"If any one part of the Union are suffered to oppose by force the determination of the whole, there is an end to government itself and of course to the Union."
- Albert Gallatin speaking to the western farmers during the Whiskey Rebellion.
To most people today, Alfonse Albert Gallatin is an obscure figure in American history. If they have heard of him at all, it is because of the counties in Illinois, Kentucky, and Montana; the National Forest, river, and mountain range in Montana; the many towns, roads, and bridges; or the schools, school district and educational buildings named after him. Over time, Gallatin’s accomplishments -instrumental in the Louisiana Purchase, friend and advisor to Thomas Jefferson, minister to Great Britain and France, negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent which ended the War of 1812, and Secretary of the Treasury for twelve years - have been overshadowed by more colorful political personalities. He was, however, instrumental in helping to shape the new republic’s financial system and foreign policy.
Gallatin was born to an aristocratic family in Geneva Switzerland in January of 1761 and, until 1785, was a citizen of the Republic of Geneva. His father died in 1765, followed by his mother in 1770. Orphaned, he was taken into the care of a Mademoiselle Pictet, a family friend and distant relative of Gallatin's father.
In 1773, Gallatin was sent to study at the Academy of Geneva, an elite school. While there, Gallatin read deeply the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Voltaire, along with the French Physiocrats – a group of French economists who believed that the wealth of nations derived solely from the value of "land agriculture" or "land development" and that agricultural products should be highly priced. Soon, he found himself becoming dissatisfied with the traditionalism of Geneva. As student of the Enlightenment, he believed in the nobility of human nature and that when freed from social restrictions, it would display admirable qualities and greater results in both the physical and the moral world. The democratic spirit of the United States attracted him, and he decided to emigrate.
Gallatin Comes to America
In April 1780, Gallatin secretly left Geneva carrying letters of recommendation from eminent Americans (including Benjamin Franklin) that the Gallatin family obtained. He left France in May, sailing on an American ship, "Kattie". He reached Cape Ann on July 14 and arrived in Boston the next day, traveling the intervening thirty miles by horseback. Bored with monotonous Bostonian life, Gallatin and a Swiss female companion set sail to the settlement of Machias, on the northeastern tip of the Maine frontier. At Machias, Gallatin ran a bartering venture, in which he dealt with a variety of goods and supplies. He enjoyed the simple life and the natural environment surrounding him. After abandoning his bartering venture in Machias, Gallatin returned to Boston in October 1781. Friends of Mademoiselle Pictet, who had learned that Gallatin had traveled to the United States, convinced Harvard College to employ Gallatin as a French tutor.
Gallatin disliked living in New England, instead preferring to become a farmer in the Trans-Appalachian West, which at that point was the frontier of American settlement. He became the interpreter and business partner of a French land speculator, Jean Savary, and traveled throughout various parts of the United States to buy undeveloped Western lands. In 1785, he became an American citizen after he swore allegiance to the state of Virginia, fulfilling the requirements of citizenship as set forth under Article IV of the Articles of Confederation.
The following year, Gallatin inherited a significant sum of money which he used to buy a 400-acre plot of land in Fayette County, Pennsylvania. He built a stone house named Friendship Hill on the new property. In 1789, Gallatin married Sophie Allègre, the daughter of a Richmond boardinghouse owner, but Allègre died after just five months of marriage.
Gallatin was in mourning for several years and was seriously considering returning to Geneva. However, in November 1793, he married Hannah Nicholson, daughter of the well-connected Commodore James Nicholson. Gallatin's marriage proved to be politically and economically helpful, as the Nicholsons had connections in New York, Georgia, and Maryland. With most of his business ventures unsuccessful, Gallatin sold much of his land, except for Friendship Hill, to Robert Morris. Following this, Gallatin and his wife would live in Philadelphia and other coastal cities for most of the rest of their lives.
Gallatin’s Public Service Career
Gallatin’s interest in politics, and especially the concerns of western Pennsylvania, began even before his marriage. In 1788 Gallatin attended a conference held in Harris’ Ferry (Harrisburg) to amend the federal constitution. As an Antifederalist, Gallatin found the constitution “objectionable” and urged amendments be made to the document to include a bill of rights. Conceding the need of a central government for protection from without and from within, Gallatin nonetheless criticized the elements of the proposed document because he thought that it did not sufficiently protect individual liberty from concentrated power.
He specifically wanted to limit the authority of the executive and judicial branches because they would be further from the people, and therefore, more susceptible to corruption and abuses. He wanted the House of Representatives to be large enough to repel special interests and to protect itself against the Senate. Many of Gallatin’s objections to the new U.S. Constitution were later addressed by Congress as the U.S. Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution.
Gallatin served in the Pennsylvania state legislature from 1790 to 1792. He advocated a system of public education, but also displayed his lifelong interest in financial matters, supporting bills to abolish paper money, pay the public debt in specie, and set up a bank of Pennsylvania to help support business endeavors. Pennsylvanians elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1793, but Gallatin was denied his seat, ostensibly because he had not been a U.S. citizen for nine years.
In 1794 the Whiskey Rebellion began in western Pennsylvania, and President George Washington moved quickly to put it down. Gallatin feared that the combination of a uniformed governmental presence along with the repression of public opinion could lead to dissolution of the Union. He also expressed concern that a vengeful military could turn on the citizenry. He argued that a free government should have authority that rests upon the consent of the people rather than force and oppression. Nevertheless, Gallatin urged the rebellious farmers to acquiesce to government taxation.
Gallatin continued his political career by serving in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1795 to 1801, becoming the leader of the Democratic-Republican minority in 1797. He insisted that the Department of the Treasury be accountable to Congress and played an instrumental role in creating a standing committee on finance. In the wake of the 1797 XYZ affair in which American diplomats had been rebuffed by the French, Gallatin led the Republican demand that the XYZ dispatches be shared with Congress. However, Gallatin had urged that the dispatches should not be published, certain that they would dash any surviving hope of a settlement with France. When they were leaked to the newspapers, Americans, as well as Democratic-Republicans, were shocked by their contents.
During the spring and summer of 1798, Gallatin led the Democratic-Republican fight for peace. The defense buildup was unnecessary, he charged, except for the economic well-being of a few Eastern seaboard centers. The burden of paying for bringing this prosperity to the Federalist cities, he added, would fall upon the nation’s farmers, a practice his foes had pursued since the whiskey tax days of the Washington-Hamilton administration. Consequently, he had fought both the augmentation of the navy and the creation of the provincial army. Gallatin did this both as a congressman and later as secretary of the Treasury.
He was among the Democratic-Republicans who opposed the adoption of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, the latter of which abridged freedom of speech and press. Abigail Adams described him as “that specious, subtle, spare Cassius, that imported foreigner,” and if she had her way, Gallatin would have been deported under the Alien and Sedition Acts – which some thought had been designed specially to get rid of the troublesome Swiss American. Gallatin supported westward expansion and, being pacific by nature, strongly encouraged the Louisiana Purchase as a means of avoiding war with Napoleon.
His skill at party organization helped Jefferson win the presidency, and in 1801 Jefferson appointed Gallatin to head the Treasury. Gallatin imposed sweeping measures to organize the Treasury and made significant cuts to the national debt, all while financing the Louisiana Purchase (1803), the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1803-1806), and internal improvements such as canals and the National Road (1811). In 1809, when Gallatin was considering leaving the Cabinet, former President Jefferson wrote him:
“My opinion always was that none of us ever occupied stronger ground in the esteem of Congress than yourself, and I am satisfied there is no one who does not feel your aid to be still as important for the future as it has been for the past.”
“To have acquired and preserved your friendship and confidence is more than sufficient to console me for some late personal mortifications, though I will not affect to conceal that these, coming from an unexpected quarter, and being as I thought unmerited, wounded my feelings more deeply than I had at first been aware of.”
Gallatin spent 12 years as Secretary of the Treasury, a record that has yet to be surpassed. Gallatin spent most of his governmental service working to achieve the goal that he and Jefferson fervently worked toward – paying off the national debt. Historian Alexander Balinky wrote:
“Gallatin’s position on the debt led him to tie almost the whole of his fiscal system (the allocation of revenue and the nature of permissible expenditures) to the realization of a single financial objective: the speedy reduction and final extinction of the public debt. And it was the very narrowness of that singular objective that prevented Gallatin from devising a fiscal system which could have served the financial needs of the government under a variety of economic and political circumstances.”
Author Henry Adams wrote of Gallatin’s role:
"No one has ever seriously questioned his supereminence among American financiers. No one who has any familiarity with the affairs of our government has failed to be struck with the evidences of his pervading activity and his administrative skill. His methods were simple, direct, and always economical. He had little respect for mere financial devices, and he labored painfully to simplify every operation and to render intelligible every detail of business. It may be doubted whether he ever made a mistake in any of his undertakings, and whether any work done by him has ever been found inefficient; but it is useless to catalogue these undertakings. His system was not one of detached ideas or of parti-colored design. As their scheme existed in the minds of Mr. Jefferson, Mr. Gallatin, and Mr. Madison, it was broad as society itself, and aimed at providing for and guiding the moral and material development of a new era, – a fresh race of men. It was not a mere departmental reform or a mere treasury administration that Mr. Gallatin undertook; it was a theory of democratic government which he and his associates attempted to reduce to practice."
By the end of Jefferson’s second term, Gallatin had tired of his duties at the Treasury. He yearned to be named Secretary of State by James Madison in 1809 and Madison too wanted to appoint him to that post. Gallatin’s political opponents, including William Branch Giles of Virginia and Samuel Smith of Maryland blocked the President. Some opponents used Gallatin’s foreign birth against him; his loyalty to the Republic again was questioned. The Smith brothers and their allies in the Senate united against him. When Madison suggested appointing the weak and incompetent Robert Smith as Secretary of Treasury and Gallatin to State, Gallatin rejected the maneuver – fearing that he would have to do both jobs because Smith was so incompetent. After Giles compiled a bill of particulars against Gallatin’s appointment for Madison, the President decided not to fight for Senate confirmation and kept Gallatin on at Treasury.
After Gallatin left the cabinet, President James Madison sent him to Russia in 1813, to discuss having the czar offer to mediate a settlement of the War of 1812. Gallatin, while still Secretary of the Treasury under President Madison, had been appointed to travel to Russia to help de-escalate tensions with British negotiators. In one of his first correspondences with Lafayette, Gallatin took the opportunity to seek the Frenchman’s aid given the difficult diplomatic position in which America had found itself.
With the impressments of American sailors on the seas continuing and the British refusing to meet the Americans to negotiate, Gallatin felt helpless as he awaited a breakthrough in this dispiriting stalemate. Hoping to engage Lafayette and persuade Emperor Alexander of Russia to facilitate the negotiation, Gallatin wrote cordially to the Marquis de Lafayette, congratulating him for Napoleon’s defeat and abdication of the throne and urging Lafayette to continue to promote the American cause abroad.
On May 25, 1814, Lafayette helped deliver a letter from the current Minister to France, William H. Crawford, directly to the Russian Emperor at a gathering at the home of Madame Germain de Staël, a prominent figure of the French Revolution. The letter requested the emperor be involved in facilitating a peace between the British and Americans. With Lafayette’s help, Emperor Alexander agreed to come to the aid of the stalled negotiations. Ultimately, after back-and-forth battles, British refusals to cooperate and ensuing sieges of land, American efforts to bring the British to the negotiation table succeeded. Gallatin helped draft a peace treaty as a member of the U.S. Peace Commission at Ghent, which was signed on December 24, 1814. Though the treaty did not address the main provisions which sparked the war in the first place, agreements written into the treaty such as the opening of the Great Lakes region to American expansion signaled a diplomatic victory. The effort on the part of both Gallatin and Lafayette to defend America from afar had paid off.
Following the War of 1812, Madison appointed Gallatin as the American Minister to France. Gallatin was hesitant to accept the post because of Napoleon’s recent escape to Elba and the onset of the Bourbon Restoration. Gallatin was unsure how American interests could be protected and wondered if anything could be done in France at all. After much consideration and urging from Secretary of State James Monroe, Gallatin accepted the position, writing to former President Jefferson on April 1, 1816:
“After what I had written to you, you could hardly have expected that I would have accepted the French mission. It was again offered to me in so friendly a manner and from so friendly motives that I was induced to accept.”
Jefferson responded that though the former President did not have acquaintances left in Paris, surely Lafayette would be a welcoming contact for Gallatin. Gallatin and his family thrived in Paris. Gallatin’s well-respected lineage of Genevan aristocracy served him well as minister alongside his fluency in French. Able to communicate with nobility and well-accustomed to the politesse necessary for upper echelons of French society, Gallatin was well-received at French court. He served as the US Envoy to France from 1816 until 1823. Gallatin and his family left for America in 1823 after seven years away.
As the family settled back into life in America and Gallatin considered entering back into politics, Lafayette continued to support secret revolutionary plots, meticulously avoiding arrest by the Bourbon government. In 1824, President Monroe and Congress invited Lafayette back to America to celebrate the nation’s upcoming 50th anniversary. As the generation of original founding fathers began to fade into history, this was an opportunity for the war hero to remind the American people of the progress they had made since independence from Britain. The visit was expected to be only a four-month visit to the original thirteen states, but the tour endured a further 12 months as Lafayette traveled across all twenty-four states and met with old friends, many of whom he knew he would never see again.
The hero prioritized a trip to Fayette County, PA, a namesake of his, and was welcomed by the Gallatins at their home at Friendship Hill in May of 1825. Following a large welcome reception in nearby Uniontown, Lafayette found himself overwhelmed by an unexpected gathering of people on the front lawn of Friendship Hill, resulting in the Gallatins opening their home to Lafayette. The small town was thrilled to have such a hero in their presence, but the interrupted time and the brevity of the visit seemed to disappoint both Gallatin and Lafayette. Nevertheless, the two friends warmly bid each other adieu, relishing the last few moments together in person and unsure of whether they would get the same opportunity again.
Gallatin then served as U.S. envoy to Great Britain from 1826 to 1827. He concluded his public service as president of the New York branch of the second Bank of the United States from 1831 to 1839.
In retirement, Gallatin continued to show his concern for individual liberties. He opposed the U.S. takeover of Oregon and American involvement in Mexico in the 1840s as acts of aggression that threatened freedom. Passionate about public education and reflecting inspiration from his Enlightenment upbringing, Gallatin was elected president of a council which funded the creation of New York University. Inspired by Alexander von Humboldt’s encouragement so many years prior in Paris, Gallatin pursued his interest in Native American cultures and languages, later founding the American Ethnological Society in 1842. By the time of his death, Gallatin’s contemporaries ranked him only slightly below Washington, Jefferson, and Madison in service to his country.
We hope you enjoyed today's post on America’s Swiss “Founding Father: Albert Gallatin. We hope this article will encourage you to learn more about this “mostly forgotten” beacon of America in our early years. Please join us again in two weeks when we will examine another American "giant" of the early 19th century - "The Great Compromiser," Henry Clay
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Adams, H. (1879). The Life of Albert Gallatin. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co.
Balinky, A. (1958). Albert Gallatin, Fiscal Theories and Policies. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.
Ellis, J. J. (2003). Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. New York: Random House.
Gallatin, A. (1809). Albert Gallatin to Thomas Jefferson, 11 November 1809. Retrieved from Founders Online, National Archives: https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Albert%20Gallatin%20Author%3A%22Gallatin%2C%20Albert%22&s=1111311111&r=856&sr=
Jefferson, T. (1809). Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin, 11 October 1809. Retrieved from Founder Online, National Archives: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/03-01-02-0471
Walters, J. R. (1957). Albert Gallatin: Jeffersonian financier and diplomat. New York, PA, USA: Macmillan Company. Retrieved from https://digital.library.pitt.edu/islandora/object/pitt%3A31735057897625/viewer#page/1/mode/2up