I hate the way that the forefathers are portrayed in our educational system as chalky statues, devoid of human emotions and passions outside of a desire for independence from Britain and a feel for liberty. They were all too human, and, being very powerful, often larger than life. With that in mind, I turn to one of my favorite forefather episodes, a young United States' first political sex scandal.
Immediately, you might (if not for the title of this post) think Washington – given all the “Father of the Country” jokes, or Benjamin Franklin, with his lascivious, but possibly unrequited reputation, or even Thomas Jefferson, who was often on the hunt, but the honor actually belongs to that busy policy wonk and usually dedicated family man, Alexander Hamilton, who face decorates our ten dollar bill.
Hamilton started life in a low place, being the child of an unwed mother, which, at the time was quite a big deal. When of age, he made up for his savaged pride by becoming every bit the ladies man, and making his way through the hearts of young women in the revolutionary age with the same flair as he led the charge at Yorktown. Hamilton was filled with love, often perhaps, inappropriate. Some of his letters to other men were so passionate that they were later destroyed by his family. Although expressions of affection between men were far more acceptable then than now, these letters were especially so. His letters to his sister-in-law were also highly suggestive, and, again, the family’s censorship prevents us from telling the difference between friendly flirtation or an actual affair.
However, he was soon enough stung by cupid’s arrow and became engaged and then married a young beauty, Elizabeth Schuyler, daughter of an important general in the war, and a very wealthy man. They were married in 1780 and soon began their family, eventually having eight children in all.
After a successful career during the Revolutionary War as an aide to Washington, leading the last great infantry charge, and having tremendous influence in fomenting the constitutional convention and getting it ratified, Hamilton became Secretary of the Treasury under Washington and was particularly influential in establishing the direction of our financial affairs. But, who cares about that stuff? Let’s talk sex.
Unfortunately for Hamilton, sometime in the Summer of 1791, he had a visit at home from a 23 year old woman by the name of Maria (probably pronounced Mariah) Reynolds who laid a tale upon him of being down on her luck. Her husband, she said, was not only cruel, but had left her for another woman. She needed money to return home. Actually, it turns out she came from quite a respectable New York family and was related by marriage to the Livingstons, one of America’s foremost families. It seems likely that Hamilton might have known some of them. In any event, she no doubt laid it down thick and Hamilton was quite easily taken in by young woman's tales of woe.
It is easy to see Hamilton, a bit of an egomaniac although a decent man for the most part, being flattered by her appeal to “his humanity” and perhaps affected by her New York origins. Perhaps it had more to do with other emotions. However, most of this stuff, we get from him, and perhaps he lied. Hard to say, and we will return to that possibility later.
He let her know that he found her situation “very interesting” but also that it was not the best time to talk. By this, he simply meant, his wife, the lovely Eliza, was home. So, he proposed to bring her some money that night at her place. And so he did.
It is hard to believe that he didn’t have a nefarious purpose in going to her house out of sight of his wife. But he puts it a different way. According to Hamilton, he went to her home and gave her money. She was pleased. Hamilton later told us: “Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable”.
It was not a one night stand. That summer, Eliza took the children to her father’s home near Albany, leaving the hardworking Secretary of State at home alone. He filled that loneliness with Maria Reynolds. However, it was not long before she told told him that she was back with her husband.
According to Maria, her husband had made money speculating in U.S. securities. This might have triggered an alarm in Hamilton’s mind, although he never said so. Buying and selling the securities was in Hamilton’s bailiwick as Secretary of the Treasury. It was also a very controversial issue whether the beneficiaries of the securities should be the veterans they were originally issued to or the speculators who bought them. It was one of the first national issues that Hamilton and Jefferson, Secretary of State, battled over.
Soon, in what must have been an awkward occasion, Hamilton met James Reynolds himself. It is also possible that Hamilton knew him or his family, although again it is far from clear. He was told by Maria that he was being presented to her husband as her beneficent savior. What Hamilton learned from the meeting should really have set alarm bells ringing. Reynolds was getting information from a person within Hamilton’s own department, a fraudulent character, William Duer, who would eventually end up in prison.
But Hamilton must also have been relieved when Reynolds seemed grateful for Hamilton aid to his wife. It appears he was actually grateful, but not for the reason Hamilton foolishly believed. Advising Hamilton that he was leaving on a trip, he asking if he could have a job upon his return with Hamilton’s department.
Hamilton was, of course, torn between loyalty to his wife and the fear of being caught with the manipulations of his lover. Later, writing about it, Hamilton said that whenever he began to drift away from her, Maria would either complain that her husband was abusing her or she would threaten to tell Hamilton’s wife. She claimed a desperate love for him and even threatened suicide.
It was all, apparently, a ruse, although Maria may have not been very much in control either. Someone who knew her wrote that she had severe mood swings, sometimes professing deep love for her husband and then complaining that he forced her to prostitute herself to famous people so that they could wheedle money out of them. She was of “innocent countenance” and able to assume an “endless variety of shapes”.
Hamilton had another problem. His own wife wanted to come home. He had to write her and suggest that she not come home, as if he were very concerned for her health. He used the fact that it was still yellow fever season, a deadly disease that both of them suffered from during their lives. Because people, even the forefathers, are complex and can hold contradictory thoughts in their head, let’s be generous and say he was concerned about that too. But, still, it is difficult to read him calling her his “angel” and the like in letters when he was having his fling with Maria. Whatever his feelings were, he was clearly duplicitous when she said she was coming home soon. He quickly wrote to her: “Let me know beforehand your determination that I may meet you at New York”. He certainly didn't need her catching him in the act.
No amount of justification by a marital transgressor ever sits well with the public, however human it might be. But, Hamilton, the highly successful lawyer, puppet master of Washington (in some people’s mind) and the winner of almost every challenge he had ever endeavored, figured he could do it. So, he tried (forgive the spelling – it’s him, not me):
“No man tender of the happiness of an excellent wife could, without extreem pain, look forward to the affliction which she might endure from the disclosure, especially a public disclosure, of the fact. Those best acquainted with the interior of my domestic life will best appreciate the force of such a consideration upon me. The truth was that … i dreaded extremely a disclosure – and was willing to make large sacrifices to avoid it”.
Oh, so it was all for Eliza. Who wouldn’t wish they were there to see him explain that to her later on. When she came home, things only got worse. He could no longer see Maria at their home, and had to go to her house, which helped lead to his downfall. Reynolds came back that Fall too and told Hamilton that he had been turned down for a job with the treasury department. Probably a good thing for Hamilton, as he would have had a tougher time extricating himself from this affair if Reynolds was working for him.
As winter came on, Maria told him that Reynolds had discovered their affair, now about six months old, and that he had written Hamilton and demanded a reply, on penalty of his telling Eliza. As for herself, she wished she had never been born. In all these matters, it is impossible to hazard a reasonable guess whether she was telling the truth, merely playing a role, or both.
Reynolds told Hamilton that he had followed one of Maria’s messengers to him. When he confronted her, she admitted everything to him (again, so he said -- they may have worked this all out amongst themselves). He played it for all it was worth, whining that the one he thought was his best friend was actually his worst enemy and had taken everything from him. To a man with Hamilton’s outsized sense of honor, that must have had a tremendous impact. Reynolds was good at what he did too.
Blackmail was all that was left for the plot to reach fruition. Hamilton gave Reynolds the thousand dollars he demanded. He had to borrow to get it and it was a tremendous sum of money in those days. Despite his success as a lawyer, Hamilton was never rich. Reynolds claimed that Maria did not love him anymore, so, he was taking their young daughter, Susan, and leaving. Unfortunately, this was not so. Once payment was completed, Reynolds actually wrote to Hamilton to suggest that he continue to regard Maria as a “friend” and “visit” her. What is it they say about paying blackmailers?
Of course, the cringing Hamilton did it, although he himself says he continued to do so only after Maria wrote him and implored him to continue the relationship. So, he did while also continued to make blackmail payments.
As obsessed as Hamilton became with Maria and as distressed as he must have been at the blackmail, he continued at his work like a maniac, battling it out with Jefferson in the press and fighting for political supremacy. While he continued to be victorious in the political field he also continued to sew the seeds of his eventual downfall with his affair.
Hamilton had many enemies, one a man named Jacob Clingman, who happened to be a cohort of Reynolds. Clingman became suspicious when he saw Hamilton leaving Reynolds home and another time come in to give Maria a note, supposedly at the direction of her husband. Men like Reynolds just didn’t give instructions to men like Hamilton, who, after all, was the president’s right hand. Clingman became more suspicious when Maria told him that Hamilton had paid her husband a lot of money, and when James claimed that Hamilton was giving him advice on speculating in government securities. His suspicion was confirmed when he went with Reynolds to Hamilton’s house and he collected $100 from him. Possibly, of course, Clingman was just in on it all from the beginning.
Hamilton seemed powerless to break the relationship off for over a year. Every time he tried to leave, he would get a note from Maria tying him in emotional knots. But, if things could get worse, they did. Eliza became pregnant again. Duer got arrested. Hamilton received threatening notes from Reynolds who forced him to give him more loans (Hamilton, an almost impossibly competent man actually took receipts for them, while at the same time, in a contradictory fashion, would disguise his handwriting). These lovely letters from Reynolds took turns with those of Maria who evinced her love for him.
Where the turning point came, it is very difficult to say. But, finally, Hamilton refused to pay Reynolds another large chunk, but gave him a smaller amount instead. But, it was to be the last time.
Sadly for Hamilton, matters would continue to spiral out of control. Reynolds and Clingman were arrested in fall, 2002 for defrauding the government. For Reynolds, it was following a family tradition. His father was jailed at the end of the Revolution for public fraud too. Not surprisingly, Reynolds thought Hamilton had done him in. After Hamilton refused to answer his letters, Reynolds let it out that he could take down a one of the department heads. Possibly to his credit, Hamilton saw to it that Reynolds not be released while such a threat went unexplained. Or, maybe, he had kind of a death wish, and wanted to clear the air about everything.
Clingman got out on bail the same day he was arrested, and asked his influential boss to intercede with Hamilton. In one of the multitude of times their lives intersected, Aaron Burr was asked to play honest broker and witnessed the conversation. Clingman’s boss suggested that it would be a good idea to have Clingman and Reynolds refund the money they made and give up their connection to the treasury department who was feeding them information.
Clingman had one of Hamilton’s notes to Reynolds and tried to use it, giving it to his boss for leverage. His boss, in turn, showed it to Jefferson protégé, and future president, James Monroe. Maria herself visited Pennsylvania’s governor and confided the affair to him. She visited Hamilton as well and showed him the notes she had kept. Despite his pleas, she retained at least some.
When Reynolds got out, the charges dismissed due to the governor’s intercession (and because he agreed to turn over information to the treasury department he had received), he also met with Hamilton. He claims that Hamilton, the poor sod, paced up and down and smacked his hand against his leg and head, no doubt saying to himself “You idiot”. It is not hard to believe.
Reynolds agreed to talk to Monroe the next day, but then fled or holed up somewhere. Since his case was over, it must be wondered why, and if Hamilton had given him reason not to cooperate with Monroe. Monroe determined to go to Washington with others who had become involved, but first they decided to give Hamilton a chance. At first, he told them that he would talk to them that night, most likely to give himself time to try and figure out what to do.
But, when they did meet with him, Hamilton ‘fessed up, admitting his affair. They actually told him not to go on, but, Hamilton, being more than a little obsessive, insisted on telling them the whole story. At the time, they were sympathetic to him and believed him. However, Monroe had some more meetings with Clingman, and took the notes in Clingman's possession to copy. He also foolishly let another friend of Jefferson have a copy. It was not long before the evidence was in the hands of Hamilton's great enemy.
Jefferson, still the Secretary of State, believed the notes were evidence of Hamilton's corruption. The two of them were engaged in an ongoing battle of anonymous letters in the press. Monroe, knowing full well it was Hamilton writing the anti-Jefferson articles, even mockingly suggested that the author of the letters come forward so that they could all witness someone of such “immaculate purity”. For Hamilton, being teased in this manner must have been torture.
In 1793, Maria divorced James, and then married Hamilton hater, Clingman. Her lawyer, future Hamilton killer, Aaron Burr, who turns up more often than any bad penny ever had a chance could. Still, throughout this whole episode, Burr, showed himself to be the most principled one in the whole power group. Ironically, Maria accused James of adultery in their divorce. Neither was really heard from again with respect to this matter. Some suggest that was Hamilton's doing.
So, everything turned out ok, right? No, but it is quiet for a few years. Not completely though. In 1793, Hamilton’s friend, Henry Lee, wrote to him in cloak and dagger fashion that he wished he could speak with him behind closed doors because of “whispers” he had heard.
In 1797, a pamphlet came out authored by Jefferson’s own personal hack writer, James Callendar (who would one day turn on his master). He publicly suggests that he would soon reveal Hamilton’s corruption and adultery. He has Clingman’s and Reynold’s proof in hand and soon published that too.
Although Callendar said that the information was published in retaliation for Hamilton’s party attacking Monroe, then in France it was probably just a shot across Hamilton’s bow by Jefferson. In one of his anonymously published letters, Hamilton had hinted about Jefferson’s affair with his slave, Sally Hemmings, which, in the interest of keeping this short, we will not go into today. Nevertheless, Jefferson could not have been pleased as rumors of his having sex with his slave was not something a presidential hopeful needed to have batted about. Indeed, his own henchman, Callendar, would use it against Jefferson later on.
Hamilton and even Eliza were furious with Monroe, believing he was responsible for releasing the evidence to Jefferson (who as always, stayed behind the scenes). Monroe told Burr, again an intermediary, that it was not him, but the person he entrusted a copy too, who had given Jefferson the evidence.
Hamilton had another card to play. Jefferson had once made a play for his neighbor’s wife (which he eventually admitted) and Hamilton let it be known that this was on the table. Thus, Callendar was reeled back in by Jefferson. These were our forefathers at their best.
But, then, Hamilton, believing that damage has been done to his reputation such that the public believed he was guilty of corruption in the discharge of his duties as Secretary of State, decided to admit to the lesser of the crimes and published his own pamphlet which admitted to the adultery, but denied the corruption, just as he had done with Monroe and others.
Probably because he could not contain himself and it expiated his guilt, Hamilton again went overboard and gave great detail about the affair. It is hard to believe that this did not have a devastating affect on Eliza, not to mention their growing family (she had yet another child), but we will probably never know.
I’m sure the public loved the scandal as much as they would now (think Eliot Spitzer). Abigail Adams, no Hamilton fan (he was beleaguering her husband, now president) wrote “Oh, I have read his heart in his wicked eyes. The very devil is in them. They are lasciviousness itself”.
The Republicans, of course, were delighted, and wrote gleefully about it. My favorite is Madison’s letter to Jefferson:
“The publication under all its characters is a curious specimen of the ingenious folly of its author. Next to the error of publishing it at all, is that of forgetting that simplicity & candor are the only dress which prudence would put on innocence. Here we see every rhetorical artifice employed to excite the spirit of party to prop up his sinking reputation and whilst the most exaggerated complaints are uttered agst. the unfair & virulent persecution of himself, he deals out in every page the most malignant insinuations agst. others. The one agst. you is a masterpiece of folly, because its importance is in exact proportion to its venom.”
Callendar wrote to Jefferson: “If you have not seen it, no anticipation can equal the infamy of the piece. It is worth all that the fifty best pens of America could have said agt. him, and the most pitiful part of the whole is his notice of you.”
Although the next year Washington pretty much forced Adams, also a Hamilton hater, into making him Inspector General of the Army, it was almost certainly the end of Hamilton’s public political career, had he wanted to run for office. Despite many political figures repeating the myth that the constitution would have prevented Hamilton from being president as he was not born in the United States, the constitution makes exceptions for those who were citizens at that time. Of course, Burr made it an absolute certainty a few years later by killing him anyway.
Hamilton and Monroe nearly dueled over it. Eventually, with the ever present Burr interceding, the fight was averted. One would think the experience would have helped Hamilton to avoid the duel with Burr later on, but it didn’t.
One last reverberation happened many years later. Long after Hamilton’s death, Monroe, himself old, paid his respects to Hamilton’s widow, Eliza. She was unforgiving, making it clear that nothing less than a full apology for lying about and slandering her husband would ever do. This was tough stuff, as, even if he did not act in a completely principled fashion, nothing he had said was untrue. He did not give her her wish, and left abruptly, with both unsatisfied. Eliza lived pretty much for ever, died in 1854, a full half century after her husband.
As stated above, much of what we know came from Hamilton's little pamphlet. It has been suggested by more than one scholar that he lied throughout the whole episode; that he used his adultery to cover up taking part in corrupt activities, by furnishing Reynolds with names of veterans that would help him with his securities swindle. One author, Julian Boyd, agrees with Callendar that Hamilton himself forged the letters he published that were supposedly written by James and Maria. It is well known that Hamilton’s family bought up every copy of his pamphlet that they could.
For those of you who like sources, both the recent Ron Chernow, Alexander Hamilton, and a slightly older, shorter but very interesting biography of the same name by William Sterne Randall have versions of this story, if a little one sided. A more scholarly and questioning approach, if less readable, was taken in The Papers of Alexander Hamilton edited by Harold Coffin Syrett which you can read online thanks to Google.
As usual, in the end we are left only with clues and can come to our own conclusions (or not). It might be unsettling to think that the heroic Hamilton would have done as Callendar and some modern scholars suggest. I, for one, hope not, but would not be surprised at anything any politician did, particularly to keep himself out of trouble.
Still, whatever the truth, the story helps us see these almost legendary figures for the flawed, if otherwise brilliant and heroic humans that they were. And that's the way I like it.
- I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .