Gregory May poured four years into researching and writing about the life and career of Albert Gallatin, secretary of the treasury under Thomas Jefferson and James Madison. Now “Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt” has been published by Regnery History, and May is busy giving interviews and book talks.
The genial author recently sat down at The Briary, the Rapidan farm he shares with his wife, Anna, to discuss his new book. With the sweep of fields and mountains outside his renovated stable office, he talked with enthusiasm about the man whose key role in early American financial policy required May to explain, in plain English, a subject few other historians have investigated in detail.
May, 64, is an international tax lawyer who has previously written on taxes and tax policy. He says Gallatin’s importance to the early Republic is overshadowed only by the presidents and Alexander Hamilton “because he reshaped American fiscal policy and set up the kind of treasury operations that continued throughout most of the 19th century.”
In a letter to Jefferson, Madison wrote that Gallatin, then a congressman, was “a real Treasure”—an apt compliment for a man who would eventually serve as secretary of the treasury for 12 years. May says the title of his book, “Jefferson’s Treasure,” is a play on words, since his book is “about two treasures: Gallatin who ran the Treasury and about the Treasury’s money.”
Although Gallatin may not be the subject of a Broadway musical like Hamilton is, he was just as much of a political rock star in his time. As proof, May points out that visitors to the U.S. Treasury in Washington, D.C., are greeted by a bronze statue of Hamilton at one entrance—and one of Gallatin at another.
What made Gallatin such a big deal? According to May, Jefferson and Madison opposed Alexander Hamilton’s consolidation of financial power within the federal government. To counter the Federalist philosophy that Hamilton embodied, they needed an expert on public finance to help devise and implement a viable alternative.
That expert was Gallatin, a Swiss immigrant and shrewd politician with a far better grasp of financial matters, in May’s estimation, than either of the two presidents he assisted.
Attorney turned historian
A native of Rockingham County, May grew up on a purebred cattle farm. He first learned about Gallatin when he was a history major at the College of William & Mary.
Many years later, after earning a Harvard law degree, clerking for the U.S. Supreme Court and becoming a partner in Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, an international corporate law firm, he circled back to the man whose hugely influential career in politics had long intrigued him.
He says that while there are other biographies of Gallatin, the most recent came out in the 1950s, “and even that biography, though very interesting, tends to be more of an account of his life than an attempt to put him in political context, to contextualize him as opposed to describing him.”
For students of Thomas Jefferson, May’s book offers a new window into his presidency. According to Henry Adams, whom May quotes in his book, “What Hamilton was to Washington, Gallatin was to Jefferson.” Jefferson depended on Gallatin to figure out how to pay off national debt and rein in the federal government’s fiscal power.
As May explains it, “There’s been surprisingly scant attention to Jeffersonian fiscal policy over the years. There are a couple of excellent books, but compared to the mountain of literature about Jefferson and the Jeffersonians, those books are surprisingly few.”
For “Jefferson’s Treasure,” May plowed through Gallatin’s papers on microfilm and read numerous archival documents and books relevant to his subject. But it was his many years as an international tax lawyer that gave him the edge when it came to 18th-century American monetary policy.
He says his background “helped a lot in understanding not only the Jeffersonian fiscal philosophy but just the numbers and following the documentary trail from their theories to their actual execution.”
With a self-effacing smile, he added, “Quite understandably, most people don’t have patience with going through that.”
“The value of history is …”
In May’s view, Gallatin beat the odds stacked against him when he first arrived from Switzerland.
“His rise as a French-speaking immigrant was very surprising because there was an enormous amount of American prejudice against the French throughout the 18th century and continuing into the 19th century, despite the alliance with France during the Revolutionary War,” he explained.
“I think the reason he rose in politics so quickly was because he was extraordinarily able, and he really stood out head and shoulders above everyone around him. Why he wanted to participate in politics is a more difficult thing to answer because he never explained it himself. But I think it boils down to, [he was] an incredibly bright guy who needed to keep himself extremely busy and found nothing more interesting than politics.”
He believes the value of “Jefferson’s Treasure” comes from its dissection of the political intrigue of the early Republic.
“I think the most important thing in the book,” he said, “is the description in chapter 6 of why Gallatin and the other Republicans wanted to undo Hamilton’s system. I tried to go down to first the intellectual level and then the more visceral level to understand their motivations and their thinking.”
Asked whether there are lessons readers might take from “Jefferson’s Treasure,” May sat back in his chair. His eyes gleamed behind his glasses as he gave a considered answer:
“Once history becomes relevant to current issues, it isn’t history anymore. The value of history is to inspire ourselves to think about issues rather than just to draw analogies that we can use to take sides about what’s happening now.”
“This is really a book about the failure of Gallatin’s fiscal policy—it looks at how high aspirations can translate into practical catastrophes. That’s the sort of thing history can teach us.”
Elaborating further, he said, “Gallatin institutionalized a culture of fiscal responsibility that characterized federal financial policy throughout the 19th century—and was a core part of the Jeffersonians’ lasting contribution to American politics and government.
“But the excessive frugality that Gallatin used to put the policy in place was a problem in its own time, because it left the country ill-prepared to protect its interest in the face of one of the biggest military conflicts in Atlantic history—the Napoleonic wars.”
The role of money in American history
Formerly of Alexandria, Greg and Anna May began spending weekends at The Briary after they purchased the farm in 2005. They became permanent residents after his retirement from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer in 2013.
These days, May relishes the life of full-time historian and writer. He said he reads four the eight books a week, all related to his research. His current project is about a Virginia family and their manumission of some 400 slaves during the 1830s and 1840s.
But Gallatin, whose canny visage gazes at him from the wall of his office, remains prominent in his mind as he gives talks on his new book, which recently received a favorable review from the Wall Street Journal.
May says he wrote “Jefferson’s Treasure” for “people who like history,” especially those who already know enough about early American history to appreciate Gallatin’s colorful career and the significance of the fiscal policy he crafted during Jefferson’s presidency.
Following the money, May believes, will illuminate “the political controversies of the early Republic much more clearly than the conventional stories that focus on foreign policy and the contest between French sympathizers and British sympathizers in the government.
“Because what really was at issue was money and the government’s finances, and until we understand that in a practical way, not just a theoretical way, we miss a big part of what was going on in the early Republic.”
Greg May will give a talk about his new book, “Jefferson’s Treasure: How Albert Gallatin Saved the New Nation from Debt,” at James Madison’s Montpelier at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 23. Seating is limited. For reservations, contact Karen Costello at firstname.lastname@example.org or 672-4370. Tickets cost $50 and include membership to Montpelier; the event is free for Montpelier members.