Earlier this week I found myself walking around the streets of Geneva’s so-called Vieille Ville – a beautiful part of the city whose name can be rendered in somewhat prosaic English as the Old Town. This wonderful rabbit warren of narrow alleyways and winding streets which surround the city’s imposing St Pierre Cathedral has long been one of my favourite parts of Geneva, and I take every opportunity I can to wear out the soles of my shoes on its unforgiving cobblestones.
On this occasion I was deep in conversation with a friend, passing back and forth between streets that were well known to me and passageways I can never remember having seen before. Eventually we passed, at 28 Grand’ Rue, the house where Jorge Luis Borges was residing when he died, a literary career commemorated with a simple yet impressive white stone plaque.
My friend was suddenly reminded of an accusation she had once heard levelled at our home town – namely, that the bourgeois, placidly bureaucratic Geneva could not have produced many artistic souls. Creativity, this anonymous prosecutor had claimed, must be born of deprivation. Not of idyllic lakeside vistas and flavourless milk chocolate.
Ludicrous! We cried, incensed. How dare these faceless barbarians call our city’s artistic pedigree into question? The home of Rousseau and Calvin? The city in whose neighbouring mountainous villages Charles Chaplin and Peter Ustinov had chosen to pass away?
Confronted with this list of reformation-era philosophers and elderly creatives whose best days, let us be frank, were behind them, it occurred to us that the case for the defence could use some bolstering. And where better to turn to for evidence than the source of Geneva’s wealth and power – its ever-strengthening currency?
The figure represented on the back of the 10 franc note, Jean le Corbusier, artistic though he may have been is likely to be known only to fans of architecture amongst you. The figure on the back of the 50 franc note is so obscure as to have totally faded from my memory. Had I but padded out my wallet before heading into town, I could have known that the wrinkled, elongated figure peering out from the back of the 100 franc note is that of Alberto Giacometti – a sculptor well-known for his depiction of other wrinkled, elongated figures.
Each of us still unable to come up with any names the other had heard of, we began to pay particular attention to the plaques and memorials on the walls around us. And so it was that our eyes were struck by the following beauty, well hidden in an obscure corner of an isolated side street.
Even those of you fortunate enough to have reached the age of maturity without having received any formal instruction in French should be able to make out much of what this stone engraving is trying to get across.
In this house, it begins, was born Albert Gallatin. A citizen of Geneva, an American man of state, a principal something-or-other of the American constitution and Secretary of the Treasure.
Most of that syntax can quite easily be cleaned up, and it doesn’t take too much reasoning ability to work out that the last bit should read ‘Secretary of the Treasury’ rather than the infinitely more whimsical ‘Treasure’. But what does that word ‘redacteur’ in the second line actually mean? Whatever it is, this Gallatin fellow was the principal one for the United States Constitution. Could it mean ‘copyist’? Perhaps ‘printer’? ‘Proofreader’? On a more boring note, it could mean ‘binder’ or ‘person who licked the tips of the quill pens before the document was signed’. Any of these struck us as more likely than, say, ‘writer’ or ‘editor’.
But, it turns out, ‘editor’ is exactly what the word redacteur means. This plaque has been erected by the city of Geneva to commemorate the man they call the principal editor (or, to be fair, ‘a’ principal editor) of the US Constitution.
The possibilities for humour here were irresistible. We could not help but imagine a young Albert Gallatin, in powdered wig and high knee-breeches, serving coffee in the offices where the Constitution was due to be signed.
“Who is this damned document for?” roars Thomas Jefferson, warming his hands by the burning tea-leaves in the grate.
“I believe it is for the people of the United States, Thomas” says James Madison as a gentle rebuke, before resuming his invention of the rules of baseball at the French windows.
“The people?” bellows Jefferson in the direction of the quaking Albert Gallatin. “Did he say the people?”
“Oui,” comes the timorous reply, “the people of the United States”.
“Excellent,” says Jefferson, proferring the tip of his quill pen for Gallatin to moisten with his tongue. He begins to scrawl across the top of his parchment, reading the words aloud to himself as he does so. “We”, he begins, “The People”, he continues, “Of the United States.” He stops. “What do you think, Jimmy?”
“Excellent work, Thomas. What do you say we send the new boy out to get us some more coffee?”
Sadly, however, our delicate fancy was to be brutally crashed on the rocks of reality. It seems that Albert Gallatin, far from being the timid intern whose exaggerated letters home made his day job seem more glamorous than he had any right to claim, was in fact one of America’s most influential early statesmen.
Perhaps appropriately for a man who would have come a close second in an Ebenezer Scrooge look-alike contest (losing out only to this gentleman from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast), he was in fact America’s longest-serving Secretary of the Treasury. A Senator and Congressman, he became the House Majority leader for the eye-wateringly-named Democratic-Republican party (a party which has since lost the Democratic element – of its name, at least), and a candidate for the Vice-Presidency. Along the way, of course, he helped finance the Lewis and Clark expedition into the great unknown of the American West, set up the University of New York City and has been hailed as the father of American ethnography.
All things considered, that’s not such a bad career for a little boy from the back streets of Geneva.