Albert Gallatin

Swiss-born Albert Gallatin (1761-1849) was U.S. secretary of the Treasury, as well as a diplomat, banker, and ethnographer.

Albert Gallatin was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on Jan. 29, 1761. His father was a prosperous merchant descended from an aristocratic family long politically prominent. Orphaned at the age of 9, Gallatin grew up in the home of a relative. He graduated from the Academy of Geneva in 1779. A young man of the age of the Enlightenment, he was sympathetic to the American Revolution and sailed for America in 1780, happy to be in "the freest country in the universe."

After a winter as a merchant in Maine, and a brief time with the colonial militia, Gallatin tutored in French in Boston in 1781. In 1782 he was appointed a tutor at Harvard College.

In 1783 Gallatin and a Frenchman planned to purchase western land and located an area in Virginia. Gallatin carried out surveying, mapped the interior, and registered land titles until an Indian uprising forced him to retreat. He took an oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1785.


Early Political Career

In 1786 Gallatin bought a 400-acre farm in western Pennsylvania and devoted himself to farming and land development. But his training and talents were unusual on the frontier, and he quickly became a political leader. In 1788 he was elected as a delegate to a meeting to propose amendments to the new U.S. Constitution. In 1789 he attended the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1790 and reelected the next 2 years. Quickly establishing a reputation for hard work and integrity, Gallatin became a skillful and logical orator. His greatest contribution came in the field of public finance. In 1793 he was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican.

However, when Gallatin took his Senate seat, the Federalists challenged his eligibility, based on the fact that he had not applied for citizenship early enough to meet technical citizenship requirements. The Senate ruled against him, and Gallatin returned to Pennsylvania, where the new excise tax on whiskey stills had stirred up the rioting known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Though he opposed the tax, Gallatin also opposed violence and tried to moderate the local militia's use of force. He was largely responsible for persuading his comrades to submit to the new law.


Elected to Congress

Meanwhile, Gallatin had been elected to Congress again. He entered the House of Representatives in 1795 and became the most knowledgeable Republican on public finance. He proposed creation of the Ways and Means Committee—Congress's first permanent standing committee— to receive financial reports from the secretary of the Treasury and to superintend government finances. His A Sketch of the Finances of the United States (1796), a moderate, detailed analysis of the Federalist financial program, argued that a public debt was a public curse. Because the debt had grown since 1790, he proposed several new measures.

When James Madison retired in 1797, Gallatin became the Republican spokesman in the House. He opposed the Federalists' warlike measures against France and, when the Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts (1798) to silence domestic political opposition, he resisted with powerful arguments defending basic civil liberties.


Secretary of the Treasury

With Thomas Jefferson's presidency in 1800 and the triumph of the Republicans, Gallatin was named to head the Treasury Department. He held this position longer than had any other secretary of the Treasury, serving from 1801 to 1814. Pledged to reduce the national debt and eliminate the excise tax, he projected a plan to pay off the debt by 1817, outlined proposals for appropriations for specified purposes, advocated promotion of manufacturing, and argued for constructing a nationwide network of roads and canals with Federal aid.

For 6 years Gallatin's policies worked. But after 1807 the Embargo Act and other American efforts at peaceful coercion to avoid involvement in the Napoleonic Wars wrecked his policies. Although Gallatin favored rechartering the Bank of the United States in 1811, Congress refused, and America entered the War of 1812 with its monetary system in disarray. The war dealt the final blow to Gallatin's financial system.


Diplomatic Career

President Madison granted Gallatin leave from the Treasury to join John Quincy Adams and James A. Bayard in exploring Russia's offer to mediate in the war. When Great Britain rejected this offer, Madison appointed Gallatin to the commission to negotiate directly with Britain. He became its most influential member. Adams, not much given to praise, rated him as the leading negotiator on both sides. Historian Henry Adams labeled the Treaty of Ghent "the special and peculiar triumph of Mr. Gallatin."

Gallatin continued in diplomatic service for most of the next decade. He served as American minister to France (1816-1823). In 1818 he joined Richard Rush in London to work out a treaty extending earlier commercial agreements, securing American fishing rights off Newfoundland, drawing the northern boundary between Canada and the United States at the 49th parallel, and leaving the Oregon Territory open for joint occupation.

In 1823 Gallatin returned to the United States. Nominated for vice president on the Republican ticket headed by William H. Crawford, he withdrew when Crawford's manager attempted to substitute Henry Clay as the vice-presidential candidate. After Gallatin spent an interlude as a gentleman farmer, President John Quincy Adams appointed him minister to Great Britain in 1826. Gallatin's public career ended with his final report relating to the Maine boundary dispute.


Late Career

Settling in New York, Gallatin served as president of the National Bank from 1831 until his retirement in 1839. He unsuccessfully supported renewal of the charter of the Second Bank of the United States, but he was instrumental in obtaining the resumption of specie payments after their suspension following the economic panic of 1837. Although he criticized high tariffs and advocated free trade, he affirmed Congress's right to levy protective tariffs.

In his last years Gallatin was prominent in cultural affairs. He became president of New York University's council in 1830. In 1836 he was elected to the American Antiquarian Society, and in 1843 he headed the New York Historical Society. However, he devoted most of his attention to the ethnology of the American Indian and founded the American Ethnological Society in 1842.

In 1789 Gallatin had married Sophia Allegre, who died 5 months later. He married Hannah Nicholson in 1793, and they had two sons and three daughters. Gallatin died on Aug. 13, 1849.

Further Reading on Albert Gallatin

A good biography of Gallatin is Raymond Walters, Jr., Albert Gallatin: Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat (1957), though the older study by Henry Adams, The Life of Albert Gallatin (1879), remains useful. Special studies include Frederick Merk, Albert Gallatin and the Oregon Problem: A Study in Anglo-American Diplomacy (1950); Leonard D. White, The Jeffersonians: A Study in Administrative History, 1801-1829 (1951); and Alexander Balinsky, Albert Gallatin: Fiscal Theories and Policies (1958).

Additional Biography Sources

Adams, Henry, Albert Gallatin, New York: Chelsea House, 1983.

Aitken, Thomas, Albert Gallatin: early America's Swiss-born statesman, New York: Vantage Press, 1985.

Gallatin, James, The diary of James Gallatin, secretary to Albert Gallatin, a great peace maker, 1813-1827, West Port, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979, 1916.

Kuppenheimer, L. B., Albert Gallatin's vision of democratic stability: an interpretive profile, Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.