet and received “jewelry, fine clothes, a carriage of her own” as well as traveling expenses.  So, it is possible that some of the wives lived on more than $200/month and some lived on less.

    It seems clear that Brigham was referring to his own income when he indicated he had $6000/month.  Notice that he doesn’t claim church expenses as the reason that he can’t afford to pay Ann Eliza alimony.  If he saw his expenses and the churches expenses as one and the same he would certainly have indicated that in his response.  The only reason he gave for being unable to afford alimony was his large family.  His divorce occurred during the construction of the very expensive SLC temple.  Why wouldn’t he have listed that building as an expense if his pocketbook was the church’s pocketbook?  In your response you give an excuse for Young that he didn’t give for himself.  You say about his income:

    Most of it was actually the Church’s. Much of it ended up in the pockets of European travel agents as immigrants poured in. Much of it went to infrastructure and welfare and such

    If that is the case, where is your evidence?  Why didn’t Brigham say that in his own defense?  Further, how would there have been funds to provide for European emigrants, church welfare and building up the kingdom plus the support of his own family?  It appears that at least some of his wives lived very comfortably—probably living off much more than $200/month.  That would mean that the rest of his wives would be starving if he had to take away money from them in order to support all of the causes that you claim he paid for.  You simply can’t make excuses for Brigham that he didn’t make for himself.  If he saw his pocketbook as the church’s he would have indicated that in his defense.

    I’m not criticizing his self-reliance. He married many women that were mature and already had property and wealth. That is money that he “married into,” and was not taken from his position as prophet. I’m simply pointing out that he made, by his own admission, 50% more than the scandalously high salary of the President of the United States. I’m trying to figure out what the LDS definition of “priestcraft” is when this is the salary of their own revered prophet.

    Stephanie

  8. Ethan permalink
    July 11, 2010 2:28 am

    Steph,

    You are still mixing up and blending some things, and also taking absolute black & white views on others.

    Here are the facts on Brigham Young, all verifiable:

    1. He was Trustee in Trust for the LDS Church. This office carried with it a financial component that placed Brigham at ground zero for most, if not all, of the Church’s expenditures and assets.

    2. Polygamy is efficient and exponential, financially speaking. Brigham had a very large family that contributed large sums of income to his Family in a synergistic way. Brigham had an honest income and lifestyle that was sufficient for his needs.

    3. Brigham had no official salary. Unlike the US Presidents you are trying to compare him to.

    4. Accounting, records and indentification of ownership was not up to today’s standards. There was some blurring of who owned what. For example, Brighams’ will was a source of contention.

    Now, considering these facts, let’s overlay your arguments against Brigham.

    1. BY should have indicated his personal and Church expenses in the report.

    Why should he do that? The Church’s expenses were not his own family’s. That would imply that Ann should be entitled to the Church’s assets. To clarify, the Church’s assets were never considered Brigham’s personal salary, it wasn’t like today’s sole proprietors. On a pragmatic, frontier level, Brigham handled both and there was certainly SOME gray areas. Basically, reports of Brigham’s fortune were greatly exaggerated since many hostile to him considered the Churchs assets that he handled to be his. They were not.

    2. How would there have been funds to provide for European emigrants, church welfare and building up the kingdom plus the support of his own family?

    The Church funds were the main kingdom building assets. But my point in mentioning these expenses was that Brigham did use some of his own assets to assist the needy. The great irony of your accusations is that Brigham was a pioneer of the law of consecration and united order, the furthest financial philosophy imaginabel from someone “greedy of filthy lucre” or guilty of “priestcraft.”

    3. He made, by his own admission, 50% more than the scandalously high salary of the President of the United States.

    His family was certainly 50% larger than any US President I know of. More bodies means more workforce and income. Suffice it to say his family earned every penny…and why shouldn’t they have reward for their labors?

    And the grand finale:

    Even if BY was involved in a financial scandal, which he was not, what does that have to do with the LDS gospel being true? The Bible is full of old codgers who make mistakes all the time.

  9. faithoffathers permalink
    July 11, 2010 2:43 am

    Stephanie,

    Do you have any evidence that church funds or monies from church members went to paying for Brigham’s livelihood?

    That is not a given. Rather, it sounds like an assumption. If you have a basis for this claim, please share.

    fof

  10. Ethan permalink
    July 11, 2010 2:52 am

    One more thing,

    What Brigham was up against during his lifetime was unparalleled in US history. We could argue that BY had a much tougher job than any US president during his lifetime, who only served brief terms.

    Brigham oversaw a massive exodus consisting of a pathetic, brutalized people. He was responsible for a territory that stretched from San Diego to Denver, from Canada to mexico. He built hundreds of settlements, dealt with natives, dealt with foriegn immigrants. He was responsible for a huge family. He maintains to this day the humiliation of being the most maligned and misunderstood person in US history. Even this blog continues the Brigham lynching. How he didn’t have a nervous breakdown at age 40 is a mystery.

    I look at brigham Young and see one of history’s greatest unflinching figures, plain and simple. Give the guy a break.

  11. July 11, 2010 4:49 am

    FOF

    I’ve looked through my post again. I don’t see where I made the allegation that Brigham received his income from church members. This was certainly the statement that Ann Eliza made. In describing Brigham’s income and the construction of the SLC temple she had this to say:

    In the mean time the begging goes on, but the work moves slowly. Large contributions come flowing in, but the Temple does not advance visibly; while Brigham adds house to house, field to field, increases his bank deposits, and lives as well as any man in his position would wish to live.

    The people will take no bonds from him; and as it would seem like questioning the Lord’s anointed, he is supposed to administer the financial affairs under the direction of the Lord, no statements are ever required of him. Once in a while, however, he goes through the form of a settlement of accounts, which he simplifies immensely, by a system all his own. It is said that at one time he balanced his account with the church by ordering the clerk to place two hundred thousand dollars to his account for services rendered, which was exactly the sum of his indebtedness to the church (Wife No. 19, p. 524)

    I have no way of verifying Ann Eliza’s statements. They could be completely false. However, as a wife of the Mormon prophet I would venture to say that she knew him better than you or I ever will.

    It is possible that his money came only from his own business ventures. But that doesn’t solve the riddle because he became so financially successful that his profits far exceeded the average standard of living at the time. Should we simply assume that his rise to wealth coincidently coincided with his rise to power in the LDS church?

    Stephanie

  12. July 11, 2010 5:07 am

    Ethan

    When someone presents himself as “prophet, seer and revelator” he is only asking to be investigated. That is normal. People in positions of authority are always scrutinized. Every President of the United States is ruthlessly examined, picked apart, stereotyped, caricatured, and maligned. US Presidents are elected and serve only four years. Brigham was appointed and served his lifetime. Of course he should be examined! I find it amazing that you suggest we should “give the guy a break.” I investigate who I vote for before I cast my ballot. Why can’t we investigate someone who claims direct access with God? That seems like a pretty substantial position and one that should be actively investigated by non-LDS and active Mormons alike!

    What Brigham was up against during his lifetime was unparalleled in US history. We could argue that BY had a much tougher job than any US president during his lifetime, who only served brief terms.

    Brigham Young lived through the Civil War. I hope we aren’t comparing the responsibilities and pressures of Brigham Young to Abraham Lincoln. 🙂

    He maintains to this day the humiliation of being the most maligned and misunderstood person in US history.

    I can understand your feelings on this subject, but this statement seems a bit grandiose to me. Do you have a quote or statistic for that?

    Even this blog continues the Brigham lynching.

    I don’t see how discussing Brigham’s finances equals “lynching” him. I’m simply comparing Brigham’s salary to that of his contemporaries.

  13. July 11, 2010 5:20 am

    Ethan

    Sorry for two posts… 🙂 I wanted to say one more thing.

    Even if BY was involved in a financial scandal, which he was not, what does that have to do with the LDS gospel being true? The Bible is full of old codgers who make mistakes all the time.

    The Bible is full of examples of people who make mistakes. I agree with that 100%. The Bible is also full of examples of people repenting for their sins. How can someone live in open rebellion against God by not confessing their sin and yet continue to expect God to be able to use them? Further, I don’t know of any examples in scripture of men who claim to be the “prophet, seer and revelator” with authority to receive new revelation who are living in sin. If it is true that BY was practicing “priestcraft,” how could he really be chosen of God to lead the church? BY didn’t have a large salary one day and then confess, make things right and re-establish himself with a modest income. He lived his entire life as church president with the same (or possibly growing) income. That doesn’t seem like a good Biblical example of the repentance/restoration pattern that is always seen when people get their lives right with God.

    Stephanie

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