Albert Gallatin came of an old and noble family,
born in Geneva, switzerland. He graduated with
honors from the Geneva Academy, but in 1780 gave
up fortune and social position because of "a love
for independence in the freest country of the
universe." Offered a commission as Lieutenant
Colonel by the Landrave of Hesse, whose hated
"Hessians" were mercenaries with the British forces,
he refused by saying he "would never serve a tyrant."
He escaped the resulting family indignation by
secretly leaving home. With a friend, he took
passage for America.
His first business venture was launched in Boston.
He later taught French at Harvard, but soon went
south. In October 1785, he took the Oath of Allegiance
in Virginia. Settling finally in Pennsylvania,
he was a member of the State Legislature before
being sent to the United States Senate. His citizenship
being in debate, he was rejected by that body,
but not before calling upon the Secretary of the
Treasury for a statement of the debt as of January
1, 1794, distinguishing the money received under
each branch of the revenue, and expended under
each appropriation. When Gallatin was again returned,
this time to the House of Representatives, he
immediately became a member of the new Standing
Committee on Finance, the forerunner of the Ways
and Means Committee.
In July 1800, he prepared a report entitled,
"Views of the Public Debt, Receipts and Expenditure
of the United States." This report, analyzing
the fiscal operations of the Government under
the Constitution, is still regarded as a classic.
In Congress, he struggled successfully to keep
down appropriations, particularly those for warlike
purposes. The opposition party attacked him personally,
as well as politically, because of his foreign
birth. Thomas Jefferson believed the Sedition
Bill was framed to drive Gallatin from office.
However, as soon as Jefferson was elected President,
early in 1801, he tendered Gallatin the post of
Secretary of the Treasury.
Gallatin took his oath on a "platform" of debt
reduction, the necessity for specific appropriations,
and strict and immediate accountability for disbursements.
Eight years after assuming office, his estimates
on revenues and debt reduction had proven uncannily
accurate. He had succeeded in reducing the public
debt by $14 million, and had built up a surplus.
At the same time, $15 million had gone for the
purchase of the Louisiana Territory, an acquisition
which established the United States as a great
A meticulous bookkeeper and originator of many
accounting practices still in use in the Department,
Gallatin also sponsored the establishment of marine
hospitals, the forerunner of our present Public
Health Service. In 1807 he submitted to Congress
an extensive plan for internal improvements, particularly
the construction of highways and canals.
His greatest contribution, however, was that
for the first time Congress received a detailed
report of the country's fiscal situation. Earlier
Secretaries had conscientiously reported disbursements,
but Gallatin gave a breakdown of receipts, a concise
statement of the public debt, and an estimate
of expected revenue.
Gallatin served in the Treasury until 1814, and
was offered the post again by President Madison
in 1816. He declined, though, because he thought
its responsibilities demanded "an active young
man." He felt this even more strongly in 1843,
when President Tyler offered him the post, but
must have recognized this as a striking tribute
to his past achievements.
His public service was by no means over when
he left the Treasury. The Treaty of Ghent, ending
the War of 1812, was considered largely Gallatin's
personal triumph, for he was the most effective
of the American Commissioners. Thereafter, he
negotiated a commercial convention with England,
by which discriminating duties were abolished.
He served as Minister both to France and to England,
concluding his years in the field of diplomacy
in 1817, when he returned to New York take up
He became the President of the National Bank
of the City of New York, later known as the Gallatin
National Bank of the City of New York. He participated
in the community's cultural activities. He was
a founder of New York University, and of the American
Ethnological Society, making valuable contributions
on languages of the Indian tribes. While serving
as President of the New York Historical Society,
he presided at an anniversary celebration in 1844.
At that celebration, John Quincy Adams, a long-time
political opponent, paid high tribute to Gallatin
as a patriot and citizen.
Albert Gallatin died on Long Island on August
12, 1849, at the age of 88. Always an enthusiast
for American ideals on liberty, he was a firm
believer in the essential soundness of the Government
and its finances. "If I have not wholly misunderstood
America," he wrote, "I am not wrong in the belief
that its public funds are more secure than those
of all the European powers." For the greater part
of his life, he devoted himself to making this
ideal an actuality, and carried out his vision
with honor to himself and for the lasting benefit
of this country and fellow citizens.
(US Department of the Treasury, Office of