In a 1796 letter to Thomas Jefferson, James Madison characterized Albert Gallatin (1761-1849) as "a real Treasure … sound in his principles, accurate in his calculations and indefatigable in his researches." It was an apt description of the man who would go on to orchestrate Jefferson's election as President, serve as Secretary of the Treasury longer than any other person, and provide sage financial, diplomatic, and political guidance to four presidents.
Albert Gallatin was born on January 29, 1761, into a wealthy family in Geneva, Switzerland. His parents both died before he was ten and he was raised by a cousin. Graduating from the University of Geneva, Gallatin emigrated to the United States in 1780, becoming a U.S. citizen in 1785. In his first decade in America, he taught French at Harvard, worked as a land speculator throughout the mid-Atlantic, developed a life-long fascination with Native American culture, sought the abolition of slavery, and was widowed after only five months of marriage.
In the 1790s, Gallatin settled in Philadelphia and immersed himself in politics. It is likely that Jefferson first met Gallatin at the American Philosophical Society where they were both members. Gallatin's 1793 marriage to Hannah Nicholson (daughter of retired Navy Commodore James Nicholson, a key figure in the Democratic-Republican movement) elevated his social and political standing. Aligning himself with Jefferson's emerging Democratic-Republican party, Gallatin was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1794 and developed a reputation for mastery of public finance and opposition to Alexander Hamilton's policies. In his three terms in office, he helped establish the House Ways and Means Committee and rose to become the Democratic-Republican leader.
In the 1800 presidential election, the Democratic-Republican party won a clear victory over the Federalist party. The Federalists devised a plan to deny Jefferson the presidency in favor of Aaron Burr, the Vice-Presidential candidate, creating a Constitutional crisis that forced the decision into the House of Representatives. Working behind the scenes for Jefferson, Gallatin wrote his wife, "We have this day, after 36 ballots, chosen Mr. Jefferson President. Thus has ended the most wicked and absurd attempt ever tried by the Federalists." As President, Jefferson chose James Madison as Secretary of State and Albert Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury. They would become his key advisors in the "Revolution of 1800." Among Gallatin's accomplishments as Treasury Secretary, he eliminated Federalist taxes, reduced the national debt, commenced programs for internal improvements, secured financing for the Louisiana Purchase, and made an enduring contribution to the separation of powers within the U.S. government by requiring specific appropriations of funds by Congress to implement government policy.
In Jefferson's two terms as President, Gallatin emerged as the most influential member of his cabinet. The harmony that they developed, in order to achieve the administration's goals, is reflected in Gallatin's remark to Jefferson:
Of your candour and indulgence I have experienced repeated proofs: the freedom, with which my opinions have been delivered, has always been acceptable and approved, even when they may have happened not precisely to coincide with your own view of the subject, and you have thought them erroneous.
Jefferson rarely held full cabinet meetings, preferring to meet cabinet officers in private during the workday. In Gallatin's case, Jefferson wrote, "perhaps you could find it more convenient sometimes to make your call at the hour of dinner … you will always find a plate & a sincere welcome." Their professional relationship evolved toward a deep friendship.
In his second term as President, amidst deteriorating relations with Great Britain, growing out of the Napoleonic wars and British impressment of American seamen, Jefferson believed economic sanctions would avoid war and bring Britain to the bargaining table. Gallatin opposed these measures, cautioning Jefferson, "Governmental prohibitions do always more mischief than had been calculated; and it is not without much hesitation that a statesman should hazard to regulate the concerns of individuals as if he could do it better than themselves." Jefferson, however, overruled Gallatin, who then faithfully enforced embargos on American-British trade. These sanctions failed to achieve their purpose, sowed discontent with the American public, disrupted the American economy, reduced government revenue, and damaged both Jefferson's and Gallatin's reputations.
Succeeding Jefferson as President, James Madison was unable to gain support for Gallatin to be Secretary of State and his cabinet did not enjoy the harmony of Jefferson's. Gallatin stayed on as Treasury Secretary, presiding over America's precarious finances under conditions that were made worse by Madison. The President refused to endorse Gallatin's demand that Congress renew the charter of the Bank of the United States and he failed to offer policy guidance to his cabinet to steer America away from war. Gallatin's relationship with Madison deteriorated as well and he tendered his resignation informing Madison, "Measures of vital importance have been and are defeated: every operation even of the most simple and ordinary nature is prevented or impeded: the embarrassments of Government, great as from foreign causes they already are, are unnecessarily encreased: public confidence in the public councils and in the executive is impaired; and every day seems to encrease every one of those evils." On the brink of war, Madison retained Gallatin. During the War of 1812, Gallatin shored up the nation's finances at the cost of tripling the national debt which put an end to his financial reforms and plans for internal improvements. Stepping down as Treasury Secretary in 1813, Gallatin devoted himself to ending the War of 1812, culminating in the Treaty of Ghent in 1815. Gallatin's final service to the Madison administration was recovering America's financial standing by convincing Congress to charter the Second Bank of the United States.
In James Monroe's administration, Gallatin served as Minister to France from 1816 to 1823, where he aided in negotiating the Rush-Bagot Treaty and Treaty of 1818. Called out of retirement in Pennsylvania by President John Quincy Adams, Gallatin served as Minister to the United Kingdom in 1826-1827. Ending a political career of almost four decades, Gallatin moved to New York City where he served as president of the National Bank of New York from 1828-1839 and founded New York University in 1831. In 1842, Gallatin's life-long fascination with Native American culture led to his founding of the American Ethnological Society, setting the groundwork for the modern study of anthropology.
Gallatin died on August 12, 1849, having devoted his life in service to his adopted country, and fulfilling Jefferson's assessment of him when he wrote, "I believe mr Gallatin to be of as pure integrity, and as zealously devoted to the liberties and interests of our country as it's most affectionate native citizen."
- David Thorson, 7/2020
Adams, Henry. The Life of Albert Gallatin. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1879.
Adams, Henry, ed. The Writings of Albert Gallatin. Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1879.
Dungan, Nicholas. Gallatin: America's Swiss Founding Father. New York: New York University Press, 2010.
McCraw, Thomas K. The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University, 2012.
May, Gregory. Jefferson's Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt. Washington, D.C.: Regnery History, 2018.
931 Thomas Jefferson Parkway
Charlottesville, VA 22902