The Notorious Affair Of Mrs. Reynolds


In what was now to become an extremely complicated series of comings, goings, interviews, and recorded minutes of meetings, the three men questioned Reynolds in jail. He said he would expose Colonel Hamilton after he had been freed, as had been promised for that evening; but when Monroe and Muhlenberg called at his home, Reynolds was not there. From Mrs. Reynolds they obtained “with difficulty” information that fed their suspicions that he had fled. She showed them several letters from Colonel Hamilton to her husband that seemed to prove Hamilton was using public funds for private gain, and she said she had just burned a considerable number of others. Colonel Hamilton, she said, had advised her husband to “leave these parts, not to be seen here again, and in which case he would give something clever.” She felt that Colonel Hamilton had given that advice, not in friendship, but on account of her husband’s threat that he could reveal information “that would make some of the heads of departments tremble.” A friend of Mr. Hamilton, Jeremiah Wadsworth of Connecticut, had called on her yesterday, she said, to tell her that Mr. Hamilton was innocent of speculation, and she had replied that she rather doubted it.

The three congressmen now gathered their documents and composed a letter to President Washington revealing what they had heard about his Secretary of the Treasury. Then, on second thought, they decided instead to call on Hamilton and give him an opportunity to hear and answer the questions raised.

They went to Hamilton’s home by appointment on the evening of Saturday, December 15, 1792, having declared in a short visit to his office that morning that they had uncovered “ a very improper connection ” between him and James Reynolds. Hamilton had at his side his friend Oliver Wolcott, to whom he had that day revealed his story. He had decided to make a confession of adultery, infidelity, and submission to blackmail to clear his name of the charge—much more serious to him—of dishonesty as a public official.

Monroe related in full what they had heard from Reynolds, Mrs. Reynolds, and Clingman, and produced certain of Hamilton’s letters Clingman had given them. When he was quite finished, Hamilton gave the full account of his relationship with James and Maria Reynolds. As evidence he exhibited and began to read the twenty Reynolds letters he had received. Venable and perhaps Muhlenbcrg were, in Hamilton’s words, “struck with so much conviction … that they delicately urged me to discontinue it as unnecessary. I insisted upon going through the whole, and did so. The result was a full and unequivocal acknowledgment on the part of the three gentlemen of perfect satisfaction with the explanation, and expressions of regret at the trouble and embarrassment which had been occasioned to me. … Mr. Monroe was more cold but entirely explicit.

“One of the gentlemen, I think, expressed a hope that I also was satisfied with their conduct in conducting the inquiry. I answered that … I was satisfied … and considered myself as having been treated with candor or with fairness and liberality.” There seemed to be an understanding, at least in the minds of Hamilton and Wolcott, that the three congressmen, as men of honor, would seal up the documents and show them to no one. On the street outside the house, Venable told Wolcott that the explanation was entirely satisfactory and that he regretted he had been of the party to whom it had been made.

Next day the three congressmen drew up and signed a report to themselves on their interview; it contained the curious sentence “We left him under an impression our suspicions were removed.” Hamilton made his own memorandum of the meeting and then wrote to ask for copies of the documents they had showed him. Monroe, as custodian of the papers, complied by having copies made and delivered by John Beckley, Democrat, clerk of the House of Representatives in the First Congress, who thoughtfully made an extra set for his own files.

Two weeks later Clingman called on Monroe, and Monroe put down an account of their conversation that was to cause serious trouble five years later. Clingman, he wrote, had learned of Hamilton’s story of adultery and blackmail from Wolcott. He had communicated it to Mrs. Reynolds, “who appeared much shocked at it and wept immoderately … she denied the imputation and declared that it had been a fabrication of Col. Hamilton and that her husband had joined in it, who had told her so, and that he had given him [Hamilton] receipts for money and written letters, so as to give the countenance to the pretence.” Her husband, she said, had been with Colonel Hamilton on the day after he left jail. Clingman, Monroe added, believed Mrs. Reynolds “was innocent and that the defense was an imposition.” Somehow Beckley obtained a copy of these minutes to add to his other papers.

Thus ended Act One of the Hamilton-Reynolds Affair. The three congressmen maintained their silence —in public at least—for almost five years. In 1793 Maria Reynolds divorced her husband, Aaron Burr serving as her attorney, and married Clingman, though perhaps not in that sequence.∗ James Reynolds’ later career is lost to history. Hamilton retired to private law practice in New York, wishing to spend more time with Elizabeth and their five children. In 1797 Washington recalled Monroe as minister to France, largely at Hamilton’s urging, because Monroe was not pressing United States interests as French attacks on American ships grew. And, in a fatal moment, the Federalists removed John Beckley from his post as Clerk of the House because of his freewheeling political activities on behalf of his party.