Harry Truman was not a good businessman. The clothing shop he opened with a friend was a disaster—and he was paying off the debts through his senate career and into his presidency. Most of his investments were flops. He had to sell off chunks of his mother’s farm when they couldn’t pay the mortgage. After he left office, the only safety net he had was his army pension.
This is not because he was reckless or irresponsible. He just never ended up making a lot of money in life and, for the most part, he didn’t have a head for making a buck. But he did have a gift for public service and he knew how to be of use to people. Most politicians, had they had his experiences and then held successively higher offices, might have used their positions to enrich themselves—to finally get their due. Not Truman. He was broke most of his life, but he was honest.
Did that mean there was little money left to pass onto his children? It did. He was self-conscious about that, as most fathers are. We want to make sure our kids are comfortable. We want to make sure they’re provided for. At the same time, Harry had the fortitude and the honor to know that there are far more valuable legacies to pass onto our kids than the amount that goes into their trust fund.
As he wrote to his beloved daughter Bess, “From a financial standpoint your father has not been a shining success, but he has tried to leave you something that (as Mr. Shakespeare says) cannot be stolen—an honorable reputation and a good name. You must continue that heritage and see that it is not spoiled.”
It’s a statement of our times—and on the character of many of us—that we find it easier to make a dollar than to earn an honorable reputation. We spend more time growing our bank balances than ensuring our good name. But which is a greater legacy? Which teaches our children more?