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Congressman, Secretary of the Treasury, Minister to Russia, etc.
Albert Gallatin was born into an old and noble family in Geneva, Switzerland, on January 29, 1761. He graduated with honors from the Geneva Academy. In 1780, he was offered a commission as Lieutenant Colonel by the Landrave of Hesse, whose "Hessians" were mercenaries with the British forces. Gallatin refused the commission, saying he "would never serve a tyrant." He escaped the resulting family indignation by secretly leaving home and immigrating to the United States.
Gallatin settled first in Boston, where he established his first business and taught French at Harvard College. He then moved to Virginia, where he took the Oath of Allegiance to the United States, in October 1785. Settling finally in Pennsylvania, he was elected to the State Legislature in 1788. In 1794, Pennsylvania sent him to the U.S. Senate, but he was rejected by that body because of a dispute over his citizenship. Before leaving the Senate, Gallatin called upon the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, to provide an exact statement of the national debt as of January 1, 1794, complete with a breakdown of the amount of revenue collected under each branch compared to each branch's expenditures. In 1795 he was elected to the House of Representatives, where he immediately became a member of the Standing Committee on Finance, now known as the Ways and Means Committee. In July 1800, Gallatin authored "Views of the Public Debt, Receipts and Expenditure of the United States," a report analyzing the fiscal operations of the federal government that is still regarded as a classic.
Gallatin's financial abilities and support of Thomas Jefferson led to his being named by President Jefferson as Secretary of the Treasury. When he took office, the United States was more than $80 million in debt. Gallatin's plan for reducing that debt called for the practice of economy within the government, particularly in the military. The two main sources of revenue were to be capital gained through the sale of public lands and revenue brought in through import taxes. Between 1801 and 1812, Gallatin succeeded in reducing the public debt to just over $45 million. This accomplishment is even more remarkable when you take into account that $15 million was spent on the purchase of the Louisiana Territory in 1803. Many of the policies he implemented are still in use today. Gallatin also sponsored the establishment of marine hospitals, the forerunner of our present Public Health Service, and submitted to Congress an extensive plan for internal improvements, including the construction of highways and canals. He also presented Congress with a detailed report of the country's fiscal situation, including a breakdown of receipts, a concise statement of the public debt, and an estimate of expected revenue -- the same kind of report he had requested from Alexander Hamilton while serving in the House.
Gallatin went on to serve as Secretary of the Treasury under President James Madison, but increased government expenses, especially costs involved in the War of 1812, made it difficult for him to carry out his fiscal policies and he stepped down in 1814. He was offered the post again in 1816, but declined because he thought its responsibilities demanded "an active young man." That response was even more applicable when President John Tyler offered him the post in 1843.
In 1813, Gallatin requested a diplomatic assignment and was sent to St. Petersburg, Russia. The following year, he played a crucial role in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812. He later served as Minister to France (1816-1823) and Minister to England (1826-1827) before settling in New York City.
Returning to his financial roots, Gallatin became president of the National Bank of the City of New York, later known as the Gallatin National Bank of the City of New York. As a founder of the American Ethnological Society, he made valuable contributions to the study of American Indian tribes and their languages. He was also a founder of New York University and served as president of the New York Historical Society.
Albert Gallatin died on Long Island on August 12, 1849.
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This page was last updated on August 12, 2017.