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This Month in Business History

Albert Gallatin, the 4th Secretary of the Treasury Born

Matthew Brady, photographer. Albert Gallatin, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing front, with walking stick. Between 1844 and 1860. Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.

Albert Gallatin, our 4th Secretary of the Treasury, was born on January 29, 1761 in Geneva, Switzerland. He emigrated to the United States and arrived in Boston in 1780, but didn’t stay there long before moving on to Machias in Maine. For the short time he was in Maine, he had a bartering venture dealing with a variety of goods and supplies and commanded a garrison. He moved back to Boston in 1781 and eventually secured a faculty position at Harvard.

Gallatin didn’t seem content in Boston, because he moved to Pennsylvania in 1784 and bought land he named Friendship Hill. He tried his hand in business again and was involved in several ventures including a gun factory, sawmill, gristmill, winery, distillery, and boat yard. While most of these ventures were less than successful, a glassworks factory proved otherwise. During this time he became very active in Pennsylvania politics by becoming a member of the state constitutional convention in 1789. He was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1790, and was very briefly a United States Senator.

In 1791 Congress instituted its very first tax – the very unpopular whiskey tax. It proved particularly unpopular in western Pennsylvania where the fight over the tax came to a head in 1794 in what is known as the Whiskey Rebellion. While the rebellion collapsed when President Washington gathered troops, Gallatin’s local and national political stature proved a moderating voice despite his being an opponent of the tax.

From 1795 to 1801 Gallatin was a member of the United States House of Representatives. During this time he frequently clashed with Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton over many of Hamilton’s policies, although not over the most contentious, the creation of the Bank of the United States. Also during his House years, he helped to create what became the House Ways and Means Committee, and is credited with passing the law requiring an annual report by the Secretary of the Treasury (approved May 10, 1800 Statutes at Large, vol. 2, 79).

His knowledge of finance led President Thomas Jefferson to nominate him to be Secretary of the Treasury and he was confirmed on January 26, 1802. He served through all of Jefferson’s term and even continued as Secretary under President James Madison. While Secretary, he worked to reduce the national debt and was responsible for the federal expenses related to the Louisiana Purchase, the planning of the Lewis and Clark expedition, and financing the War of 1812. Gallatin also represented U.S. interests in the peace negotiations with the British and was instrumental in negotiating the Treaty of Ghent (8 Stat. 218) that ended the War of 1812. Gallatin left office in 1814 after nearly thirteen years – the longest term of any Secretary in the Department’s history.

After leaving, Gallatin served as United States Minister to France for a number of years and continued to be involved in politics when he returned to the United States. He was nominated as vice-president on the William Crawford ticket (election of 1824), declined to again be Secretary of the Treasury under John Quincy Adams, and between 1826 and 1827 served as minister to the Court of St. James (Great Britain). Eventually he settled in New York City. In 1831 he helped found New York University and also became president of the National Bank in New York City. Gallatin’s keen interest in the languages of Native Americans led him, along with John Russell Bartlett, to found the American Ethnological Society (AES) in 1842.

Gallatin died on August 12, 1849 in Astoria, New York (now in Queens) and is buried in the Trinity churchyard where Alexander Hamilton is also buried. A statue of Albert Gallatin by the sculptor James Earle Fraser was installed and dedicated on October 15, 1947 and stands in front of the Treasury Building on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., commemorating one of its most storied leaders.

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