Albert Gallatin

Albert Gallatin

Albert Gallatin was born in Geneva on the 29th of January 1761 and died in Astoria, USA, on the 12th of August 1849. He was the US Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, as well as a diplomat, banker, and ethnologist. We cite the lively portrait in Benedict von Tscharner in Inter Gentes, Statesmen, Diplomats, Political Thinkers, p. 125 ff.

“Few “Swiss abroad” deserve the title of statesman, and Albert Gallatin’s career was without a doubt one of the richest and most significant within this category. Yet during the course of the early years of his life spent in Geneva, nothing pointed to the role that this well-bred young man would play later on in the affairs of America. In fact, when Albert Gallatin, who was orphaned very young, left his native town without informing his family in 1780 at the age of nineteen, what he really dreamed of was to live the life of a free man, of a pioneer in the then still half-wild back country of the New World.

That is effectively what he did: After brief sojourns in Maine, then in Cambridge, near Boston, where he taught French at Harvard College, and in Richmond, Virginia, he left the East Coast with two friends to build a pioneers’ cabin called Friendship Hill on the banks of the Monongahela River, in the far west of Pennsylvania. He also worked there as a surveyor. In the meetings between the settlers of this region, Gallatin took the side of the Anti-Federalists led by Thomas Jefferson, that is to say those among the citizens who were critical of the centralising tendencies that they saw in the all-new federal authorities, and worried about the powers and rights of the states forming the Union. In these debates, Gallatin quickly got himself noticed as a talented orator (despite the faint Geneva accent that he never quite shook off…) and especially because of his talent as a writer.

Gallatin’s parliamentary career was marked by a rapid rise to the top. First he was a Deputy to the State Parliament of Pennsylvania, then a Senator at federal level; his nomination was annulled due to his overly recent acquisition of American citizenship. Finally, he was elected a member of the House of Representatives. Very early, Gallatin specialised in the area of public finances and the tax system. In his role as spokesman for the opposition, his designated “victim” at the heart of George Washington’s Administration was the brilliant Secretary to the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. The latter had been aide-decamp, but also a political and military advisor, to George Washington during the War of Independence and was also his spiritual son of sorts. Last but not least he was the principal author of the famous Federalist Papers.  When, in 1800, Jefferson and his party won the election, it was naturally towards Gallatin that the new President turned and he entrusted him with the finance portfolio. Gallatin therefore found himself confronted with the challenge of putting into practice the policy of reducing the national debt and imbuing government spending with more discipline, both of which were policies he had called for while still a parliamentarian. This considerable debt had built up during the War of Independence and the first years of the nascent United States. Gallatin set to work with redoubtable vigour and obstinacy. It was during Jefferson’s presidency in 1803 that the United States acquired the vast and virtually virgin territories of Louisiana, west of the Mississippi. The occasion offered by Napoleon Bonaparte was too good to miss. France had taken back Louisiana from the Spanish only a short time before, but Napoleon now had different priorities. Gallatin had to organise the financing of the purchase: some 15 million dollars, a modest sum even at the time, but evidently not one that had been provided for in the current budget!

Basically, it was the unfortunate War of 1812 against Great Britain and the armament spending it engendered that rendered Gallatin’s task near-impossible. We should also not forget that it was during the course of this war that the brand new capital of Washington was occupied for several days by British troops! Being as he was viscerally opposed to this war and not getting along too well with the new President James Madison, the Secretary to the Treasury grasped at the chance offered to him to leave the government in 1813 and go off to negotiate a treaty of peace with Great Britain in the name of the United States. Gallatin was not the head of the American delegation – this task fell upon John Quincy Adams, the son of John Adams and himself a future President. Yet Gallatin played a crucial role in the elaboration of the American position and, once again, in the authorship of relevant texts.

The treaty was finally signed in Ghent at the end of 1814, before the last battle between the Americans and the British at New Orleans was fought, a battle where Andrew Jackson, another future President, garnered a reputation as a brilliant commander of his motley troops. What the Peace of Ghent essentially achieved was to confirm the territorial status quo; it marked the end of the long conflict between the British crown and its ancient rebel colonies on the North American continent. Nobody would dare seriously question the sovereignty of this young nation again, even if its territory did go through a range of further extensions and adjustments. It also has to be said that in 1814, the year of the famous Congress of Vienna, the British priority was to consolidate the victory of the Allied Powers against the Emperor Napoleon, both in military and diplomatic terms. For the Americans, it was a sort of window of opportunity.

This mission to Europe offered Gallatin, accompanied by his son James, the chance to spend a few weeks in Geneva, in the winter of 1815, the hometown that he had not seen since his departure 35 years previously. A French prefecture between 1798 and 1813, Geneva had only just become an independent Republic again, but one that was getting ready to join the Swiss Confederation as a canton, a Confederation to which the city had been linked by an alliance since the 16th century. In Geneva, Gallatin met with all the elite of the time, from Madame Stael and Jean de Sismondi to the brothers Charles and Marc-Auguste Pictet.

Having acquired a taste for diplomacy, Gallatin accepted the post of minister for the United States in France – today we would say he was the ambassador – and later in Great Britain. Chief among the dossiers he was in charge of in London was the pursuit of negotiations related to the borders between the United States and Canada, a territory that had remained a British colony.

From 1827 onwards, Gallatin spent his retirement mainly in New York City, the hometown of his second wife Hannah, nee Nicholson; this allowed him to render multiple services to his country: as the writer of numerous essays on the finances and monetary policy of the United States, as president of a bank created by his friend John Jacob Astor, as the founder of the University of New York whose role was to educate the new elite that the country needed and, most especially, as the writer of brilliant erudite studies on the language and mores of the American Indians. Certain observers wanted to see this startling newfound infatuation with ethnology as a distant consequence of the doubly classical and scientific education that the young Gallatin had enjoyed at the Academy of Geneva before his departure for America. However it is also true that, very soon after he had arrived in America, Gallatin had met the first Indians in Maine, as well as meeting others in Pennsylvania and in the territory of Ohio, and that once he had become Secretary of the Treasury, his administration found itself heavily involved in the management of so-called virgin lands and the politics of federal authorities vis-à-vis indigenous peoples. Gallatin therefore often had the occasion of receiving delegations of Indian chiefs in Washington and to discover how they lived.

Gallatin’s particularly long life – some even talk of “the five lives of Albert Gallatin” – therefore allowed him to demonstrate his numerous talents and acquire notoriety in several spheres. Even if he was not, strictly speaking, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, nor one of the authors of the American Constitution (as stated on the old plaque that the people of Geneva placed on the house where he was born and which was replaced in 2011), his contribution to the consolidation of the young nation’s finances at a time of strong growth both in territorial and economic terms, his talent as a negotiator that brought an end to the last great conflict with the old mother country and, finally, his numerous intellectual and other activities in public life made of him, without a doubt, a very great American indeed.” (cit. Benedict von Tscharner, Inter Gentes, Statesmen, Diplomats, Political Thinkers, Geneva 2012, p. 125-129).

Bibliography: Raymond Walters Jr., Albert Gallatin: Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat, Macmillan, New York, 1957 / 1969, Benedict von Tscharner, Albert Gallatin (1761-1849). Geneva’s American Statesman, Editions de Penthes, Pregny-Genève / Infolio, Gollion, 2008 (also available in German and in French). NichoIas Dungan, Gallatin. America’s Swiss Founding Father, New York University Press, New York, 2010.

© Prof. Jens Drolshammer,,

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