The Notorious Affair Of Mrs. Reynolds


∗In Alexander Hamilton—Portrait in Paradox (1959), John C. Miller conjectures, “Hamilton had imagined that he was playing a part in the eternal triangle, but it is probable that he was really playing in a quartet.”

Beckley was not pleased. He called in an especially unscrupulous journalist named James T. Callender, a Scotsman driven from England for literary excesses who was now a political pamphleteer under the aegis of Jefferson. Beckley handed Callender as choice a political scandal as any journalist might dream of finding in a lifetime—his copy of the MonroeMuhlenberg-Venable documents in the Hamilton-Reynolds Affair.

Callender ran the story in two pamphlets, the first published in June, 1797. He printed all the documents the congressmen had prepared for President Washington, and he laid heavy emphasis on his supposition that Hamilton had used Reynolds, with many others, in his speculations in government securities. He declared that Hamilton had pleaded with the congressmen in a “most anxious tone” not to send the papers to the President. Hamilton, moreover, had forced Reynolds to flee to another state.

Hamilton at once published a public letter in a friendly Federalist newspaper, denying the charges and revealing that the three congressmen, with Wolcott as a witness, had declared the charges false. He then wrote the three men individually. Somewhere, he said, there had been “a dishonorable infidelity” to what had been agreed on at the 1792 meeting. He asked them to send him a declaration that they had indeed found him innocent and to do so quickly and in a manner “such as one Gentleman has a right to expect from another.” Hamilton had been told by friends that Beckley was guilty of giving the papers to Callender, but he was convinced that Monroe was also somehow responsible. He felt so partly because of Calender’s lavish praise of Monroe in his pamphlet and partly because Callender declared that Federalist attacks on Monroe as minister were ungrateful in view of Monroe’s lenient treatment of Hamilton, prime mover of the Federalists, in the Reynolds Affair.

Muhlenberg and Venable acceded to Hamilton’s request. Monroe had just returned from France, and before he could answer—indeed, before the answers written by Muhlenberg and Venable could have been delivered— Hamilton demanded a personal meeting with him.

Hamilton appeared at Monroe’s lodgings on Wall Street in New York accompanied by John B. Church, husband to his wife’s sister. With Monroe was Congressman David Gelston, who kept an admirable account of the confrontation. Hamilton, who was “very much agitated,” he wrote, recapitulated the event of the 1792 meeting. Monroe seems to have interrupted him with the request that he leave off retelling familiar matter and come to the point, and soon “some warmth appeared in both Gentlemen.” Monroe declared on his honor that he had known nothing of Callender’s pamphlet before he saw it a few days earlier and said he was sorry to see it published. He gave his version of the earlier meeting and said, in conclusion, that he felt sure the documents were still sealed and unopened where he had originally placed them. At this point a dramatic confrontation took place when Hamilton charged that Monroe’s explanation was “totally false.”

Monroe, rising: “Do you say I represented falsely, you are a scoundrel.”

Hamilton, also on his feet: “I will meet you like a gentleman.”

Monroe: “I am ready. Get your pistols. …”

Church and Gelston stepped between the two men, Church crying, “Gentlemen, gentlemen, be moderate.”

The two men sat down again. Hamilton, still agitated, agreed to let the matter rest until Colonel Monroe met with Muhlenberg and Venable in Philadelphia the following Sunday and prepared a joint statement. As they rose to go Church said that “any warmth or unguarded expression voiced during the interview should be buried and considered as though it never had happened.”

Monroe: “In that respect, I shall be governed by Colonel Hamilton’s consent.”

Hamilton agreed that “any intemperate expression should be forgotten.”

Shortly after his meeting with Monroe, apparently, Hamilton read Callender’s second installment, and in it he found shocking documents he had not seen before. One was the memorandum with the damaging phrase “We left him under an impression our suspicions were removed.” (Through a printer’s error, it bore Monroe’s signature only.) Another was Monroe’s final interview with Clingman, containing the latter’s charges that Hamilton had concocted the story of blackmail and adultery and had forged the Reynolds letters.

“The appearance of duplicity incensed me,” Hamilton said, and he fired off a curt letter to Monroe. It could be inferred that Monroe “meant to give credit and sanction to the suggestion that the defence set up by me was an imposition.” He demanded an explanation.

Monroe replied that he meant neither to give nor to imply any opinion of his own as to Clingman’s charges. He had simply recorded the interview, reserving the right to judge its import and authenticity at a later date should the need arise.

Hamilton found the answer unsatisfactory. Did or did not Colonel Monroe intend the implication that he had fabricated and forged the Reynolds letters?