Nicholas Dungan

 

On his book Gallatin: America’s Swiss Founding Father

Cover Interview of May 18, 2011

In a nutshell

Albert Gallatin contributed as fully as any other statesman to the welfare and independence of the young United States, yet he has been largely forgotten by history.

Born in Geneva in 1761, the product of an old and noble family, educated to the highest standards of the Swiss and French-speaking tradition, he immigrated to America at age nineteen and spent almost seven decades thereafter in the service of his adopted country.  Gallatin was a politician and diplomat as well as a public intellectual.

His political career included positions as a Pennsylvania legislator, a U.S. Senator, a member of the House of Representatives, and Secretary of the Treasury under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.  Still today, he remains the longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury in U.S. history.

Gallatin then negotiated the end of the War of 1812 with the British, and became U.S. ambassador to France and thereafter to Britain.

At age 70 he moved to New York and undertook a third career.  He became president of John Jacob Astor’s bank, a founder and first President of the Council of New York University, President of the New-York Historical Society, an expert in Native American ethnology and linguistics and founder of the American Ethnological Society.

Albert Gallatin’s is the opposite of the stereotypical American immigrant story.  Far from arriving destitute and ignorant, he brought the highest standards of civilized Europe to the young America that he went on to serve.

Gallatin made an enormous difference to the course of American history.  As Secretary of the Treasury—then the only domestic department of the U.S. Government—he advised President Jefferson on the Louisiana Purchase, which doubled the size of the United States.  As negotiator of the Treaty of Ghent, he not only ended the War of 1812 with the British but put the United States on an equal footing with Great Britain for the first time.  This is how the United States was able to expand its territory across its own continent and enhance its influence throughout its own hemisphere—during a 19th century in which the sun never set on the British Empire.