Video: The first lady's 'pin money'

By John Yang Correspondent
NBC News
updated 5/18/2007 7:37:40 PM ET 2007-05-18T23:37:40

Buried in the dense spreadsheets of the annual financial disclosure forms for President Bush and his wife, Laura Bush, that the White House released this week is this intriguing entry: "*Henry G. Freeman Jr. Trust -- $12,000."

Follow that asterisk and there's a fascinating tale about a 16th-century practice, a 19th-century millionaire and an unusual sense of civic duty that will live on as long as the United States.

The payment was to Mrs. Bush from an annuity created by Freeman, a prominent Philadelphia landowner, when he wrote his will in 1912.

Freeman, who died in 1917, directed that after the last named beneficiary of his estate died, $12,000 a year would be paid "to the lady termed the first lady in the land; that is, the President of the United States [sic] wife, or anyone representing the president as such, should he not be married or should she die during his administration." He specified that the money be for the first lady's "own and absolute use" and the payments "shall continue in force as long as this glorious government exists."

The sum of  $12,000 in 1912 is the equivalent of about $185,000 today.

NBC News
Excerpt from will of Henry G. Freeman Jr., establishing a $12,000 a year trust for America's first lady.

Why such an unusual bequest? "I feel the President of the United States receives such a miserable pittance for a man holding the greatest position on earth," Freeman wrote in his will. At the time, the president was paid $75,000 a year, the equivalent of $1.15 million today. The current presidential salary is $400,000 a year.

Freeman's final heir died in November 1989, but the matter was tied up in the courts until December 1992.

Even though George H.W. Bush had already lost to Bill Clinton by then, Barbara Bush got $36,000 in retroactive payments. She used the money for "private donations" and to "do something nice for her grandchildren," a Bush family spokesman said at the time. Hillary Clinton donated the money to charity. Laura Bush's office has not been able to answer what she does with the money.

Freeman's will, which is administered by Wachovia Trust Services, said the posthumous generosity "shall be termed and styled 'The Henry G. Freeman Jr. Pin Money Fund.' "

What's "pin money"? According to Random House, in Freeman's day, it referred to an allowance a husband gave his wife for personal expenditures and dates back to the 16th-century practice of men giving their wives money for the specific purpose of buying decorative pins as jewelry.

John Yang is an NBC correspondent based in Washington.

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