Gallatin 1809 Letter

Not long ago, we shared with you the gift of L. Dennis and Susan Shapiro to the Huntington Library.

The Shapiro collection includes letters and manuscripts penned by United States presidents from George Washington to Barack Obama. It is particularly rich in primary sources for historians of the Early Republic. Not only does it contain letters of the presidents but also letters and manuscripts by their friends, families, advisors, and members of their administrations. For example, it contains a substantial number of unpublished letters by Albert Alphonse Gallatin (1761–1849). Gallatin was a Swiss-born American politician, diplomat, and scholar who served as the Secretary of the Treasury (1801–1814) under presidents Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.

One letter in the Shapiro collection, is a seemingly routine communication that Gallatin wrote on July 14, 1809 to William Ellery, the collector of Customs in Newport, Rhode Island. What could a letter on customs have to interest us you ask? Further reading of the text however highlights the toxic convergence of race, slavery, and privilege.  As Dennis Shapiro notes, “This really gets at what collecting is about. On the face of it this letter from a Secretary of the Treasury to a tax collector in the early 19th century hardly stands out… Digging deeper brings (as the late Librarian of Congress James Billington would say) “the champagne from the bottle”.”

For the entire story of this letter. Click here.