The Notorious Affair Of Mrs. Reynolds

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When the work appeared, Hamilton’s friends were appalled. “What shall we say …” Webster wrote, “of a man who has borne some of the highest civil and military employments, who could deliberately … publish a history of his private intrigues, degrade himself in the estimation of all good men, and scandalize a family, to clear himself of charges which no man believed. …” General Henry Knox wrote to General David Cobb, “Myself and most of his other friends conceive this confession humiliating in the extreme, and such a text as will serve his enemies.” Cobb replied philosophically, “Hamilton is fallen for the present, but if he fornicates with every female in the cities of New York and Philadelphia, he will rise again, for purity of character, after a period of political existence is not necessary for public patronage.” Giving the revelations in the pamphlet as his reason, Episcopal Bishop William White publicly refused to join in a toast to Hamilton.

Hamilton’s enemies, of course, were delighted. They simply ignored his points of defense, continued their charges of speculation in public funds, and now bore in on all the new openings Hamilton had given them. Madison, writing to Jefferson, called the publication “a curious specimen of the ingenious folly of its Author.” Callender wrote Jefferson, “If you have not seen it, no anticipation can equal the infamy of this piece. It is worth all that fifty of the best pens in America could have said against him. …” Jefferson observed that Hamilton’s admission of adultery seemed “rather to have strengthened than weakened the suspicions that he was in truth guilty of the speculations.” Some people considered MariaReynolds “an amiable and virtuous wife, seduced from the affections of her husband by artifice and intrigue”; others called her a fallen woman; Hamilton was condemned either way. One reviewer, possibly Beckley, said that Hamilton “holds himself out as trotting from one lodging in Philadelphia to another after … a prostitute!” Another said that he had “rambled for 18 months in this scene of pollution, and squandered … above $1,200 to conceal the intrigue from his loving spouse.” Another declared that any man who used his own home as “the rendezvous of his whoredom, taking advantage of the absence of his wife and children to introduce a prostitute to those sacred abodes of conjugal, and filial retirement, to gratify his wicked purposes” could not boast of anything except, possibly, virility. As an ultimate insult the Antifederalists printed a second edition of Hamilton’s pamphlet, without alteration or addition, at their own expense.

Many years later James Monroe paid a nostalgic call on Mrs. Hamilton. His party had triumphed with twenty-four years of rule by Virginia Democrats. The Federalists had disintegrated. Alexander Hamilton was long dead of the bullet from Aaron Burr’s duelling pistol.

As Allan McLane Hamilton, Alexander’s grandson, told the story, Elizabeth Hamilton was in her garden talking with a fifteen-year-old nephew when a servant approached her bearing a card with Monroe’s name. On seeing the card, Mrs. Hamilton, “much perturbed,” said in a low, angry voice, “What has that man come to see me for?”

Her nephew followed her back to the house. Monroe rose as they entered the parlor. She remained standing and did not ask him to sit down. He bowed and addressed her formally in a kind of set speech he had prepared—that “it was many years since they had met, that the lapse of time had brought its softening influences, that they were both nearing the grave when past differences could be forgiven and forgotten.” She answered, still standing and looking at him, “Mr. Monroe, if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for … the slanders … you circulated against my dear husband … I understand it. But, otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.” Monroe bowed, turned, and left.

The Hamilton-Reynolds story has been told and retold many times, each teller striving to add new facts or fresh points of analysis to the whole. Hamilton, Monroe, and Jefferson have been blamed or defended, according to the sympathies of the biographer or historian. But no writer in the past 170 years has questioned the essential outline of the story; no one has expressed doubts on the truth of Hamilton’s confession and defense as here recounted.

Callender, to be sure, attacked Hamilton’s story as soon as it appeared. The Reynolds letters, he said, were forgeries. The ex-Mrs. Reynolds was living in Alexandria—“If the letters… are genuine, it would be very easy to obtain her attestation of the fact. A justice of the peace … could dispatch the business in half an hour. She could be directed to give a sample of her hand. … Send for the lady, and let us hear what she has to say.”