Colleagues and Friends
Born in Geneva, Switzerland, Albert Gallatin came to America in 1780 at age 19, eager to observe the new experiment in republican democracy. Gallatin taught French at Harvard College before moving to Pennsylvania in 1784. He soon entered politics, serving as a delegate to the Harrisburg Convention in 1788 (a convention proposing amendments to the new U.S. constitution), and as a delegate to the Pennsylvania state constitutional convention in 1789. He was elected to the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1790. The Pennsylvania legislature elected him to the U.S. Senate in 1793, but Federalists in the Senate engineered his rejection on the grounds that he had not been a citizen for the required nine years. Gallatin argued that he had lived in the United States for thirteen years, and had taken an oath of allegiance to the Commonwealth of Virginia in 1785.
Gallatin won respect in western Pennsylvania by counseling moderation during the Whiskey Rebellion, a series of protests against a federal excise tax on whiskey. Pennsylvania voters elected him to the U.S. House of Representatives, where he served from 1795-1801. Fellow Congressman James Madison welcomed Gallatin, who was already known for his republican principles and for his keen understanding of public finance. Gallatin opposed what he considered to be excessive expenditures on the military, and spoke out strongly against Jay’s Treaty, which Madison agreed would put American trade at a disadvantage. When Madison retired in 1797, Gallatin took on Madison’s role as the leader of the emerging Republican party.
Jefferson tapped Gallatin as his secretary of the treasury in 1801, and Gallatin continued in this role into the Madison administration. (No treasury secretary before or since Gallatin has held the position longer.) Gallatin was able to decrease the amount of the federal debt during Jefferson’s term, despite the expense of the Louisiana Purchase and the repeal of the excise tax on whiskey. Gallatin and secretary of state Madison were Jefferson’s closest advisors. When Lewis and Clark explored the Louisiana Purchase and located the source of the Missouri River, they named its three tributaries the Jefferson, Madison, and Gallatin Rivers.
Although Gallatin opposed large military expenditures, he realized the likelihood of war with Great Britain and made plans to finance it during Madison’s presidency. Gallatin argued for renewal of the charter of the Bank of the United States, along with loans, customs duties, and taxes. Congress failed to renew the Bank charter or increase taxes, but did approve customs duties and allowed Gallatin to borrow funds to finance the War of 1812.
After twelve years as treasury secretary, Gallatin welcomed the opportunity to leave Madison’s cabinet for a diplomatic mission. When Russia offered to mediate peace between Great Britain and the United States, Madison named Gallatin to a three-member peace commission. The commission left for Russia before word reached them that the Senate had rejected Gallatin’s nomination. Meanwhile, Great Britain turned down the offer of Russian mediation, proposing direct talks instead, and Madison named Gallatin to a new five-member peace commission. Gallatin was an able commissioner, helping to reconcile differences among his fellow commissioners in order to arrive at a treaty acceptable to all parties. After negotiating the Treaty of Ghent to end the war, Gallatin helped negotiate a commercial treaty with Great Britain. Gallatin declined Madison’s offer of another Cabinet appointment, though he served as minister to France from 1816 to 1823, and as minister to Great Britain from 1826-27.
Gallatin and his wife Hannah Nicholson Gallatin became personal friends of the Madisons as well as political associates. When Gallatin left on the peace mission, he took both his son and Madison’s stepson Payne Todd as unofficial secretaries. When Todd spent three months in Paris during a lull in negotiations, Gallatin admonished him in the voice of a surrogate father: “Permit me therefore to urge the propriety of your leaving Paris where you have remained long enough for every useful purpose, and of joining us here [in Ghent] ... I would be very sorry that either your property should be injured or your time improperly wasted by your trip to Europe, and you must ascribe my anxiety solely to my attachment for you, your mother, & Mr. Madison.”
Dolley meanwhile shared her worry with Hannah during weeks and months with little news from their absent family members: “alass we have nothing from Europe, except from the News-papers – This does not prevent our hopes of peace, & the spedy return of your dear Husband, with our sons…”
During the Gallatins’ time in France, Hannah offered to purchase French fabrics and other items for the Madisons. Dolley wrote that she was “now about to accept the favor you offer me of makeing purchases for me. I will confine myself to a very few—Mr Madison has proposed that I ask you to chuse for me three Curtains suited to a Country Drawing room of silk, trimed, & with cornishes—all—of reasonable price--our 3 windows are near together & form 3 door’s—The colour I leave to you— let it be red or varigated – with eighteen Chairs & two small sophas suited to the curtains, & of cheap price.”
Hannah answered, “I shall certainly my dear friend attend to the commission you have given me to make your purchases when I arrive in Paris, we shall have to get furniture of the same kind that you want for ourselves and it shall be done altogether, As to the cheap part, I fear, for it seems to be well understood in this place, that every thing is monstrous dear in Paris—and that cheap and handsome cannot be united, but we will promise to do our best.”
Gallatin relocated to New York City after leaving public service. He became president of the National Bank and a founder of New York University, where the Gallatin School of Individualized Study is named for him. Gallatin’s statue also stands outside the United States Treasury Building in Washington.
The Gallatins Visit Montpelier
In August 1809, Albert and Hannah Galllatin visited Montpelier. The couple arrived on Saturday, August 19 and with the Madisons, took a day-trip to Monticello on August 24.
"Mr. and Mrs. Gallatin reached us on saturday last; and in fulfillment of their promise to you propose to set out for Monticello, tomorrow morning. We are preparing to accompany them."
James Madison to Thomas Jefferson, August 23, 1809