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Albert Gallatin

Albert GallatinAKA Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin

Born: 29-Jan-1761
Birthplace: Geneva, Switzerland
Died: 12-Aug-1849
Location of death: Astoria, Long Island, NY
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Trinity Churchyard, Manhattan, NY

Gender: Male
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Politician
Party Affiliation: See Note [1]

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: US Secretary of the Treasury, 1801-14

The American statesman, Albert Gallatin, was born in Geneva on the 29th of January 1761. The Gallatins were both an old and a noble family. They are first heard of in Savoy in the year 1258, and more than two centuries later they went to Geneva (1510), united with Calvin in his opposition to Rome, and associated their fortunes with those of the little Swiss city. Here they remained, and with one or two other great families governed Geneva, and sent forth many representatives to seek their fortune and win distinction in the service of foreign princes, both as soldiers and ministers. On the eve of the French Revolution the Gallatins were still in Geneva, occupying the same position which they had held for two hundred years. Albert Gallatin's father died in 1765, his mother five years later, and his only sister in 1777. Although left an orphan at nine, he was by no means lonely or unprotected. His grandparents, a large circle of near relatives and Mlle. Catherine Pictet (d. 1795), an intimate friend of his mother, cared for him during his boyhood. He was thoroughly educated at the schools of Geneva, and graduated with honor from the college or academy there in 1779. His grandmother then wished him to enter the army of the landgrave of Hesse, but he declined to serve "a tyrant", and a year later slipped away from Geneva and embarked for the United States. A competent fortune, good prospects, social position, and a strong family connection were all thrown aside in order to tempt fate in the New World. His relatives very properly opposed his course, but they nevertheless did all in their power to smooth his way, and continued to treat him kindly. In later life he himself admitted the justice of their opinions. The temper of the times, a vague discontent with the established order of things, and some political enthusiasm imbibed from the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, are the best reasons which can now be assigned for Gallatin's desertion of home and friends.

In July 1780 Gallatin and his friend Henri Serre (d. 1784) landed in Massachusetts. They brought with them youth, hope and courage, as well as a little money, and at once entered into business. The times, however, were unfavourable. The great convulsion of the Revolution was drawing to a close, and everything was in an unsettled condition. The young Genevans failed in business, passed a severe winter in the wilds of Maine, and returned to Boston penniless. Gallatin tried to earn a living by teaching French in Harvard College, apparently not without success, but the cold and rigid civilization of New England repelled him, and he made his way to the South. In the backwoods of Pennsylvania and Virginia there seemed to be better chances for a young adventurer. Gallatin engaged in land speculations, and tried to lay the foundation of his fortune in a frontier farm. In 1789 he married Sophie Allgre, and every prospect seemed to be brightening. But clouds soon gathered again. After only a few months of wedlock his wife died, and Gallatin was once more alone. The solitary and desolate frontier life became now more dreary than ever; he flung himself into politics -- the only outside resource open to him, and his long, and eventful public career began.

The constitution of 1787 was then before the public, and Gallatin, with his dislike of strong government still upon him, threw himself into opposition and became one of the founders of the Anti-Federalist, or, as it was afterwards called, the Republican party. He was a member of the Pennsylvania Constitutional Convention of 1789-90, and of the Pennsylvania Assembly in 1790, 1791, and 1792, and rose with surprising rapidity, despite his foreign birth and his inability to speak English with correctness or fluency. He was helped of course by his sound education; but the true cause of his success lay in his strong sense, untiring industry, courage, clear-sightedness and great intellectual force. In 1793 he was chosen United States Senator from Pennsylvania by the votes of both political parties. No higher tribute was ever paid to character and ability than that conveyed by this election. But the staunch Federalists of the Senate, who had begun to draw the party lines rather sharply, found the presence of the young Genevan highly distasteful. They disliked his French origin, and suspected him to be a man of levelling principles. His seat was contested on account of a technical flaw in regard to the duration of his citizenship, and in February 1794, almost three months after the beginning of the session, the senate annulled the election and sent him back to Pennsylvania with all the glory of political martyrdom.

The leading part which Gallatin had taken in the "Whisky Insurrection" in Western Pennsylvania had, without doubt, been an efficient cause in his rejection by the senate. He intended fully to restrain within legal bounds the opposition which the excise on domestic spirits had provoked, but he made the serious mistake of not allowing sufficiently for the character of the backwoods population. When legal resistance developed into insurrection, Gallatin did his best to retrieve his error and prevent open war. At Redstone Old Fort (Brownsville) on the 29th of August 1794, before the "Committee of Sixty" who were appointed to represent the disaffected people, he opposed with vigorous eloquence the use of force against the government, and refused to be intimidated by an excited band of riflemen who happened to be in the vicinity and represented the radical element. He effectively checked the excitement, and when a month later an overwhelming Federal force began moving upon the western counties, the insurrection collapsed without bloodshed. Of all the men who took part in the opposition to the excise, Gallatin alone came out with credit. He was at once elected to the national House of Representatives, and took his seat in December 1795. There, by sheer force of ability and industry, he wrested from all competitors the leadership of the Republicans, and became the most dangerous opponent whom the Federalists had ever encountered in Congress. Inflamed with a hatred of France just then rising to the dignity of a party principle, they found in Gallatin an enemy who was both by origin and opinion peculiarly obnoxious to them. They attacked him unsparingly, but in vain. His perfect command of temper, his moderation of speech and action, in a bitterly personal age, never failed, and were his most effective weapons; but he made his power felt in other ways. His clear mind and industrious habits drew him to questions of finance. He became the financier of his party, preached unceasingly his cardinal doctrines of simplicity and economy, and was an effective critic of the measures of government. Cool and temperate, Gallatin, when following his own theories, was usually in the right, although accused by his followers of trimming. Thus, in regard to the Jay treaty, he defended the constitutional right of the house to consider the treaty, but he did not urge rejection in this specific case. On the other hand, when following a purely party policy he generally erred. He resisted the navy, the mainspring of George Washington's foreign policy; he opposed commereial treaties and diplomatic intercourse in a similar fashion. On these points he was grievously wrong, and on all he changed his views after a good deal of bitter experience.

The greatest period of Gallatin's career in Congress was in 1798, after the publication of the famous X.Y.Z. despatches. The insults of Talleyrand, and his shameless attempts to extort bribes from the American commissioners, roused the deep anger of the people against France. The Federalists swept all before them, and the members of the opposition either retired from Philadelphia or went over to the government. Alone and single-handed, Gallatin carried on the fight in Congress. The Federalists bore down on him unmercifully, and even attempted (1798) a constitutional amendment in regard to citizenship, partly, it appears, in order to drive him from office. Still be held on, making a national struggle in the national legislature, and relying very little upon the rights of States so eagerly grasped by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. But even then the tide was turning. The strong measures of the Federalists shocked the country; the leaders of the dominant party quarrelled fiercely among themselves; and the Republicans carried the elections of 1800. In the exciting contest for the presidency in the House of Representatives between Jefferson and Aaron Burr, it was Gallatin who led the Republicans.

When, after this contest, Jefferson became president (1801), there were two men whose commanding abilities marked them for the first places in the cabinet. James Madison became secretary of state, and Albert Gallatin secretary of the treasury. Wise, prudent and conservative, Gallatin made few changes in Alexander Hamilton's arrangements, and for twelve years administered the national finances with the greatest skill. He and Jefferson were both imbued with the idea that government could be carried on upon a priori principles resting on the assumed perfectness of human nature, and the chief burden of carrying out this theory fell upon Gallatin. His guiding principles were still simplicity of administration and speedy extinction of all debt, and everything bent to these objects. Fighting or bribing the Barbary pirates was a mere question of expense. It was cheaper to seize Louisiana than to await the settlement of doubtful points. Commercial warfare was to be avoided because of the cost. All wars were bad, but if they could not be evaded it was less extravagant to be ready than to rush to arms unprepared. Amid many difficulties, and thwarted even by Jefferson himself in the matter of the navy, Gallatin pushed on; and after six years the public debt was decreased (in spite of the Louisiana purchase) by $14,260,000, a large surplus was on hand, a comprehensive and beneficent scheme of internal improvements was ready for execution, and the promised land seemed in sight. Then came the stress of war in Europe, a wretched neutrality at home, fierce outbreaks of human passions, and the fair structure of government by a priori theories based on the goodness of unoppressed humanity came to the ground. Gallatin was thrown helplessly back upon the rejected Federalist doctrine of government according to circumstances. He uttered no vain regrets, but the position was a trying one. The sworn foe of strong government, he was compelled, in pursuance of Jefferson's policy, to put into execution the Embargo and other radical and stringent measures. He did his best, but all was in vain. Commercial warfare failed, the Embargo was repealed, and Jefferson, having entangled foreign relations and brought the country to the verge of civil war, retired to private life, leaving to his successor Madison, and to Gallatin, the task of extricating the nation from its difficulties. From 1809 the new administration, drifting steadily towards war, struggled on from one abortive and exasperating negotiation to another. It was a period of sore trial to Gallatin. The peace policy had failed, and nothing else replaced it. He had lost his hold upon Pennsylvania and his support in the house, while a cabal in the senate, bitterly and personally hostile to the treasury, crippled the administration and reduced every government measure to mere inanity. At last, however, in June 1812, Congress on Madison's recommendation declared war against England.

Gallatin never wasted time in futile complaints. His cherished schemes were shattered. War and extravagant expenditure had come, and he believed both to be fatal to the prosperity and progress of America. He therefore put the finances in the best order he could, and set himself to mitigate the evil effects of the war by obtaining an early peace. With this end in view he grasped eagerly at the proffered mediation of Russia, and without resigning the treasury sailed for Europe in May 1813.

Russian mediation proved barren, but Gallatin persevered, catching at every opportunity for negotiation. In the midst of his labors came the news that the Senate had refused to confirm his appointment as peace commissioner. He still toiled on unofficially until, the objection of the Senate having been met by the appointment of a new Secretary of the Treasury, his second nomination was approved, and he was able to proceed with direct negotiations. The English and American commissioners finally met at Ghent, and in the tedious and irritating discussions which ensued Gallatin took the leading part. His great difficulty lay in managing his colleagues, who were, especially Henry Clay and John Quincy Adams, able men of strong wills and jarring tempers. He succeeded in preserving harmony, and thus established his own reputation as an able diplomatist. Peace was his reward; on the 24th of December 1814 the treaty was signed; and after visiting Geneva for the first time since his boyhood, and assisting in negotiating a commercial convention (1815) with England by which all discriminating duties were abolished, Gallatin in July 1815 returned to America.

While still in Europe he had been asked by Madison to become minister to France; this appointment he accepted in January 1816, and adhered to his acceptance in spite of his being asked in April 1816 to serve once more as Secretary of the Treasury. He remained in France for the next seven years. He passed his time in thoroughly congenial society, seeing everybody of note or merit in Europe. He did not neglect the duties of his official position, but strove assiduously and with his wonted patience to settle the commercial relations of his adopted country with the nations of Europe, and in 1818 assisted Richard Rush, then United States Ambassador to the court of St. James, in negotiating a commercial convention with Great Britain to take the place of that negotiated in 1815.

In June 1823 he returned to the United States, where he found himself plunged at once into the bitter struggle then in progress for the Presidency. His favorite candidate was his personal friend William H. Crawford, whom he regarded as the true heir and representative of the old Jeffersonian principles. With these feelings he consented in May 1824 to stand for the Vice Presidency on the Crawford ticket. But Gallatin had come home to new scenes and new actors, and he did not fully appreciate the situation. The contest was bitter, personal, factious and full of intrigue. Martin Van Buren, then in the Crawford interest, came to the conclusion that the candidate for the second place, by his foreign origin, weakened the ticket, and in October Gallatin retired from the contest. The election, undecided by the popular vote, was thrown into the house, and resulted in the choice of John Quincy Adams, who in 1826 drew Gallatin from his retirement and sent him as Ambassador to England to conduct another complicated and arduous negotiation. Gallatin worked at his new task with his usual industry, tact and patience, but the results were meagre, although an open breach on the delicate question of the northeast boundary of the United States was avoided by referring it to the arbitration of the king of the Netherlands. In November 1827 he once more returned to the United States and bade farewell to public life.

Taking up his residence in New York, he was in 1832-39 president of the National Bank (afterwards the Gallatin Bank) of New York, but his duties were light, and he devoted himself chiefly to the congenial pursuits of science and literature. In both fields he displayed much talent, and by writing his Synopsis of the Indian Tribes within the United States East of the Rocky Mountains and in the British and Russian Possessions in North America (1836), and by founding the American Ethnological Society of New York in 1842, he earned the title of "Father of American Ethnology." He continued, of course, to interest himself in public affairs, although no longer an active participant, and in all financial questions, especially in regard to the bank charter, the resumption of specie payments, and the panic of 1837, he exerted a powerful influence. The rise of the slavery question touched him nearly. Gallatin had always been a consistent opponent of slavery; he felt keenly, therefore, the attempts of the South to extend the slave power and confirm its existence, and the remnant of his strength was devoted in his last days to writing and distributing two able pamphlets against the war with Mexico. Almost his last public act was a speech, on the 24th of April 1844, in New York City, against the annexation of Texas; and in his eighty-fourth year he confronted a howling New York mob with the same cool, unflinching courage which he had displayed half a century before when he faced the armed frontiersmen of Redstone Old Fort. During the winter of 1848-49 his health failed, and on the 12th of August 1849, at the home of his daughter in Astoria, Long Island (in what is now Queens), he passed peacefully away.

Gallatin was twice married. His second wife, whom he married in November 1793, was Miss Hannah Nicholson, of New York, the daughter of Com. James Nicholson (1737-1804), an American naval officer, Commander-in-Chief of the Navy from 1777 until August 1781, when with his ship the "Virginia", he was taken by the British "Iris" and "General Monk." By her he had three children, two sons and a daughter, who all survived him. In personal appearance he was above middle height, with strongly-marked features, indicating great strength of intellect and character. He was reserved and very reticent, cold in manner and not sympathetic. There was, too, a certain Calvinistic austerity about him. But he was much beloved by his family. He was never a popular man, nor did he ever have a strong personal following or many attached friends. He stood, with Jefferson and Madison, at the head of his party, and won his place by force of character, courage, application and intellectual power. His eminent and manifold services to his adopted country, his great abilities and upright character, assure him a high position in the history of the United States.


[1] Anti-Federalist.

Father: (d. 1765)
Mother: (d. 1770)
Sister: (d. 1777)
Wife: Sophie Allegre (m. 1789, d. 1789)
Wife: Hannah Nicholson (m. Nov-1793, two sons, one daughter)

    US Ambassador to the United Kingdom (1826-27)
    US Ambassador to France (1816-23)
    US Secretary of the Treasury (1801-14)
    US Congressman, Pennsylvania 11th (1795-1801)
    US Senator, Pennsylvania (Elected 1793, annulled over issues of citizenship)
    Pennsylvania State House of Representatives (1790-92)
    American Ethnological Society Co-Founder (1842)
    American Philosophical Society (1791)

Is the subject of books:
The Life of Albert Gallatin, 1879, BY: Henry Adams
Albert Gallatin, 1884, BY: John Austin Stevens

Author of books:
The Oregon Question (1846)
Synopsis of the Indian Tribes... of North America (1836)


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