New-York Historical Society

Albert Gallatin — a Big (Swiss) Cheese

Testament de Noble Jean Gallatin, 13 September 1360. Albert Gallatin Papers, MS 238

“Forgotten” — undeservedly — is the adjective most commonly applied to Swiss-born statesman Albert Gallatin, whose personal papers reside in the N-YHS library.

Albert Gallatin. Daguerreotype, circa 1840. Albert Gallatin Papers, MS 238.

Born to a highly regarded but not particularly wealthy family in Geneva in 1761, he left nineteen years later to seek his fortune in America while the budding nation was still in the throes of war. Though too young to play a direct role in the country’s founding, as a congressman and secretary of the treasury under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison he contributed immensely to the formative years of the early republic. Over the course of a long career (he lived to eighty-eight), he distinguished himself in various roles outside politics as well, as a map collector, ethnologist and student of Indian languages, founder of New York University, and president of the New-York Historical Society.

Although his accomplishments can’t all be recollected here, one of the most telling examples of both his contribution to America and perhaps a suggestion as to why he is so little known today is his role in the Louisiana Purchase. Despite being a landmark event in the nation’s history rarely does Gallatin’s name come up even though it was his financial acumen that ensured the fifteen-million-dollar purchase could be made (even after inheriting a treasury mired in debt).

Facilitating this purchase was certainly no small contribution, among many, to the course of American history. At the pinnacle of his political career, in fact, Gallatin was one of an American triumvirate – alongside Thomas Jefferson as president and James Madison as secretary of state. It was highly fitting then that on July 28, 1805, upon arriving at the headwaters of the Missouri River, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark named the three rivers after these same men.

"'The Three Forks' -- Madison, Gallatin and Jefferson Rivers", Montana and Yellowstone National Park, 1881.

If you find yourself in Geneva, Switzerland before 17 March 2012, you might wish to see the Bibliothèque de Genève’s exhibit Albert Gallatin, A Genevan at the Root Source of the American Dream, which features documents from the Albert Gallatin Papers at the New-York Historical Society.

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