03/03/2011 06:34 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

NYU Founder's Mixed Record on Slavery and Race

In New York and Slavery: Times to Teach the Truth (SUNY Press, 2008), I wrote that much of New York City and the North's complicity with slavery and the trans-Atlantic slave trade had been erased from history. This post is inspired by an email I received from Marian Douglas-Ungaro.

Ms. Douglas-Ungaro is a Black American and a descendant of enslaved Africans. She emailed me after discovering that that Gallatin, Tennessee, where part of her family was enslaved, is named for a "PRO-SLAVERY & ANTI-BLACK Swiss immigrant who also became an influential Member of U.S. Congress from the state of Pennsylvania." She was particularly outraged because the New-York Historical Society is planning a March 3, 2011 celebration of Gallatin's life -- this year is the 250th anniversary of his birth -- without making any mention of his attitudes towards Africans.

Albert Gallatin's full name was Abraham Alphonse Albert de Gallatin and among other things, he helped to found New York University in 1831 when it was known as the University of the City of New York. A quick Wikipedia search showed that Gallatin's most notable achievement was as the longest serving United States Secretary of the Treasury in the country's history (1801-1814).

Gallatin immigrated to America in the early 1780s and briefly served in the military during the Revolutionary War. He later became a land speculator and a war profiteer with government contracts to produce muskets. Gallatin, Tennessee was named after him in 1802 because of his role as Secretary of the Treasury.

Ms. Douglas-Ungaro's charges against Gallatin are based on a speech he delivered in the House of Representatives in 1799 while a member of that body. I found a copy of the speech online, and although I share her indignation, I read the speech differently.

In the speech, Gallatin actually claimed to oppose slavery. "No man," he said, "wishes more than I do to see an abolition of slavery, when it can be properly effected." The key words here, of course, are "properly effected," and Gallatin was certainly not an abolitionist. Gallatin's anti-slavery claims were repeated a number of times during his career, particularly in his opposition to the annexation of Texas and the Mexican-American War. However, his claims to oppose slavery can also be read as racist attacks on the humanity of Africans, which was not uncommon among Whites during the antebellum era.

The primary thrust of the 1799 speech was to argue against independence for the former French colony of Saint-Domingue, which is now known as Haiti. Gallatin feared a "nation of freed slaves" would be the equivalent of letting loose "so many wild tigers on society." He warned, "If they were left to govern themselves, they might become more troublesome to us, in our commerce to the West Indies, than the Algerines ever were in the Mediterranean; they might also become dangerous neighbors to the Southern States, and an asylum for renegades from those parts."

To Gallatin, the Haitians were barbarians who would abandon civilization to live "by plunder and depredations." Gallatin also feared miscegenation and was concerned that "The General [Toussaint L'Overture] is black, and his agent here [a White man] is married to a black woman in this city."

In 1831, Gallatin left government behind and settled in New York City where he helped found New York University, became president of the National Bank, studied Native American ethnography, and served as President of the New-York Historical Society. He died in 1849 and was buried in the Trinity Church cemetery in lower Manhattan.

Gallatin certainly has a mixed record on slavery and racism that deserves closer scrutiny. However, what is even more peculiar in this case is the contemporary political nature of the Gallatin commemoration at the New-York Historical Society. The board of directors of the New-York Historical Society is dominated by Richard Gilder and Lewis Lehrman, two prominent rightwing philanthropists who have used their position there to add credibility to their views.

The event coincides with the release of a Gallatin biography, America's Swiss Founding Father (NYU Press) by Nicholas Dungan, and Dungan will be a featured speaker at the event. His book emphasizes, "Gallatin's fiscal conservatism and administrative excellence allowed him to finance the Louisiana Purchase through a bond issue and meet the exceptional financial challenges caused by European conflicts and the War of 1812, which sorely tested public finances." According to press releases, Dungan concludes, "Among many lessons of his career, Gallatin teaches us that public debt reduction requires unwavering political commitment to fiscal discipline."

What the press release leaves out is that Gallatin was not just an advocate for "debt reduction." In 1791, he opposed both an excise tax on whiskey as a source of national revenue and efforts by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton to suppress the Whiskey Rebellion by western farmers. His support for the Louisiana Purchase was also controversial as it greatly expanded the power of the national government in a way not clearly covered by the Constitution and it actually placed the country under an enormous debt burden. The one-sided report on his fiscal conservatism sounds more like a rally in support of the Governors of Wisconsin and New Jersey and their wars against unions and teachers, rather than a careful consideration of a man who had a checkered history on race and lived during the first Tea Party, but not this one.