Albert Gallatin, around 1803, in a portrait by Gilbert Stuart.
Albert Gallatin, around 1803, in a portrait by Gilbert Stuart. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Albert Gallatin: A Swiss Founding Father

Albert Gallatin (1761-1849) is often referred to as “America’s Swiss Founding Father” by historians due to his significant contributions to American government, finance, diplomacy, and cultural life.

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener

James Blake Wiener is a writer, PR specialist in the domain of Cultural Heritage, and a Co-Founder of "Ancient History Encyclopedia."

Leaving Geneva to find opportunity and adventure at the age of 19, Gallatin would become a prominent statesman and financier in the early days of the great “American experiment.” Whether as the longest-tenured Secretary of the Treasury (1801-1814) or as the US ambassador to France and Great Britain, Gallatin is arguably the most important Swiss-American in US history.

Early Life in Geneva and the United States

Abraham Alfonse Albert de Gallatin was born in Geneva to a wealthy patrician family on January 29, 1761. The Gallatins had served the Republic of Geneva for hundreds of years as officials, military officers, and scholars, and there was every indication that Gallatin would do the same. Although his parents died when he was only a child, Gallatin had a happy childhood and received a broad education in philosophy, languages, mathematics, and science at the Académie de Genève (the forerunner to the Université de Genève). In 1779, Gallatin graduated and pondered his future. While many of his classmates found immediate employment and fortune in the service of Geneva, France, or Great Britain, Gallatin was neither interested in military service nor in theology. He loved Geneva and believed in Switzerland’s democratic values, but he was inspired by the American Revolution (1775-1783) and drawn to this new nation’s democratic ideals. With an aptitude for finance and foreign languages, as well as an imagination colored by Jean-Jacques Rousseau's visions of the wilderness, Gallatin immigrated to the United States in April 1780 at the age of 19. Beforehand, his family asked the French social reformer François Alexandre Frédéric, duc de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, to procure a letter of reference from Benjamin Franklin, which duly arrived in Geneva. Gallatin’s family had reservations about his safety, as he had no specific or set plans upon his arrival in Boston. He had the vague notion that he might become a tea merchant, but fortune’s wheel would spin him in an entirely different direction.
General George Washington crossing the Delaware on December 26, 1776
The iconic painting shows General George Washington crossing the Delaware on December 26, 1776, a key moment in the American Revolutionary War. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Movement, adventure, and opportunity shaped Gallatin’s early years in the United States: he taught French at Harvard University, lived the simple life of a farmer and land surveyor in the Appalachian Mountains of Pennsylvania, and co-founded a company with the purpose of attracting Swiss immigrants to his new country. (The latter of which proved entirely unsuccessful much to his chagrin.) Gallatin always remained, however, a man fueled with a desire to serve the public despite his myriad of interests. Gallatin was convinced that if he stayed in the United States, he would be able to serve in a governmental position. For this reason, he chose not to return to Switzerland. Once Gallatin swore allegiance and became a US citizen in 1785, his influence in American politics followed sharp, upward trajectory: Gallatin was elected as a delegate to a state convention to oversee the United States Constitution in 1788; he was elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives in 1790; he was elected to the Senate in 1793; and he was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1795.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania around 1787, how it looked when Gallatin was there.
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania around 1787, how it looked when Gallatin was there. Library of Congress
Alexander Hamilton, around 1805.
Alexander Hamilton, around 1805. The White House Historical Association
During his early years in politics, Gallatin expressed misgivings as to how his contemporary Alexander Hamilton – the first United States Secretary of the Treasury – oversaw and managed federal finances. The two men became rivals as a result of their contrasting worldviews and opinions on economic policies. Although Gallatin was now a naturalized US citizen, he remained very Swiss and Genevan in his manners, opinions, and outlook – Gallatin especially despised profligacy, “big government,” and debt. In 1797, Gallatin became the leader of the Republican minority. He worked tirelessly to curb the powers of the executive and judicial branches of government, as he feared they would lead to corruption and the loss of personal freedoms. In doing so, he played an instrumental role in creating the Standing Committee on Finance (presently the Ways and Means Committee) to ensure the US Treasury's accountability to Congress. Gallatin’s outspoken, yet sensible views regarding finance earned him considerable respect in Washington D.C.

The whole of the Bill [of Rights] is a declaration of the right of the people at large or considered as individuals… It establishes some rights of the individual as unalienable and which consequently, no majority has a right to deprive them of.

Albert Gallatin

Financier and Diplomat par excellence

Gallatin was a strong supporter of and lifelong friend to Thomas Jefferson, and Jefferson appointed Gallatin as US Secretary of the Treasury in 1801 upon winning the presidency. Jefferson wrote in his private notes that Gallatin was "the only man in the United States who understands, through all the labyrinths Hamilton involved it, the precise state of the Treasury.” Jefferson was correct. Gallatin meticulously pursued fiscal policies that would rein in government expenditures, curb excessive military spending, and lower the national debt. Both Gallatin and Jefferson feared that the heated clash between Great Britain and France would spill over into a woefully unprepared and fiscally-insolvent United States. Gallatin’s financial schemes were arduous but successful – the US national debt declined from approximately $83 million USD to $45 million USD in just eleven years. President Jefferson even entrusted Gallatin to arrange the financing of the Louisiana Purchase through a bond issue, which was no easy feat as the acquisition cost the United States a staggering $15 million USD. The purchase of French Louisiana from Emperor Napoleon I did bring great prosperity and additional security to the United States, but Gallatin could not prevent another war between Great Britain and the United States.
Thomas Jefferson, 1800.
Thomas Jefferson, 1800. The White House Historical Association
Treaty between the United States of America and the French Republic ceding the province of Louisiana to the United States
Treaty between the United States of America and the French Republic ceding the province of Louisiana to the United States. National Archives
When James Madison won the 1808 presidential election, he retained Gallatin as Secretary of the Treasury, but he saw that Gallatin could prove useful in an entirely new capacity: Gallatin – a native-French speaker and well-tempered aristocrat – would make a trustworthy diplomat in Europe during a time of crisis. When the British declared war on the United States in 1812, Madison sent Gallatin to St. Petersburg, Russia to serve as a negotiator for a peace agreement mediated by Tsar Alexander I of Russia in 1813. As Alexander I was preoccupied by pursuing the retreating French army in Germany, Gallatin along with John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, and other American diplomats, relocated to Ghent to meet with British officials to negotiate peace. Both parties signed the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814, and Madison ratified the treaty in February 1815, which ended the War of 1812. This treaty had immense ramifications in helping lay the foundation of the “Special Relationship” between the United States and Great Britain. It also enabled the United States to avoid further and costly political entanglements with major European powers.
James Madison, 1816.
James Madison, 1816. The White House Historical Association
Ruins of the US Capitol after the British attempted to burn the building in the War of 1812.
Ruins of the US Capitol after the British attempted to burn the building in the War of 1812. Library of Congress
The signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814
The signing of the Treaty of Ghent in December 1814. Albert Gallatin is shown in the center (6th from the right). Smithsonian American Art Museum
President Madison offered Gallatin the option of reassuming his former position as Secretary of the Treasury upon his return to the United States, but Gallatin politely declined. His dear friend, John Jacob Astor, offered to establish a business with him, but Gallatin opted to become US ambassador to France instead. Gallatin served in this capacity faithfully from 1816-1823; he then served as US ambassador to Great Britain from 1826-1827. Ever the shrewd and calculating negotiator, he signed two treaties with Britain in 1818, which settled lingering border disputes, and he negotiated an extension of the joint Anglo-American control of Oregon Country. This was a happy and relatively quiet period in Gallatin’s life, and Gallatin’s family enjoyed living in Paris and London. Living in Europe brought Gallatin immense joy as he could finally return his beloved Geneva, and see old friends and colleagues on a regular basis. These personal visits brought him great personal satisfaction, and he remained in touch with friends and family in Geneva for the rest of his life.

The democratic process on which this nation was founded should not be restricted to the political process, but should be applied to the industrial operation as well.

Albert Gallatin
The infamous “Five Points” intersection in Manhattan, 1827.
The infamous “Five Points” intersection in Manhattan, 1827. The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Humanitarian Pursuits & Legacy

Gallatin returned to the United States in 1827, settled in New York City, and promptly retired from politics. In his old age, he returned to his schoolboy passions: philosophy, education, and foreign languages. Gallatin assumed the presidency of the New York branch of the second Bank of the United States from 1831-1839, and he assisted in founding New York University in 1831. Since his youth, Native American languages and cultures fascinated him; Gallatin had consistently advocated for Native Americans, insisting that they should be integrated into American society. Gallatin published two books on Native Americans – A Table of Indian Languages of the United States (1826) and Synopsis of the Indian Tribes of North America (1836) – and he is credited as the father of American ethnology for helping co-found the American Ethnological Society in 1843. Although no longer active in politics, Gallatin still made frequent public-speaking engagements. As a firm opponent of slavery, he was dismayed to hear the growing calls for war with Mexico in the 1840s, which would extend the power of the Southern slave-holding states westwards. He advocated for free trade, and for the construction of roads and canals across the United States to ensure economic prosperity and independence.
Gallatin's map of the areas of influence of North American Native American tribes around 1600
Gallatin's map of the areas of influence of North American Native American tribes around 1600. Created around 1836. Wikimedia
Until his dying days, Gallatin spoke out against fiscal irresponsibility and championed individual liberties. In that, he was unwavering and constant. Gallatin’s health declined in his mid-80s, and he died at the age of 88 on August 12, 1849. He is buried in the Trinity Church Cemetery in Manhattan's Financial District, not too far from his erstwhile rival, Hamilton. Gallatin was a man whose interests and abilities shaped an emergent nation. While perhaps lacking the charisma of Hamilton or the charm of Franklin, Gallatin’s genius lay in his vision for the United States – a nation unencumbered by debt and secured by the incontestable democratic rights of its citizenry. The positions Gallatin advanced in politics remain as compelling today as they were in his own lifetime. Moreover, Gallatin spanned and bridged two cultures. In many ways, Gallatin’s life can be viewed through the lens of the fabled “American dream.” He was a farmer, politician, financer, diplomat, and academic, who led a successful life by taking risks and successfully overcoming insurmountable challenges. On the other hand, Gallatin’s Swiss roots and Genevan tastes are undeniable – he was fiercely independent in mind and action, believing in individual autonomy, social moderation, and fair compromise based on mutual trust and the rule of law. His emphasis on factual data, rather than ideology, made him among the most pragmatic statesmen of the era. Though not as well-known as the other “Founding Fathers,” it is incontrovertible that Gallatin left an indelible legacy, which is omnipresent in the United States and reflected, to a large degree, in Switzerland too. His life thus merits further consideration and celebration by Swiss and Americans alike.
Albert Gallatin around 1848.
Albert Gallatin around 1848. Library of Congress

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