The Notorious Affair Of Mrs. Reynolds

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In the exchange of letters that followed, Monroe refused to budge from his position, and Hamilton insisted that”… it was incumbent upon you, as a man of honor and sensibility, to have come forward in a manner that would have shielded me completely from the unpleasant effects brought upon me by your agency.” And he added a sentiment he had crossed out in an earlier letter: ”… you have been and are actuated by motives towards me malignant and dishonorable. …”

Language that strong was tantamount to a challenge to a duel, and Hamilton accordingly had it delivered by the man who would if needed serve as his second, Major William Jackson, formerly secretary to the Constitutional Convention and President Washington’s “writing aide.” Monroe returned his answer by Aaron Burr, and the two men exchanged five more letters through their agents. Each felt it important, under the code of the day, to establish that the other was the challenger. Most of their text was now addressed to that point, Hamilton on one occation calling on Monroe and Burr “to settle time and place” with Major Jackson. Monroe authorized Burr to conclude the affair amicably but stated that if it came to a duel, he would be ready. Burr must stipulate for him, however, that he be given three months in which to settle his affairs in Virginia and to complete a book he was writing—a defense of his conduct as minister to France. Burr acted as peacemaker—it seems a strange role for him—and persuaded each man that the other had not meant to offer a challenge. He helped to write the letter in which Hamilton declared himself satisfied.

Hamilton, in the meantime, had publicly announced that he would defend his honor as an officer of state by explaining the whole affair in a pamphlet. His friends pleaded with him, insisting that he could only harm his party, his family, and himself by such a course. Major Jackson advised him that a controversy with Callender “would only furnish fresh pabulum for the virulent invective and abuse of faction to feed on. … your friends and every impartial Man are convinced of your purity as a public Officer, and no one among them can suppose that you are called on to furnish the Presbyterian pulpits with subject matter of declamation, however irrelevant, against the best political interests of our country.” Hamilton was obdurate; nothing was more important than his reputation as an incorruptible public servant. He was clearly in the frame of mind of a type of defendant familiar to all trial lawyers: one who, egocentric to the point of arrogance, insists on testifying when it is clearly in his best interest to remain silent, feeling that if only permitted to take the stand and speak out, he will destroy the charges against him and confound his persecutors.

The pamphlet that appeared in late August, about two weeks after the final exchange of letters with Monroe, is an astonishing production. Hamilton attributed the attack on him to the “spirit of Jacobinism,” which, “Incessantly busy in undermining all the props of public security and private happiness … seems to threaten the political and moral world with a complete overthrow.”

The charge against him, he said, was “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.” Reynolds, he said, was “an obscure, unimportant, and profligate man.” … It [was] morally impossible I should have been foolish as well as depraved enough to employ so vile an instrument … for such insignificant ends . … Nothing could be more weak, because nothing could be more unsafe than to make use of such an instrument; to use him, too, without any intermediate agent more worthy of confidence who might keep me out of sight; to write him numerous letters recording the objects of the improper connection. … 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. …

To show that his communications to and from Reynolds pertained to blackmail and not to speculation with Treasury funds, he printed the twenty Reynolds letters, which had not been available to Callender. He added some thirty other documents: the Muhlenberg-Monroe-Venable memoranda on their 1792 investigation; his correspondence with them in 1797; his fiery exchanges with Monroe; a testimonial to the authenticity of Maria Reynolds’ handwriting by a boarding-house keeper who knew her; a statement by Oliver WoIcott; and a denial by Noah Webster, publisher of the Federalist New York Minerva , of Callender’s charge that his revelations had kept Webster from proposing Hamilton as Washington’s successor in the Presidency. He said that he had deposited all the original documents with William Bingham in Philadelphia, where any gentleman might inspect them. (Bingham, who had not been consulted later said that he had never received the papers. All, including the Reynolds letters, have disappeared.)