The Notorious Affair Of Mrs. Reynolds

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According to Alexander Hamilton, he was with his family in Philadelphia on a certain summer day in 1791 when a young woman called at the door and asked to speak with him in private. He led her into a room apart from the rest of the house, where she introduced herself as Maria Lewis Reynolds of New York —Mrs. James Reynolds, a sister of a Mrs. G. Livingston of that state. Her husband, she said, had for a long time treated her very cruelly and now had left her and their young daughter for another woman. She was in so destitute a condition that she had not the means to return to her friends in New York. She appealed to his humanity. Would Colonel Hamilton assist a woman in despair?

Physical descriptions of Maria Reynolds are sparse. An acquaintance of Hamilton said that “her innocent Countenance appeared to show an innocent Heart.” Several persons observed that she had a highly emotional temperament and was much given to weeping. In the original draft of a pamphlet he later wrote on the incident, Hamilton called her “Beauty in distress” and “a pretty woman,” but he did not use the phrases in the published work.

As she finished her story Hamilton replied that her situation was very interesting and that he was “disposed” to help her. Unfortunately, it was not “convenient” at the moment to provide any assistance. Could he bring or send some money to her at her place of residence?

That evening he put a thirty-dollar bank note in his pocket, called at the rooming-house address given him, and so started a chain of events that caused a political scandal of stunning proportions. It became the classic story in America of adultery followed by blackmail. It led to a quarrel and a near duel involving three of the country’s leading statesmen. It produced an important issue in the death struggle between the Federalists and the Antifederalists. And in 1972 it was revived, reinterpreted, and put to use once again in the old conflict between two irreconcilables: those who worship Thomas Jefferson and those who revere Alexander Hamilton.

“I enquired for Mrs. Reynolds,” Hamilton said of his visit to the rooming house, “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 [also] be acceptable.” In short, he rather promptly got into bed with Maria Reynolds.

Hamilton was extraordinarily busy in the summer and fall of 1791, in the early years of Washington’s first term. He was administering the Treasury Department and the Customs. He was starting up the Bank of the United States. He was working to drive Thomas Jefferson (an “intriguing incendiary”) out of the Cabinet and was attacking his followers—“the Jacobins”—in scathing articles under various pseudonyms. And he was preparing his Report on Manufactures , the fourth of the five great Treasury papers that, enacted into law against the bitter opposition of Jefferson’s party, replaced a near-worthless currency, funded a staggering debt of approximately $75 million, restored public credit at home and abroad, created a national banking system, and laid the groundwork for an industrial economy and a powerful centralized government. Despite these activities, he found time to meet frequently with Maria Reynolds, generally receiving her in his house at 79 South Third Street, his wife, Elizabeth, having taken the children on a visit to her father in Albany. During this time he also saw James Reynolds, whom he had already met regarding information Reynolds had about misconduct in the Treasury—misconduct that Hamilton found to be of minor importance. This time Reynolds came to Hamilton’s office to apply (unsuccessfully) for a clerkship in the Treasury Department.

 

“The intercourse with Mrs. Reynolds … continued,” he wrote, “and though various reflections … induced me to wish a cessation of it; yet, her conduct made it extremely difficult to disentangle myself. All the appearances of violent attachment, and of agonizing distress at the idea of a relinquishment, were played with a most imposing art. This … kept me in a state of irresolution. My sensibility, perhaps my vanity, admitted the possibility of a real fondness. …”

On December 15, 1791 —the week after the Report on Manufactures was submitted to Congress —Hamilton received two shocking letters. One came from Maria Reynolds with the news that her husband had discovered her infidelity. The other was an indignant statement from the betrayed husband. Maria Reynolds wrote: I have not tim to tell you the cause of my present troubles only that Mr. has rote to you this morning and I know not wether you have got the letter or not and he has swore that If you do not answer It or If he dose not se or hear from you to day he will write Mrs. Hamilton he has just Gone oute and I am a Lone I think you had better come here one moment that you May know the Cause then you will the better know how to act Oh my God I feel more for you than myself and wish I had never been born to give you so mutch unhappisness do not rite to him no not a Line but come here soon do not send or leave any thing in his power[.]