JEFFERSON’S TREASURE: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt

The untold story of how Albert Gallatin abolished internal revenue taxes, slashed federal spending, and repaid half of the national debt—undoing the work of Alexander Hamilton and setting American fiscal policy for the next century.


George Washington had Alexander Hamilton. Thomas Jefferson had Albert Gallatin. In the fight to set fiscal policy for the new American nation, Gallatin won.

To this day, the fight over fiscal policy lies at the center of American politics. Jefferson’s champion in that fight was Albert Gallatin—a Swiss immigrant who served as Treasury secretary for twelve years because he was the only man in Jefferson’s party who understood finance well enough to reform Alexander Hamilton’s financial system.

Gallatin first came to national attention as a rebel spokesman in the tax uprising later called the Whiskey Rebellion. Despite anti-immigrant bias and Hamilton’s attempts to destroy him, he became the Congressional leader of the Republican opposition during John Adams’s administration. After the Republicans elected Jefferson as president, Gallatin took charge of the Treasury—the largest and most powerful department of government. By the time Gallatin left office, he had undone Hamilton’s system and set the country’s finances on a bold new republican course.

The Jefferson administration’s enduring achievement was to contain the federal government by restraining its fiscal power. That was Gallatin’s work. He abolished internal revenue taxes in peacetime, slashed federal spending, and repaid half of the national debt. Heavy spending during the War of 1812 severely tested Gallatin’s ambitious system, but his reforms survived. They set the pattern for federal finance until the Civil War and created a culture of fiscal responsibility that survived well into the twentieth century.

In this long overdue biography, internationally-known tax expert Gregory May takes a penetrating look at Albert Gallatin’s rise to power, his tumultuous years at the Treasury, and his enduring influence on American fiscal policy. By probing deeply into the evidence, the book exposes the visceral motives behind the Republican financial reforms. The book also shows why Gallatin more than Hamilton was the nation’s financial founder. Not until the federal government adopted centralized banking and deficit spending as matters of policy a century later did Hamilton’s system take hold. That Hamilton is now better remembered than Gallatin is a testament to how much the American nation has changed.

Reviews & Praise

Praise for Jefferson’s Treasure

"From the 1790s through the 1840s Albert Gallatin, an immigrant from Europe who became a congressman, Treasury Secretary, and diplomat, was a leading player in American affairs. Gregory May's deeply researched and engagingly written book is much more than a biography. Via the long life of Gallatin, May gives us an insightful account of the major political, economic, and financial problems the young United States faced from the Washington administration through the Mexican War. Greg May’s JEFFERSON’S TREASURE is a tour de force!” — Richard Sylla, author of ALEXANDER HAMILTON: THE ILLUSTRATED BIOGRAPHY; Professor Emeritus of Economics, New York University; and chairman, Museum of American Finance

“A real Treasure,” wrote James Madison to his friend Jefferson early in his acquaintance with the proud Genevan, then an even-tempered congressman, who would go on to manage the national economy during their two presidencies. As treasury secretary, Albert Gallatin pointed the modest young republic to a debt-free condition, and founding era history remains incomplete without him. His admiring biographer Henry Adams knew that in 1879. But until Gregory May’s expansive new life of Gallatin, no scholar had ever fully plumbed the depths of his mind and fleshed out his personality, nor conveyed his politics in such lively prose. At last, he emerges from the shadow of presidents.”  –– Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, coauthors of MADISON AND JEFFERSON

“Gregory May’s masterful new biography restores Albert Gallatin to his rightful place in the history of the new republic. Gallatin was the indefatigable and indispensable Republican, the Treasury Secretary who made Hamiltonian finance serve Jeffersonian ends.  May achieves the rare balance between sympathetic engagement and critical detachment that can make good biography into illuminating history.  Jefferson's Treasure will be recognized as an important contribution to our understanding of the American founding.” –– Peter S. Onuf, University of Virginia; coauthor (with Annette Gordon-Reed) of “MOST BLESSED OF THE PATRIARCHS: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination

Jefferson's Treasure provides a masterful portrait of one of America’s least likely founding players, Swiss-born Albert Gallatin, America’s longest-serving Treasury Secretary who balanced the Jeffersonian crusade for debt reduction and small budgets with the needs of the emerging American nation.  Gregory May's compelling account employs Gallatin’s financial wizardry, statesmanship, and deep humanity as a powerful lens for viewing the nation’s formative decades.” ––  David O. Stewart, author of MADISON’S GIFT: Five Partnerships that Built America, and SUMMER OF 1787: The Men Who Invented the Constitution

"With careful research, keen insights, and clear writing, Gregory May recovers the extraordinary life of Albert Gallatin, a resourceful immigrant, canny politician, and financial wizard of the early republic.  A worthy rival to Alexander Hamilton, Gallatin is now overdue for his own Broadway musical.” -- Alan Taylor, author of AMERICAN REVOLUTIONS: A Continental History, 1750-1804