America's First Political Sex Scandal: The Reynolds/Hamilton Affair

In the summer of 1791, Alexander Hamilton was the target of what a modern-day espionage novel would call a "honey trap," set by a blonde 23-year-old named Maria Reynolds.
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Today, it seems, is an appropriate day to delve into American history. Specifically, the long history of politicians' sex scandals, and the media who are always willing, ready, and eager to use them to sell newspapers.

While the subject of which American politician's sex scandal came first is a debatable one (such as: did Benjamin Franklin's dalliances in Paris count?), most agree that the sex-and-blackmail scandal of Alexander Hamilton was the first with any impact, from George Washington's time onwards.

Ironically enough for historians, America's main philosophical political battle (big versus small government -- which we continue to fight to this day) began within Washington's administration, and the two men driving this argument were both caught in their own sex scandals. Alexander Hamilton was George Washington's Secretary of the Treasury, and he was the champion of the "big government" school of thought. Opposing this was another member of Washington's cabinet, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, who would face his own public sex scandal (the Sally Hemings story) at a later date.

But this political divide isn't germane here, and neither is Jefferson. What was extraordinary about the mess Hamilton got himself into was how he responded -- what has to be the ultimate gold standard in "getting the information out" in American politics.

There are three basic responses to a sex scandal: admit it and resign your office (or, nowadays, candidacy); stonewall and refuse to answer questions while denying everything and pointing the finger at the media and your accuser; or admit the facts and try to move on. Of course, these are broad categories which don't cover nuances such as "rolling disclosure" where you take each detail as it is made public as its own problem -- such as Bill Clinton did. But Hamilton's problem was somewhat unique because it had two aspects to it -- sex, and money. In particular, it was accused that Hamilton had mishandled public money while running the U.S. Treasury.

In the summer of 1791, Hamilton was the target of what a modern-day espionage novel would call a "honey trap," set by a blonde 23-year-old named Maria Reynolds. Hamilton then became the target of outright blackmail, by the woman's husband (who was quite likely in on the whole scheme from the beginning), while Hamilton continued to see Maria for more than a year. This information eventually found its way into the hands of his political enemies, who confronted Hamilton. Hamilton explained that he was not (as had been charged) been playing fast and loose with the nation's money; but rather he had merely been playing fast and loose with another man's wife, and paying him off for the privilege, out of his own pocket.

Astoundingly, Hamilton's political enemies accepted his explanation, and buried the scandal. However, it resurfaced in 1796 (an election year, one hastens to point out) in a very public way. Hamilton's response was the extraordinary part -- because he then published a booklet of almost 100 pages addressing the charges (seeing as how television interviews didn't exist, back then). Two-thirds of this document were reprints of letters -- including love letters (complete with atrocious spelling) to Hamilton from Maria, and demands for money from her husband. Hamilton, in essence, threw himself on the public's mercy.

Hamilton was the architect of the new country's economic, banking, and industrial policy -- which was still in its absolute infancy. He wanted this to be his legacy, and to be the foundation for the new country's growth and prosperity. The scandal, when it hit the public, accused him of misusing public funds. Hamilton, bluntly, sacrificed his own "family values" reputation, in order to preserve his economic reputation. This largely was successful, in the end.

Now, I am not going to draw any conclusions about Hamilton's pamphlet (entitled, in the long-winded fashion of the day: "Observations on Certain Documents contained in Nos. V. and VI. of The History of the United States for the Year 1796, in which the Charge of Speculation against Alexander Hamilton, late Secretary of the Treasury, is fully refuted."), in terms of today's political world and the scandal currently being obsessed over by the media. I merely thought it'd be interesting to see one extraordinary example of how the very first such scandal was handled, over two hundred years ago. For those interested, the full text of this fascinating pamphlet (complete with all the letters and other exhibits Hamilton offers up) may be found online, at the Online Library of Liberty.

Hamilton begins his defense by decrying the scandal itself, with much denouncing of "Jacobinism" (the Jacobins, in France, were fresh in everyone's mind from the disastrous end to the French Revolution -- which was only a few years in the past, when Hamilton wrote this pamphlet). A typical example from early in the script:

Relying upon this weakness of human nature, the Jacobin Scandal-Club, though often defeated, constantly return to the charge. Old calumnies are served up afresh, and every pretext is seized to add to the catalogue. The person whom they seek to blacken, by dint of repeated strokes of their brush, becomes a demon in their own eyes, though he might be pure and bright as an angel but for the daubing of those wizard painters.

But Hamilton was no "angel." He spends much time reviewing the history of previous charges against him, and how he was investigated twice by congressional committees -- and fully exonerated both times -- due to accusations of financial misdeeds. He then gets down to the heart of the matter:

The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife for a considerable time, with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.

This confession is not made without a blush. I cannot be the apologist of any vice because the ardor of passion may have made it mine. I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity, and love. But that bosom will approve, that, even at so great an expense, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public, too, will, I trust, excuse the confession. The necessity of it to my defence against a more heinous charge could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum.

Hamilton then engages in a few cheap shots at the husband:

It is very extraordinary, if the head of the money department of a country, being unprincipled enough to sacrifice his trust and his integrity, could not have contrived objects of profit sufficiently large to have engaged the co-operation of men of far greater importance than Reynolds, and with whom there could have been due safety, and should have been driven to the necessity of unkennelling such a reptile to be the instrument of his cupidity.

Such poetry ("unkennelling such a reptile") is sadly lacking in today's world of political and sexual scandal, it seems. Hamilton then admits the shameful details of what took place:

Some time in the summer of the year 1791, a woman called at my house in the city of Philadelphia, and asked to speak with me in private. I attended her into a room apart from my family. With a seeming air of affliction she informed me that she was a daughter of a Mr. Lewis, sister to a Mr. G. Livingston of the State of New York, and wife to a Mr. Reynolds, whose father was in the Commissary Department during the war with Great Britain; that her husband, who for a long time had treated her very cruelly, had lately left her to live with another woman, and in so destitute a condition that, though desirous of returning to her friends, she had not the means; that knowing I was a citizen of New York, she had taken the liberty to apply to my humanity for assistance.

I replied, that her situation was a very interesting one--that I was disposed to afford her assistance to convey her to her friends, but this at the moment not being convenient to me (which was the fact), I must request the place of her residence, to which I should bring or send a small supply of money. She told me the street and the number of the house where she lodged. In the evening I put a bank-bill in my pocket and went to the house. I enquired for Mrs. Reynolds and was shown up stairs, at the head of which she met me and conducted me into a bedroom. I took the bill out of my pocket and gave it to her. Some conversation ensued, from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.

After this I had frequent meetings with her, most of them at my own house; Mrs. Hamilton with her children being absent on a visit to her father.

After pages and pages of excruciating timelines, much quoting of letters back and forth, and the most detailed explanation of every facet of how the entire affair played out, Hamilton nears his conclusion:

Thus has my desire to destroy this slander completely led me to a more copious and particular examination of it, than I am sure was necessary. The bare perusal of the letters from Reynolds and his wife is sufficient to convince my greatest enemy that there is nothing worse in the affair than an irregular and indelicate amour. For this, I bow to the just censure which it merits. I have paid pretty severely for the folly, and can never recollect it without disgust and self-condemnation. It might seem affectation to say more.

In today's plain language, Hamilton might have said: "OK, I had an affair, and yes, it was with another man's wife. But when I paid his subsequent blackmail demands off, I did so with my own money. Any charge of my using public funds, or any taint of this affair influencing my duties or my job in any way is absolutely false. Call me a horn dog if you must, but do not let this stain my legacy: charting America's financial course for the future."

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