Nicholas Dungan

 

On his book Gallatin: America’s Swiss Founding Father

Cover Interview of May 18, 2011

The wide angle

Gallatin’s life demonstrates the value of continental European heritage in American history.  His statue stands in front of the United States Treasury building, next to the White House, within eyeshot of the statues of Lafayette, Rochambeau, von Steuben, and Kosciusko.  These were the European Founding Fathers of the United States.


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Albert Gallatin, James Earle Frazer, 1947. (AgnosticPreachersKid, Wikimedia Commons.)

Gallatin’s story also demonstrates how much the U.S. was caught up, in the early years of the Republic, in the complexities of European politics and diplomacy—particularly squeezed between France and Britain.

Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison all suffered significant historical reverses because of their inability to resist French and British power and interests.  Only when the Treaty of Ghent put an end to the War of 1812—thanks to Gallatin’s negotiating skill—did America achieve genuine independence.

I must have been personally sensitive to this trans-Atlantic significance of Gallatin’s story—I was raised in the United States but spent most of my adult life living in Europe, principally Paris and London, until I returned to the U.S. in 2004.

Shortly after my return to America, I was recruited as president of the French-American Foundation in New York.  During the 250th anniversary year of the birth of Lafayette, in 2007, I saw how much of a contribution could be made to French-American relations by celebrating such a symbolic historical milestone.  Then, in late 2008, walking past Gallatin’s statue in front of the Treasury set me to wondering whether a similar opportunity for rapprochement and remembrance did not exist for Switzerland.

It turned out that Gallatin’s 250th birthday anniversary would occur on January 29, 2011.  So I suggested to the Swiss diplomats I knew that they capitalize on this occasion—and that I write the first new biography of Gallatin to appear in the United States in a generation.

Gallatin’s achievements, including the Louisiana Purchase and the Treaty of Ghent, constitute his practical legacy and are of great import in historical terms.  But his life and work resulted also in a philosophical legacy—one that has enduring, indeed contemporary, relevance.

As a politician, Gallatin was consistently an advocate of budgetary responsibility and fiscal discipline.  He hated debt—part of his Geneva heritage—and, in his first seven years as Secretary of the Treasury, he paid off nearly half the national debt of the United States.

Both as a legislator and as Secretary of the Treasury, Gallatin consistently took an interest in education and in infrastructure.  His interest in education was later evidenced also by his co-founding New York University.

Gallatin believed in government that not only refuses to burden future generations but, in fact, invests for the long-term in people and infrastructure.  He sought to make the new country a better place for its future generations—a philosophical legacy of great policy significance in our time.

Another aspect of Gallatin’s philosophical legacy arises from his career in diplomacy: he negotiated in a multi-polar world in which the United States often did not have an advantage over its adversaries.  Many of Gallatin’s most successful negotiations resulted from an awareness of the limits of power—also a philosophical legacy of great policy significance in our time.

Although Gallatin participated in creating the circumstances in which America became free to assume its manifest destiny, he privately deplored aspects of the Jacksonian America that such virtually unbridled freedom made possible.

And now, in the 21st century, many thoughtful Americans are wondering whether those Jacksonian values—resolving differences through conflict, assuming that resources are unlimited, pursuing American exceptionalism—are relevant or, indeed, even appropriate to our present and future challenges.