The Notorious Affair Of Mrs. Reynolds

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Hamilton this time ignored Callender, and so did everyone else. The reasons are understandable. Callender was a personally obnoxious and physically unclean person who made wild partisan charges; he called Washington “a traitor, a perjurer and a robber.” He alienated those most disposed to censure Hamilton when, refused a position of postmaster at Richmond, he turned against Jefferson and attacked his reputation with a charge dreadful in its time. It was Callender who first printed the accusation that Jefferson had fathered children by “Dusky Sally” Hemings, one of his slaves and also his dead wife’s half sister. [See “The Great Jefferson Taboo,” A MERICAN H ERITAGE , June, 1972.] While in a drunken stupor Callender eventually drowned, in only three feet of water, in the James River. What historian would believe charges made by such a man?

Historical opinion was also influenced by other points. For one thing, the Jeffersonians weakened their credibility by making the patently absurd accusation that Hamilton was engaged in a treasonable conspiracy with upright John Adams and other Federalists to subvert the republic Adams revered and impose a king on the American people. For another, the administrative record of the Federalists has been considered one of high calibre. The late Leonard D. White, specialist in public administration, wrote in 1948 that “probably never in the history of the United States has the standard of integrity of the federal civil service been at a higher level” than in the years 1789-1801. Hamilton, moreover, had been twice investigated by bipartisan congressional committees on charges of fiscal misconduct and twice cleared. No clear evidence of such misconduct has ever been produced. And Hamilton was notoriously uninterested in acquiring money and property, despite recurring Antifederalist charges that he had embezzled immense public funds —as much as £100,000 on one occasion. Indeed, he died in such straitened circumstances that his friends took up a subscription for his widow and children.

A distinguished American scholar has now revived the HamiltonReynolds Affair and has raised serious questions about Hamilton’s conduct. Julian Parks Boyd, professor of history at Princeton, editor of the definitive multivolume edition of Thomas Jefferson’s papers, recently brought new evidence to bear on the events of 1792-1797. (He was the first scholar, for example, to collate the original manuscript of Hamilton’s pamphlet with the published version.) If his case is accepted, there must be a reassessment of the character of Alexander Hamilton and of his services as the architect of early national policy.

In 1928, as a twenty-five-year-old assistant instructor in history at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Boyd came upon something in the Tench Coxe papers (now long closed to researchers) that raised his suspicions about the conventional version of the Hamilton-Reynolds Affair. In 1950 he became editor of the Jefferson papers, which is projected to produce about fifty volumes eventually. In 1962 he expressed to Dumas Malone, Jefferson’s biographer, the conviction that the Reynolds matter should be re-examined in the light of fresh evidence. A little over a year ago, in sixty-two pages of small print in an appendix to the eighteenth volume of the series, Dr. Boyd presented his re-examination.

Among other accusations, Dr. Boyd charges specifically that:

—Hamilton made the department over which he presided “an accessory to the privileged and interested purposes of those within and without who took advantage of the opportunities that he made possible.” Moreover, he consistently failed to investigate charges of official misconduct in the Treasury.

—Hamilton lied to the three congressmen investigating the ReynoldsClingman statements. Learning on Wednesday, December 12, 1792, that Muhlenberg, Monroe, and Venable were on his trail, he spent the next several days preparing a defense for the Saturday meeting. He based it on twenty letters that he clumsily composed and forged and then passed off as written by James and Maria Reynolds.

—Mrs. Reynolds was possibly the innocent victim “of a cruel and slanderous fabrication.” Hamilton’s confession of adultery with her remains in doubt, with “the scales perhaps tipped in her favor because the documents he brought forward in proof of adultery do indeed sustain her charge of fabrication.”

—Hamilton deceived the readers of his pamphlet by not including among his fifty-two printed documents the two pieces most damaging to his case: the Monroe-MuhlenbergVenable minutes of their last meeting with him (“We left him under an impression our suspicions were removed”) and Monroe’s final interview with Clingman.

—He misrepresented Monroe’s actions to make it appear that Monroe delayed in answering his first letter in 1797 requesting a statement on his vindication. (Most biographers of Monroe and Hamilton have routinely charged Monroe with such a delay.)

—Hamilton’s affidavit on Mrs. Reynolds’ handwriting was worthless, and he avoided an opportunity to obtain a certification from a reliable and easily available source: a Richard Folwell, who had in his possession a letter from Maria Clingman (i.e., Mrs. Reynolds).

—The Reynolds letters contain “incongruities of date that cannot all be explained as simple lapses.”

—James Reynolds’ letters to Hamilton do not accord in spelling, grammar, or substance with two other letters believed to have been written by him.