Albert Gallatin

America's Swiss Founding Father

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Early Life

Albert Gallatin was born in Geneva, Switzerland, on Jan. 29, 1761. His father was a prosperous merchant descended from an aristocratic family long politically prominent. Orphaned at the age of 9, Gallatin grew up in the home of a relative. He graduated from the Academy of Geneva in 1779. A young man of the age of the Enlightenment, he was sympathetic to the American Revolution and sailed for America in 1780, happy to be in "the freest country in the universe."

After a winter as a merchant in Maine, and a brief time with the colonial militia, Gallatin tutored in French in Boston in 1781. In 1782 he was appointed a tutor at Harvard College.

In 1783 Gallatin and a Frenchman planned to purchase western land and located an area in Virginia. Gallatin carried out surveying, mapped the interior, and registered land titles until an Indian uprising forced him to retreat. He took an oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1785.

Pollitical Career

In 1788 he was elected as a delegate to a meeting to propose amendments to the new U.S. Constitution. In 1789 he attended the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention. He was elected to the Pennsylvania Legislature in 1790 and reelected the next 2 years.

In 1793 he was elected to the U.S. Senate as a Republican. However, when Gallatin took his Senate seat, the Federalists challenged his eligibility, based on the fact that he had not applied for citizenship early enough to meet technical citizenship requirements. The Senate ruled against him, and Gallatin returned to Pennsylvania, where the new excise tax on whiskey stills had stirred up the rioting known as the Whiskey Rebellion. Though he opposed the tax, Gallatin also opposed violence and tried to moderate the local militia's use of force. He was largely responsible for persuading his comrades to submit to the new law.

Meanwhile, Gallatin had been elected to Congress again. He entered the House of Representatives in 1795 and became the most knowledgeable Republican on public finance. He proposed creation of the Ways and Means Committee—Congress's first permanent standing committee— to receive financial reports from the secretary of the Treasury and to superintend government finances.

With Thomas Jefferson's presidency in 1800 and the triumph of the Republicans, Gallatin was named to head the Treasury Department. He held this position longer than had any other secretary of the Treasury, serving from 1801 to 1814. Pledged to reduce the national debt and eliminate the excise tax, he projected a plan to pay off the debt by 1817, outlined proposals for appropriations for specified purposes, advocated promotion of manufacturing, and argued for constructing a nationwide network of roads and canals with Federal aid.

Diplomatic Career

President Madison granted Gallatin leave from the Treasury to join John Quincy Adams and James A. Bayard in exploring Russia's offer to mediate in the war. When Great Britain rejected this offer, Madison appointed Gallatin to the commission to negotiate directly with Britain. He became its most influential member.

Gallatin continued in diplomatic service for most of the next decade. He served as American minister to France (1816-1823). In 1818 he joined Richard Rush in London to work out a treaty extending earlier commercial agreements, securing American fishing rights off Newfoundland, drawing the northern boundary between Canada and the United States.

In 1823 Gallatin returned to the United States. Nominated for vice president on the Republican ticket headed by William H. Crawford, he withdrew when Crawford's manager attempted to substitute Henry Clay as the vice-presidential candidate. President John Quincy Adams appointed him minister to Great Britain in 1826.

Late Life

In 1789 Gallatin had married Sophia Allegre, who died five months later. He married Hannah Nicholson in 1793, and they had two sons and three daughters. Settling in New York, Gallatin served as president of the National Bank from 1831 until his retirement in 1839. In his last years Gallatin was prominent in cultural affairs. He became president of New York University's council in 1830. In 1836 he was elected to the American Antiquarian Society, and in 1843 he headed the New York Historical Society. However, he devoted most of his attention to the ethnology of the American Indian and founded the American Ethnological Society in 1842. Gallatin died on Aug. 13, 1849.