Illustration by Lauren Mortimer
He, too, was an orphan, came to the United States in his teens, served as secretary of the Treasury, is buried in Manhattan’s Trinity Church Cemetery—hey, how come he doesn’t get a Broadway musical written about him by Lin-Manuel Miranda?
While Alexander Hamilton may have bested Abraham Alfonse Albert Gallatin for posthumous applause and testimonials, Hamilton’s rags-to-riches story, to be fair, is probably more inspiring than that of the Swiss-born Gallatin, who came from great wealth and aristocracy. But Gallatin, one of New York University’s founders and the namesake for both its School of Individualized Study and online student portal, lived a life as breathtakingly pivotal and widely accomplished as any of the Founding Fathers.
Gallatin is our longest-tenured Treasury secretary—serving under Presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, he held the position more than twice as long as Hamilton—and was elected to both chambers of Congress (from Pennsylvania). That’s just for starters. Gallatin had his hand in a remarkable number of important moments and institutions in American history: he served in the Revolutionary Army; proposed what would become the Ways and Means Committee; helped negotiate an end to the War of 1812; founded the Second Bank of the United States; served as what is now House majority leader; helped the US government secure financing for the Louisiana Purchase; aided Lewis and Clark in mapping out their famous expedition (they repaid Gallatin’s counsel by naming one of the three forks in Three Forks, Montana, after him); managed somehow to be deeply involved in not one but two spirits-dubbed episodes (the Whiskey Rebellion and the Bourbon Restoration); served as US minister to both the United Kingdom and France; financed glassblowers; manufactured firearms (though not particularly well); taught French at Harvard; successfully argued for American jurisdiction over Britain to territory in the Pacific Northwest, the seed of the doctrine of Manifest Destiny; started what’s now the standard system for government borrowing…
If all that isn’t enough, Gallatin, also a linguist (why not?), has been called the Father of American Ethnology. He created a map showing where discrete Native American languages were spoken in North America—a project aided in part by what he learned from his friend John Ridge, a Cherokee tribal leader—and cofounded the American Ethnological Society.
Even his career hiccups were monumental: immediately after his election to the Pennsylvania Senate, politically motivated protests challenged whether Gallatin met the requirement of nine years of citizenship, and he was removed from office in under three months. A few years later, the Alien and Sedition Acts were passed—in part, Jefferson believed, because Federalists in Congress wanted to push an anti-Federalist like Gallatin from his position in the House of Representatives.
You would think a man of such staggering achievement would get some proper due. Some of Gallatin’s honors seem a tad marginal. His likeness can be found on money, but it’s the $500 note used in 1862–1863; he reappeared on a 1¼-cent stamp, in circulation from 1967 to 1973.
He is deservedly remembered at NYU, which he cofounded as the University of the City of New York in 1831. And it’s fitting that his name adorns a school whose charter celebrates the nexus between individual and cross-disciplinary achievement. Despite his highborn station (when traveling to America for the first time, Gallatin carried with him a letter of recommendation from Benjamin Franklin, thanks to family connections), he believed in access to nondenominational education for “the rising mercantile classes” during a time when higher education was available almost exclusively to the well-off. “It appeared to me impossible to preserve our democratic institutions and the right of universal suffrage,” wrote Gallatin, “unless we could raise the standard of general education and the mind of the laboring classes nearer to a level with those born under more favorable circumstances.”
Not surprising, perhaps, from a man who, despite his numerous contributions to strengthening and expanding early America, was decidedly against “empire building.”
Gallatin’s association with the university he founded did not end particularly well. After serving a year as the first president of the council of NYU, he resigned, claiming health reasons. In fact, he opposed the school’s direction, thanks to Protestant clergy who, in his opinion, had hijacked the council.
Hamilton got the bright lights. Then again, he (spoiler alert) had to get shot and killed in a pistol duel before his 50th birthday to make the story really work. Gallatin lived to the age of 88, died in Astoria, and rests in Trinity Church Cemetery, a handful of subway stops downtown from the university he gave the world almost 200 years ago. He can rest well knowing that the council was corrected and NYU is moving in the direction he originally intended.