Picture a lonely 19-year-old European orphan enduring a slow journey across the Atlantic in 1780. He shivers on deck and grips the rail tightly as the great ship struggles against the ocean’s whims.

Like many immigrants before him, he longs for opportunity and a fresh start. But unlike the protagonist in so many narratives of this type, his coat isn’t tattered or frayed. His shoes have no holes. In fact, they’re of fine polished leather; his suit, impeccably tailored.

Indeed, when poet Emma Lazarus later appealed to the globe—on behalf of the Statue of Liberty—to send America its tired, poor, and huddled masses, she wasn’t talking about the likes of Albert Gallatin (1761-1849), born to an aristocratic family in Geneva, Switzerland. But his commitments to American independence, the fiscal security of its working class, the importance of cultural exchange, and the pioneering notion of education for all would make Gallatin a sort of benefactor for the millions who would eventually follow his path to the New World.

photo: U.S. Treasury building with Albert Gallatin Statue

A champion of Rousseau and Voltaire’s enlightenment philosophy and happy to be rid of Geneva traditionalism, Gallatin embraced the democratic spirit of the United States. He served in the Revolutionary Army, taught French at Harvard, was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1793, and in 1795 became a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. As House Majority Leader two years later, he inaugurated what would become the House Ways and Means Committee.

Gallatin’s mastery of public finance inspired Thomas Jefferson to appoint him Secretary of the Treasury in 1801, a role he filled through 1814, having been reappointed by James Madison. Gallatin was renowned for his pivotal diplomacy in leading negotiations for the Treaty of Ghent in 1814, thus ending the war between the U.S. and Great Britain. He was later appointed ambassador to France, ambassador to Great Britain, and—ever the Renaissance man—he even helped map out the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

But his work (like his legacy) was not nearly finished once he left politics. In his later years, in 1831, Gallatin would help found a small, non-denominational college—quite unusual for the time—down near city hall in Manhattan called the University of the City of New York. Around this time he also became one of the nation’s foremost experts on Native American languages and culture—founding the American Ethnological Society of New York (some dubbed him the “father of American ethnology"). Today there is a river named for him that runs through Wyoming and Montana, a town named for him about 100 miles north of New York City, and a statue of him that greets visitors to the U.S. Treasury Building in Washington, D.C.

The University of the City of New York, of course, would become NYU—where the School of Individualized Study, a lecture series, and a service medal given each Commencement all bear its founder’s name. But just what does Albert Gallatin mean to the NYU community of 2015? How might his actions speak to our collective and individual pursuits? 

Gallatin book

To gain some perspective on our founding father's 254th birthday—celebrated January 29, 2015—NYU Stories spoke with Nicholas Dungan, senior fellow in the Atlantic Council's Program on Transatlantic Relations and member of the board of directors for the New York Chapter of the Swiss-American Chamber of Commerce, who authored the book Gallatin: America's Swiss Founding Father (NYU Press) in 2010. 

Despite his achievements, Albert Gallatin is not a household name. What inspired you to write his biography?
After the Gulf War in 2003 there was a major rift between France and the U.S, and the French used the 250th anniversary of [Marquis de] Lafayette’s birth, in 2007, as a feel-good moment in repairing relation. In 2008, when I was leading the French-American Foundation, I was talking with some friends from the Swiss embassy. At that point it was kind of a low moment for Switzerland—the UBS crisis and all the scandals had just happened—and I said to them, "You know, you can also use this as an opportunity for public diplomacy." The other important thing was the 250th anniversary of Albert Gallatin’s birth was coming up. The Swiss government did a book tour around the country, but we also had some private and some larger public events—some mostly about the book, others mostly about contemporary issues.

So Gallatin the great diplomat was back at work after all these years?
Yes! I felt that Gallatin, like Lafayette actually, was a unique expression of the transatlantic relationship—the European-American relationship, which is something I care about dearly. I had a feeling that he was looking over my shoulder.

What would surprise people most about Gallatin?
He was the opposite of the American myth of the immigrant—those who come penniless to this beacon of liberty and all of a sudden America showers riches and prosperity on them. Gallatin came from a family that had been noble for half a millennium. At the age of 19, he was more highly educated—at the University of Geneva, which was founded by John Calvin—than virtually anybody in the U.S. would be. His headmaster and teacher there was one of the great stars of the Geneva Enlightenment, and consequently Gallatin ended up bringing a great deal of capital, which was intellectual, and personal, and moral, and ethical. He came, he gave, and he didn't take anything for himself. He gave a lot more to America than he got from America.

So this pedigree really helped shape American ideals?
This was one of the hardest points to get across to the American audience, because we think of Switzerland as a very sort of egalitarian, democratic place, but it absolutely was not that until 1848, when the Swiss adopted a constitution modeled on the U.S. Constitution. The fact is that Switzerland was a highly aristocratic society—and Geneva in particular—and this is one of the things that Gallatin actually rebelled against, and one of the reasons he said he left.

With so many talents, what do you think was his greatest contribution?
Gallatin's greatest achievement, despite everything he did as Secretary of the Treasury, was to negotiate the end of the War of 1812 in the Treaty of Ghent in a way that put the U.S. on par with the British Empire. The U.S. was able to expand on its own continent and expand its influence in its own hemisphere, without being troubled at all by the British Empire throughout the rest of the 19th century. That freedom Gallatin came to regret, because he didn't like what the U.S. became. The whole Jacksonian, violent side of the U.S. was something that he greatly objected to. He was a man of peace.

In 1848, he came out against war with Mexico. He said the U.S. has never expanded its territory by annexing areas by force, and as a matter of principle it shouldn't be doing things that way. By the time he gave that lecture against war with Mexico at the New York Historical Society, his voice was so faint that he could hardly be heard beyond the first row, but knowing this, he'd written up the text and distributed it to the publishers of various newspapers who printed the speech in full the next day.

And he was always evolving.
In an age when, first of all, people didn't necessarily live that long, and in an age where people tended to do the same thing, this was a man who constantly reinvented himself. At the age of 70, he moves to New York where his wife was originally from and he [becomes] founder and first president of the Council of NYU, becomes head of the New York Historical Society, becomes head of John Jacob Astor's bank, becomes an expert in Native American ethnology and linguistics…

His connection with NYU was inspired by the University of London and King's College London. He'd believed in education for all. He resigned as President of the Council of NYU after a year on the pretext of health, but it was actually because the Protestant clergy had hijacked the council and was turning the University in a direction he didn't believe in.

What lessons from Gallatin might apply most to NYU students today?
One, don't let anybody tell you what to think. Don't let anybody make decisions for you. Be the master of your own choices. When he disagreed with Jefferson, he told Jefferson. He was very polite, but there were several times when he just said "This is not what we're going to do."

The second thing, which is actually more complicated, is "Don't let the bastards get you down." You gotta stand up for your own beliefs. These things are very Swiss and very typical of Gallatin. There are multiple instances in his life where he stood up for what he believed in and said no, and there are many other times where he compromised because he thought it was the best way to get by. So the last thing is: Be flexible in pursuit of your larger goals.

Nicholas Dungan is currently working on a book, Why France Matters, for Andrew Wylie.