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Gallatin, Albertfree

(29 January 1761–13 August 1849)
  • Edwin G. Burrows

Albert Gallatin.

Photograph from the studio of Mathew B. Brady.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress (LC-USZ62-9244).

Gallatin, Albert (29 January 1761–13 August 1849), fourth secretary of the treasury and diplomat, was born Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin in Geneva, Switzerland, the son of Jean Gallatin, a merchant, and Sophie Albertine Rolaz du Rosey. Albert, as he preferred to be known, traced his ancestry to thirteenth-century Savoy, where the Gallatins (or Gallatinis) were a noble family holding fiefs along the upper Rhône. Enrolled as citizens of Geneva by the late fifteenth century, the Gallatins became so prominent in the republic’s affairs that by the eighteenth century they would be permitted to use the title “Noble” and to prefix the family name with a de. Albert’s parents were not wealthy, however, and both died by the time he was nine, leaving him in the care of a distant relative, Mlle. Catherine Pictet. At the age of thirteen he entered the Academy of Geneva, where his precocious intelligence brought him to the attention of such renowned scholars as the historian Johannes von Müller, the physicist George Louis Le Sage, and the naturalist Horace Benedict de Saussure. In 1780, a year after graduating from the academy, Gallatin slipped out of Geneva on a pretext and ran away to America. Henry Adams, his first biographer, believed that the young Gallatin, inspired by the Declaration of Independence, wanted to escape the stifling conservatism of upper-class Geneva. The truth is rather more prosaic. Gallatin had discovered that his inheritance barely covered the expenses of his education, and he could not bear the thought of relying on his family connections to find employment. What drew him to the United States was simply the hope of making enough money, through trade and land speculation, to achieve the personal independence that seemed impossible in Geneva. Initially, he in fact regarded the American Revolution as a tragic mistake and deplored the “depredations” committed by “men of the People” who knew nothing of “honor, manners & integrity.”

Gallatin’s first several years in the United States improved neither his fortune nor his attitude toward the new nation. Boston, where he arrived in July 1780, was dispiritingly provincial, and its narrow-minded residents refused to buy a shipment of tea on which he had expected to turn a large profit. He then sank his remaining capital in a wagonload of sugar, tobacco, and rum and went up to Machias, Maine, where he spent the next year dickering with the local Indians and a handful of American soldiers stationed nearby. In October 1781, having barely broken even, Gallatin returned to Boston and struggled to make ends meet by giving French lessons to Harvard students. Chastened by his lack of progress in commerce, he also began fleshing out a land-development project that would settle European farmers and craftsmen in frontier communities. Early in 1783 he broached his ideas to Jean Savary de Valcoulon, an agent for French purchasers of American real estate and public securities. Savary agreed to underwrite Gallatin’s project on the understanding that Gallatin would tend to the details. The two left Boston in July 1783 and traveled down to Baltimore, where they purchased Virginia and Pennsylvania warrants for more than 120,000 acres of land along the Ohio River. The following April, after hurried preparations in Richmond and Philadelphia, Gallatin set out for the Virginia-Pennsylvania backcountry to survey and register his holdings. A chance encounter with George Washington in the Monongalia, Virginia, surveyor’s office alerted him that plans were afoot to canalize the Potomac and link it with one or another of the Ohio’s tributaries. Betting on the Monongahela, Gallatin leased a farm near its confluence with George’s Creek in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. There, only a few miles above the Virginia line, he built a small store and office in preparation for the settlers that he envisioned streaming by his front door. But Indian troubles and delays on the Potomac canal soon dashed those hopes, and over the next several years he labored to keep the George’s Creek operation going. By 1788, despite the arrival of a former schoolmate, Jean Badollet, and despite the acquisition of a lovely 400-acre tract overlooking the Monongahela that he called “Friendship Hill,” Gallatin was ready to give up. After the sudden death of his wife Sophie Allegre in the autumn of 1789—they had been married only a matter of months—he grew so depressed that for a long time he would not go outside or even put on clothes. His original disdain for the United States was nonetheless giving way to real enthusiasm for its republican principles and institutions. One reason for the change was his relationship with Savary, an outspoken advocate of the American cause. Another was his exposure to the more cosmopolitan societies of Virginia and Pennsylvania, where he would always feel much more at home than in New England. Still another was an outbreak of political violence in Geneva that dissuaded him from returning and forced him to question, for the first time, the values of his class and connections.

Against this background, in September 1788, Gallatin made his political debut as a delegate from Fayette County to the Antifederalist convention at Harrisburg. His thoughtful criticism of the proposed federal Constitution earned him a seat the following year in the convention that rewrote the Pennsylvania state constitution. In October 1790 he was elected to the first of three one-year terms in the state house of representatives, where he made a name for himself as a spokesman for the small farmers and entrepreneurs with whom he shared a desire for equal opportunity and economic development. His brilliant reports for that body’s committee of ways and means established him as an authority in the field of public finance, and no sooner had the legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate in February 1793 than he called for an investigation into Alexander Hamilton’s management of the U.S. Treasury. Although the Federalist Senate denied him his seat on the dubious theory that he had not been a citizen for the required nine years, two events ensured him a continuing role in the nascent Democratic-Republican opposition. In November 1793 he married Hannah Nicholson, with whom he had two sons and four daughters. Hannah’s father, Commodore James Nicholson of New York City, was one of Hamilton’s most influential and distinguished critics. The following year western Pennsylvania was convulsed by the so-called Whiskey Insurrection, brought on by discontent over the imposition of a federal excise on distilled spirits. Although Gallatin figured importantly in restoring law and order, Federalist attempts to blame him for the violence virtually guaranteed that western Republicans would put his name forward in that year’s congressional elections. His victory marked the beginning of a spectacular six-year career in the House (1795–1801), during which his painstaking critiques of Federalist financial policy swept him to the forefront of the Democratic-Republican party alongside James Madison and Thomas Jefferson.

Nothing alarmed Gallatin more than the Federalists’ seeming reluctance to reduce the public debt incurred during the Revolution. His own fears of personal dependency and his small-shopkeeper’s sense of integrity, both reinforced by a strain of radical republican thought that originated in England a century earlier, convinced him that public debts were a nursery of multiple public evils—corruption, legislative impotence, executive tyranny, social inequality, financial speculation, and personal indolence. Not only was it necessary to extinguish the existing debt as rapidly as possible, he argued, but Congress would have to ensure against the accumulation of future debts by more diligently supervising government expenditures (it was in fact his idea to set up a permanent Ways and Means Committee in the House). These ideas reached a national audience through the publication of Gallatin’s numerous speeches, reports, and pamphlets, among them A Sketch of the Finances of the United States (1796) and Views of the Public Debt, Receipts, and Expenditures of the United States (1800). After Jefferson was sworn in as president in 1801 it surprised no one that he tapped Gallatin to be his secretary of the treasury.

At first it seemed that Gallatin would succeed in freeing his adopted country from the shackles of debt. He set aside about three-fourths of the government’s revenue every year to pay the interest and principle. At that rate, he said, the United States would be out of debt entirely by 1817. His zealous cost cutting, despite a war with the Barbary states of North Africa (1801–1805) and the purchase of Louisiana (1803), meanwhile left the Treasury with a growing surplus. During Jefferson’s second term, buoyed by these signs of fiscal stability, Gallatin turned his attention to internal improvements, which he, like the president, regarded as vital to the expanding nation’s prosperity and unity. Early in 1808 he sent Congress a bold proposal to spend $20 million on the construction of turnpikes and canals in every section of the country. “No other single operation, within the power of government,” he declared, “can more effectively tend to strengthen and perpetuate that Union which secures external independence, domestic peace, and internal liberty.” Already, however, Gallatin’s financial program had begun to unravel. In 1807 the British ministry brought new pressure to bear on Napoleon by closing continental ports to neutral shipping and impressing British subjects from neutral vessels. Over the next five years, Jefferson and then Madison tried in vain to defend American rights against both belligerents by using economic coercion rather than armed force, a strategy that Gallatin regretted but did not publicly oppose. Its failure caused federal revenues to plummet and forced him to raise taxes and increase rather than reduce government borrowing. By 1812, when continued British depredations against American ships and crews finally compelled Madison to ask Congress for a declaration of war, the national debt was higher than ever and Gallatin’s ambitious program of internal improvements lay in ruins.

In the spring of 1813, with palpable relief, the 52-year-old Gallatin left the Treasury to help negotiate an end to the conflict with Great Britain. The Anglo-American accord signed at Ghent in December 1814 was largely a product of his perseverance, his aptitude for detail, and the good-humored patience with which he mediated sectional and personal tensions between two of his fellow commissioners, Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams (the latter of whom praised Gallatin as unrivaled “for extent and copiousness of information, for sagacity and shrewdness of comprehension, for vivacity of intellect, and fertility of resource”). In the wake of his success at Ghent, Gallatin considered returning to Congress or going into partnership with his old friend John Jacob Astor. President Madison persuaded him to accept an appointment as American ambassador to France, however, and in 1816 Gallatin began what would be a seven-year sojourn with his family on the Continent. It was the least productive period of his career. The social duties of a diplomat in Paris were exhausting, besides which the government of Louis XVIII rebuffed his repeated attempts to win compensation for losses to American shipping caused by the Napoleonic decrees. His principal achievement, perhaps ironically, was to go to London in 1818 to help settle the boundary between Canada and the United States, paving the way for American occupation of the Pacific Northwest.

In 1824, soon after returning to the United States, Gallatin agreed to have his name put forward as candidate for vice president on the Republican ticket behind William H. Crawford of Georgia. But Crawford fell ill, and when it became apparent that the rank and file preferred Andrew Jackson—a man Gallatin believed “altogether unfit” for the White House—party leaders pressured him to step aside. He did so, saddened by the realization that the principles he had cherished during his thirty-five years in public life were fast becoming anachronisms. Hoping for a quiet retirement, Gallatin moved his family out to Friendship Hill on the Monongahela, then again to Baltimore when his wife wearied of life in the “Siberia” of western Pennsylvania. In 1826 President Adams lured him out of retirement with an offer to serve as the American minister to Great Britain. He remained at the court of St. James little more than a year, during which time he successfully negotiated with the British for the renewal of the 1818 commercial treaty and for continued joint occupation of the Oregon Territory.

Back home again by the end of 1827, Gallatin settled his family in New York City. He was not poor, but decades of underpaid public service and the bad luck in business that dogged him throughout his life had drained his resources. In 1831, now seventy, he accepted Astor’s offer to become president of the new National Bank of New York at the comfortable salary of $2,500 per year. It was no sinecure, and in addition to playing an active role in the bank’s affairs Gallatin became a vigorous advocate of free trade, hard money, and fiscal responsibility. His Considerations on the Currency and Banking System of the United States (1831) brought him new renown as a proponent of the Bank of the United States in its ill-fated struggle against President Jackson. After the panic of 1837, which he attributed to the bank’s misguided suspension of specie payments, Gallatin labored tirelessly to extricate New York’s financial community from the crisis. Although he eventually stepped down as president of the National Bank in 1839, his concern for the nation’s financial integrity continued undiminished. In a pamphlet entitled Suggestions on the Banks and Currency of the Several United States (1841), published shortly after his eightieth birthday, he rang again the old republican warnings against speculation, improvidence, and debt. Five years later, in The Oregon Question (1846), he cautioned that armed confrontation with Great Britain would have “calamitous” fiscal and social consequences. Then, toward the end of the Mexican War, he composed Peace with Mexico (1847) to protest the “iniquitous aggression” of the United States and warn that greed, national chauvinism, and racism were endangering the “political morality” of the republic. “But I do not despair,” he added with Jeffersonian optimism, “for I have faith in our institutions and in the people.”

While a resident of New York, Gallatin helped found New York University in 1830, led a gathering of prominent businessmen known simply as “The Club,” and served as president of the New-York Historical Society in 1842. Somehow, he also managed to conduct extensive research on Native American languages, culture, and history—subjects that had fascinated him for years, at least partly because of their bearing on the rise and future of American republicanism. The first fruit of his labors was a paper published in 1836 by the American Antiquarian Society as “A Synopsis of the Indian Tribes within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains, and in the British and Russian Possessions of North America.” Gratified by the praise it received, Gallatin spearheaded the organization of the American Ethnological Society in 1842. He became the society’s first president, and over the next half-dozen years it acknowledged his reputation in the field by publishing several more of his papers, including “Notes on the Semi-Civilized Nations of Mexico, Yucatan, and Central America” (1845). This pioneering body of work, which was not superseded for another half-century, gave him even deeper satisfaction than the financial writing for which he would be much more widely known.

Old age at last began to catch up with Gallatin in the summer of 1848. Bedridden for nearly a year thereafter, he died at his daughter’s summer home in Astoria, Long Island. At age eighty-eight, he was, as one newspaper put it, “the last patriarch of the Republican party.”

Bibliography

Gallatin’s extensive private papers, the bulk of which is held by the New-York Historical Society, are available on microfilm through Scholarly Resources, Inc., of Wilmington, Del. Writings of Albert Gallatin, ed. Henry Adams (3 vols., 1879), remains useful as a judicious selection of Gallatin’s private correspondence and important publications. The standard modern biography is Raymond Walters, Jr., Albert Gallatin: Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat (1957), although Adams’s own Life of Albert Gallatin (1879), magisterial in scope and style, is arguably a superior work. More specialized studies include Chien Tseng Mai, The Fiscal Policies of Albert Gallatin (1930); Alexander Balinky, Albert Gallatin: Fiscal Theories and Policies (1958); and Edwin G. Burrows, Albert Gallatin and the Political Economy of Republicanism, 1761–1800 (1986), which presents much new material on Gallatin’s early life and career. Gallatin’s initial opinions of the United States are available in Burrows, “ ‘Notes on Settling America’: Albert Gallatin, New England, and the American Revolution,” New England Quarterly 58 (1985): 442–53.