José Bernardo de Gálvez Gallardo, visitor general of public finance in New Spain, the second son of Antonio Gálvez y Carbajal and Ana Gallardo Jurado, was born in Macharaviaya, Málaga, Spain, on January 2, 1720. His initial interests, under the influence of the bishop of Málaga, led him to the seminary, but he soon eschewed a priestly calling. After completing a degree in law, Gálvez gained recognition as a successful attorney in Madrid. On August 2, 1750, he married Lucía Romet y Pichelin, his first wife having died without issue.
Gálvez's legal accomplishments won him a royal appointment on November 25, 1764, as a civil and criminal justice (alcalde de casa y corte) of Castile. In that capacity he came to know the influential Conde de Aranda and Conde de Campomanes. After the visitor general designate of New Spain died unexpectedly, in February 1765 José de Gálvez received that post as well as honorary membership in the Council of the Indies.
As visitor general of public finance, he spent six years in New Spain (1765–71). His overarching powers were such that he could make recommendations on general colonial policy and its reform-recommendations that could not be contravened even by the viceroy. Initially, Gálvez found himself at loggerheads with the Marqués de Cruillas, who delayed reform for a time. But the recalcitrant viceroy was replaced in 1766 by the more cooperative Marqués de Croix. In the second half of his six-year sojourn, Gálvez turned his attention to the northern frontier of New Spain. His specific reform programs included overhauling revenue collection, strengthening crown monopolies, and expelling the Jesuits from the viceroyalty. The visitor general also initiated the permanent settlement of Alta California.
When Gálvez returned to Spain in 1772, he assumed various responsibilities as an honorary member of the Council of the Indies and performed special services for King Charles III. In 1776 Don José assumed the prestigious post of minister of the Indies, from which he could direct the Bourbon reforms that affected the Spanish Empire from Argentina to Texas. Changes in New Spain included establishment of the Provincias Internas (1776), a huge, shifting governmental unit that included Texas for the remainder of the colonial period. In the previous year Gálvez married María de la Concepción Valenzuela, and from that union came his sole heir, María Josefa.
Throughout much of his adult life José de Gálvez suffered from serious mental illnesses; one attack left him incapacitated during his visitation in Sonora (1769–70). He died on June 17, 1787, of accidente, a polite term of that age for self-destructive insanity. His distinguished kinfolk included an older brother, Matías de Gálvez, who served as viceroy of New Spain, and a more famous nephew in Louisiana and Texas, Bernardo de Gálvez, who succeeded his father as viceroy in 1785.