As Tax Day draws nearer, thoughts of the Internal Revenue Service loom large for many of us. Yet prior to the Civil War, there was no IRS. The locus of the payment of taxes was simply the Department of the Treasury itself, one of the earliest Executive Branch departments. This single department heavily influenced the development of the early American Republic in great part due to the first Secretary of the Treasury, the monumentally talented Alexander Hamilton. His genius, of course, has recently come to be more appreciated thanks to the incredibly talented Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Hamilton was the first—but not the only—immigrant to serve at the head of the Treasury. Interestingly, four of the first six secretaries of that department were immigrants. Perhaps most significant after Hamilton—and practically his opposite—was the fourth and longest serving Secretary of the Treasury, Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin.
For the last ten years, I have had the “high honor and privilege” of portraying Albert Gallatin for audiences from Montana to Gallatin’s estate in southwestern Pennsylvania and many places between. The name itself may be familiar simply because it shows up so often. There’s a Gallatin, Tennessee, a Gallatin County in Kentucky, and Montana boasts a Gallatin River, County, Range, and National Forest. New York University has a Gallatin School of Individualized Studies, and Gallatin’s home is a National Historic Site. Despite his name being in so many places, very few Americans know anything about him.
So, who was Albert Gallatin?
Gallatin was born on January 29, 1761, the scion of an aristocratic family who had come in the suite of a conquering Duke of Savoy in the 13th century to Geneva, then an independent city-state. The generations of Gallatin (originally Gallatini) residents could boast Genevan mayors, military leaders, and more. Albert himself was orphaned when quite young (he lost his father at 4 and his mother at 9) but was fortunate to have been put in the care of a distant relative of his father, Catherine Pictet. She not only lavished her love on him but ensured that he received a top-notch education, first at the Collège de Génève, and then at the Académie de Génève. Young Gallatin’s horizons were also broadened by his grandmother, Suzanne Vaudenet-Gallatin. Mme. Vaudenet-Gallatin corresponded with several significant figures of the day—not least of whom was the philosopher, Voltaire – including a man who would have, however briefly, an outsized influence on Gallatin’s arrival in America: Friedrich II, Landgrave of Hesse-Kassel. (Yes, Hesse. As in ‘Hessian’…)
Mme. Vaudenet-Gallatin had obtained a commission for Albert in Friedrich II’s army, which he refused, gaining thereby a “box on the ears.” To avoid further pressure from his family, Gallatin determined, along with a friend of his from l’Académie, Henri Serre, to leave Geneva secretly and try their luck in America, the “freest nation in the universe,” as merchants. The two arrived in America in May 1780. After spending several months in Boston (which he professed to dislike intensely), Gallatin and Serre went north to try their mercantile luck at Fort Machias, Maine, where they spent the winter of 1780-81. (As a native New Englander, I cannot for the life of me figure out WHY they would head north, in winter, to Maine…but then, young men….)
Returning to Boston after that cold and unprofitable winter, he remained in that city, and began to tutor young Bostonians in French, which he did for two years to the satisfaction of the Board of Governors of Harvard College. In 1783, Jean Savary de Valcoulon, a French nobleman and agent for Revolutionary War French officers who had been promised land grants in payment for their services, engaged Gallatin to accompany him as a translator. One of the places they stopped during their travels to secure these promised grants was Richmond. There they met, among others, John Marshall (eventually to become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), and Governor Patrick Henry. Gallatin seemed to have thoroughly impressed Marshall, who having just come out of the Army, had established his own legal firm in town. Marshall offered to not only let Gallatin read law in his law office, but to take him on, once he’d passed the bar, as a partner in the firm. Gallatin was, needless to say, quite honored by the offer. Henry, hearing of this, told him, “I’m sure you will make a fine lawyer, Mr. Gallatin. But I would advise you to become a statesman and head West.” (When I do my interpretation of Gallatin, I comment that Henry’s remarks were a double curse. Firstly, a definition – admittedly from Harry Truman – of a “statesman” is “a dead politician.” The second curse is that sending Gallatin, already balding, westward would put him in danger of having yet more of his skull exposed by angry Native Americans.) They continued their journey northwestwards to the part of Pennsylvania in which he would ultimately settle, the country of the Forks of the Ohio – where he met for the first, but not the last, time, His Excellency, General Washington. Washington was there surveying the lands he had been granted after the French and Indian Wars. (There’s another story here, but that’s for another time.)
Gallatin eventually purchased some 600 acres of land overlooking the Monongahela River, and named his seat there “Friendship Hill.” Establishing a trading post in a new settlement named New Geneva, to which he hoped to attract farmers and settlers from the Swiss lands, he became increasingly involved in the political and economic life of the region. The locals, recognizing his level of education, his seriousness of purpose, and his practical approach to many matters, eventually sent him to a convention meeting in Harrisburg, PA, on September 3rd
, 1788, after Pennsylvania’s ratification of the U. S. Constitution. The group meeting were anti-Federalists, and they opposed the Constitution as there was no written guarantee of individual rights. When they proposed throwing over the whole document and starting over, Gallatin balked. It was foolishness, in his opinion, to seek perfection (not achievable in a government in any case) rather than improve a document already proving widely acceptable. This was the first, but far from the last time, that he was willing to stand up to a group whose plans were impractical, or which violated common sense.
His first marriage, taking place within a year of the Pennsylvania convention, sadly lasted a mere five months when his bride, Sophie Allègre of Richmond, died in October 1789. A grieving Gallatin considering returning to Geneva, but instead threw himself into political issues. He was elected as the Fayette County representative to the Pennsylvania Legislature where, with a brief interruption in 1793-94, he served until his election to three terms (1795-1801) in the U. S. House of Representatives from Pennsylvania’s (then) 12th Congressional District.
Gallatin was also deeply involved in the Whiskey Rebellion, a tax revolt resulting from Hamilton’s efforts to raise monies for the new Republic by an excise (internal) tax on whiskey. Whiskey, often used as a bartering element in the west, was a critical commodity for farmers of that region. By converting excess corn and rye into a liquid, western farmers created a less perishable and more transportable product. This creative solution meant the farmers weren’t dependent upon the Spanish-controlled Mississippi River for transshipment, thus allowing them to avoid import and port duties. Hamilton saw the opportunity to seize upon a new source of funding while also supporting Atlantic distillers as part of his plans to encourage the development of “manufacturies” in the eastern United States. Given that Hamilton’s tax weighed more heavily on western farmers, protests began to spring up in that region. In August 1794, with opposition to the policy becoming increasingly dangerous and violent, Gallatin endeavored to defuse the situation. He called upon the protestors to consider that “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.” His appeal was largely successful, and he thus showed himself to be a man who put the good of the nation as a whole before the particular interest of his state or region.
In Congress, Gallatin made clear that he was, as he had been in the Pennsylvania Legislature, someone who had thought deeply on and thoroughly understood finance, particularly at the national level. While he, like Jefferson and Madison, opposed the First Bank of the United States (established in 1791 by Hamilton), his opposition to that institution softened after examining how Hamilton had used the Bank to prevent the near collapse of the American economy in 1792. Gallatin believed that confidence in the economy could be strengthened by making the Treasury’s dealings more transparent. To that end, he introduced a bill during his brief Senate tenure that required the Secretary of the Treasury to identify where Executive Branch funds had been dispersed and, if they had been moved from one funding beneficiary to another, whether that had occurred with the explicit understanding and approval of the President. (Hamilton, however, complained that he had neither the time nor resources to answer such a silly and useless requirement.) Gallatin was not discouraged, however, and continued his study of the workings of the economy. As an eminently practical and honest man who had experienced and noted how policies could negatively impact small businessmen, he was determined to reduce as much as possible the weight of government taxation and expenditures on those who would feel the burden of that indiscipline the most. His desire to keep government accountable saw him help to create the House Ways and Means Committee, one of the most powerful committees in Congress to this day.
Thus, when he was named by Jefferson as a recess appointment to become Secretary of the Treasury in May 1801, he had a pretty clear idea of what needed to be done to achieve this goal. Rather than immediately dismantling the Hamiltonian economic system as instructed by President Jefferson, Gallatin coolly spent the next six months gathering information about the Treasury and its policies. By November of 1801, he was able to offer a plan that promised to set the nation on a course to be debt-free by 1817.
While Gallatin’s plan relied heavily upon curbing government expenditures, he was not opposed to spending that advanced the good of the nation. Having discharged $14.6 million of the national debt by 1803 thanks to his guidance, Gallatin had put the United States in an excellent position to accept Napoleon’s offer of the Louisiana Territory for $15 million. In fact, between 1801 and 1812, Gallatin’s policies led to a 46% decrease in the national debt. The ballooning of the debt in the years following was a direct result of War of 1812 spending.
When James Madison assumed the presidency in 1809, Gallatin had hoped to be named Secretary of State, where his European background would have stood him and the nation in good stead. However, congressional opposition to Gallatin saw Navy Secretary Robert Smith land the job and Gallatin, tiring of the Treasury, reluctantly stayed on as its head. Ultimately, Smith proved less than able as Secretary of State (with Gallatin going so far as to tell Madison that he would resign as Treasury Secretary if Smith was not dismissed) and the President asked for Smith’s resignation in 1811. As the War of 1812 erupted, Gallatin’s service to the nation would take a new direction.
The United States had been woefully unprepared for war when it was declared in 1812. When Tsar Alexander of Russia offered to act as an intermediary to bring about peace between the US and England, Madison seized the opportunity and sent Gallatin along with Delaware Senator James Bayard to St. Petersburg to join Minister John Quincy Adams to negotiate with the British. While those talks broke down, by mid-1814, the British were ready to negotiate directly with the American delegation in Ghent (now in Belgium). Over the course of the peace talks, John Quincy Adams (not one of the most charitable political figures) came to admire Gallatin’s calm and professional behavior as a diplomat.
Upon his return, Madison asked Gallatin to become the US Minister to France. Gallatin refused at first, as his personal finances were suffering from years of government service and a diplomat’s salary would not be sufficient to address his family’s needs. (He had remarried in 1793.) He was prevailed upon, at last, to accept the post and served in that capacity for seven years (1816-1823). While he was unsuccessful in accomplishing his primary goal of settling reparations claims by American merchants against Napoleon’s government, he did enjoy life in Paris—expensive as it was—in the company of his family.
When Gallatin came back to the US in 1823, he was asked by his successor at the Treasury and presidential candidate, William H. Crawford, to be his vice-presidential running mate. Even the nomination process offered a preview of the chaos that would be the Election of 1824. Criticism that the process was undemocratic, the foreign-born nature of his running mate, and the popularity of Andrew Jackson in certain regions made Crawford reconsider his choice and he soon asked Gallatin to withdraw from the race. He had been a reluctant candidate at best, but Gallatin was deeply humiliated by the incident.
Gallatin retuned to the diplomatic field following his disastrous foray into presidential politics. As Minister Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Court of St. James, he successfully settled two major border questions between British Canada and the United States. He retired from government service in 1829.
The remainder of his days were still busy ones. He sold “Friendship Hill” and lived out the rest of his life with his wife, Hannah, in New York City. A strong advocate for education, he became a co-founder of and served briefly as the President of the Board of Councilors of the City University of New York (eventually New York University), the largest private educational institution in the nation. His significant role in its history was honored by New York University in 1975 when they named their School of Individualized Studies after him. Beyond his work with the University, Gallatin also founded a bank, wrote two books on Native American languages, co-founded the American Ethnological Society, and sat as the President of the New York Historical Society. Except for briefly stepping back into politics in 1845 and 1846 by authoring several pamphlets on the Oregon question and the Mexican-American War, the former Treasury Secretary faded from the public consciousness.
Albert Gallatin died on August 12, 1849, six months after his beloved Hannah, to whom he'd been married for fifty-five years. He is fittingly--or, perhaps, ironically--buried at Trinity Church on Wall Street in New York City, on the opposite side of the churchyard from his predecessor and political opponent, Alexander Hamilton.
Ron Duquette, 68, is a native of Springfield, Massachusetts, and the lineal descendant of a French soldier who was at Mont Royal (Montreal), New France, in 1640. He is a 1974 graduate of Middlebury College in Vermont with a Bachelor of Letters degree (cum laude) in French Language and Literature, and has a 1984 Masters of Science Degree (summa cum laude) in Government from Campbell University, North Carolina. Entering the United States Army as a Second Lieutenant in 1974, he spent the next twenty years in assignments and schools in Arizona, Washington State, New Jersey, North Carolina, and then in Europe between Germany and England.
For the last ten years, he has presented Gallatin in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, New York City, Alexandria (VA), Arlington (VA), Bozeman, MT, the University of Virginia, and has conducted five of the Gallatin Project presentations at Gallatin's estate, Friendship Hill, PA. He has portrayed Mr. Gallatin more than 100 times during that period.
Henry Adams, “The Life of Albert Gallatin,” 1879, J. B. Lippincott & Co., Philadelphia, PA
John Austin Stevens, “Albert Gallatin”, Vol. XIII of “American Statesmen” series, 1899, Houghton, Mifflin & Co., Boston and New York
Raymond Walters, Jr., “Albert Gallatin: Jeffersonian Financier and Diplomat,” 1957, the Macmillan Company, New York, NY
Nicholas Dungan, “Gallatin: America’s Swiss Founding Father,” 2010, New York University Press, New York, NY
Gregory May, “Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt,” 2018, Regnery History, Washington, DC
Fiscal Policies and Tax:
Albert Gallatin, “A sketch of the finances of the United States,” 1796, William A. Davis, New York, NY
Alexander Balinky, “Albert Gallatin: Fiscal Theories and Policies,” 1958, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ
Thomas P. Slaughter, “The Whiskey Rebellion: Frontier Epilogue to the American Revolution,” 1986, Oxford University Press, New York, NY
William Hogeland, “The Whiskey Rebellion,” 2010, Simon & Schuster, New York, NY
Thomas K. McCraw, “The Founders and Finance: How Hamilton, Gallatin, and Other Immigrants Forged a New Economy,” 2014, Belknap Press of the Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA
Among other sources are Henry Adams’ 7-volume histories of the Jefferson and Madison Administrations, which cover most of the 16 years Gallatin was involved both in the Treasury and as a diplomat negotiating an end to the War of 1812. Other than the five specific bios of Gallatin listed, most information has had to be teased out of bios of Jefferson, Madison, John Quincy Adams, etc.