Oliver Wolcott, Jr. was the new nation’s second Treasury Secretary, the second of two men to serve in that position under President George Washington, and the first of two men to serve under President John Adams. Born in Litchfield, Connecticut in 1760 to a man who would later sign the Declaration of Independence, Wolcott graduated from Yale in 1778 despite serving in the Continental Army from 1777 to 1779. He later studied law and passed the bar in 1781 but spent much of the 1780s trying to disentangle wartime accounts. He became Connecticut’s state comptroller in 1789, then moved to the new federal government, first as auditor, then as comptroller, and finally, after Hamilton’s resignation, as Treasury Secretary.
With continued advice from Hamilton, Wolcott attempted to run small surpluses whenever possible and succeeded in doing so in 1796, 1797 and 1798, and ran an almost perfectly balanced budget in 1800. As a result, the nominal national debt was virtually unchanged over his tenure, starting at $83.76 million in 1795 and ending at $83.04 million in 1800. Because of the rapidly expanding and growing economy of the 1790s, however, the real national debt dropped from 22% to 17.5% of GDP during his term despite the fact that government expenditures as a percent of GDP grew from just under 2% to over 2.25% over that same span.
After leaving Adams’s cabinet at the end of 1800 due to the withering attacks of Jeffersonians, Wolcott ran a mercantile operation in New York until retiring to his Litchfield farm in 1815. In 1817, he started a decade-long stint as governor of Connecticut, a position previously held by his father and grandfather. He died in 1833, the final surviving member of Washington’s cabinet, in New York City but was buried in Litchfield.
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