Financial History Issue 127 (Fall 2018) - Page 22

By Gregory May Albert Gallatin by Rembrandt Peale, 1805. Albert Gallatin and a Nation Free from Debt 20    FINANCIAL HISTORY  |  Fall 2018  | When Thomas Jefferson appointed Albert Gallatin to be Secretary of the Treasury in the spring of 1801, the Treasury was by far the largest department of the fed- eral government. Seventy-three of the 127 executive officials in Washington worked for the Treasury, and the 1,200 revenue officers in the rest of the country were the government’s largest civilian work force. The Washington staff worked in a hast- ily constructed brick building just east of the President’s House, where the vastly larger Treasury building stands today. The two-story structure had 16 rooms on each floor, laid out along intersecting central hallways, and it already felt crowded. A fire that began behind a shoddily-built fireplace had destroyed some records a few months earlier, and Jeffersonian Republi- cans muttered that the Federalists had set the fire to stop an inquiry into the outgo- ing Federalist administration’s misuse of federal money. The House of Representa- tives had investigated. But because the flames had destroyed the relevant account books, the evidence of shoddy construc- tion had not dispelled suspicion. The Republican opposition to the Fed- eralist regime had arisen from more fun- damental suspicions about what went on at the Treasury, and it was clear that Galla- tin would play a central role in the new government. Jefferson epitomized the new administration’s objectives in his call for “a government rigorously frugal & simple, applying all the possible savings of the public revenue to the discharge of the pub- lic debt.” Whether Jefferson’s administra- tion could keep that promise depended on Gallatin. He was the only leading Republi- can with demonstrated expertise in public finance. And although Federalists and even some Republicans criticized him for jockeying his way into the Treasury post, none of them doubted his ability or offered an alternative candidate. Gallatin and his family took a house on Capitol Hill, and Gallatin usually rode to the Treasury along the ridge down F Street to avoid the soggy causeway called Pennsylvania Avenue. His physical appearance did not impress anyone. He was 40 years old, and a lean man of above average height. But he had never been handsome, and he was now growing bald and a bit stooped. A Federalist senator complained that he was “very inattentive