February 1973 | Volume 24, Issue 2
According to Alexander Hamilton, he was with his family in Philadelphia on a certain summer day in 1791 when a young woman called at the door and asked to speak with him in private. He led her into a room apart from the rest of the house, where she introduced herself as Maria Lewis Reynolds of New York —Mrs. James Reynolds, a sister of a Mrs. G. Livingston of that state. Her husband, she said, had for a long time treated her very cruelly and now had left her and their young daughter for another woman. She was in so destitute a condition that she had not the means to return to her friends in New York. She appealed to his humanity. Would Colonel Hamilton assist a woman in despair?
Physical descriptions of Maria Reynolds are sparse. An acquaintance of Hamilton said that “her innocent Countenance appeared to show an innocent Heart.” Several persons observed that she had a highly emotional temperament and was much given to weeping. In the original draft of a pamphlet he later wrote on the incident, Hamilton called her “Beauty in distress” and “a pretty woman,” but he did not use the phrases in the published work.
As she finished her story Hamilton replied that her situation was very interesting and that he was “disposed” to help her. Unfortunately, it was not “convenient” at the moment to provide any assistance. Could he bring or send some money to her at her place of residence?
That evening he put a thirty-dollar bank note in his pocket, called at the rooming-house address given him, and so started a chain of events that caused a political scandal of stunning proportions. It became the classic story in America of adultery followed by blackmail. It led to a quarrel and a near duel involving three of the country’s leading statesmen. It produced an important issue in the death struggle between the Federalists and the Antifederalists. And in 1972 it was revived, reinterpreted, and put to use once again in the old conflict between two irreconcilables: those who worship Thomas Jefferson and those who revere Alexander Hamilton.
“I enquired for Mrs. Reynolds,” Hamilton said of his visit to the rooming house, “and was shown up stairs, at the head of which she met me and conducted me into a bedroom. I took the bill out of my pocket and gave it to her. Some conversation ensued, from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would [also] be acceptable.” In short, he rather promptly got into bed with Maria Reynolds.
Hamilton was extraordinarily busy in the summer and fall of 1791, in the early years of Washington’s first term. He was administering the Treasury Department and the Customs. He was starting up the Bank of the United States. He was working to drive Thomas Jefferson (an “intriguing incendiary”) out of the Cabinet and was attacking his followers—“the Jacobins”—in scathing articles under various pseudonyms. And he was preparing his Report on Manufactures , the fourth of the five great Treasury papers that, enacted into law against the bitter opposition of Jefferson’s party, replaced a near-worthless currency, funded a staggering debt of approximately $75 million, restored public credit at home and abroad, created a national banking system, and laid the groundwork for an industrial economy and a powerful centralized government. Despite these activities, he found time to meet frequently with Maria Reynolds, generally receiving her in his house at 79 South Third Street, his wife, Elizabeth, having taken the children on a visit to her father in Albany. During this time he also saw James Reynolds, whom he had already met regarding information Reynolds had about misconduct in the Treasury—misconduct that Hamilton found to be of minor importance. This time Reynolds came to Hamilton’s office to apply (unsuccessfully) for a clerkship in the Treasury Department.
“The intercourse with Mrs. Reynolds … continued,” he wrote, “and though various reflections … induced me to wish a cessation of it; yet, her conduct made it extremely difficult to disentangle myself. All the appearances of violent attachment, and of agonizing distress at the idea of a relinquishment, were played with a most imposing art. This … kept me in a state of irresolution. My sensibility, perhaps my vanity, admitted the possibility of a real fondness. …”
On December 15, 1791 —the week after the Report on Manufactures was submitted to Congress —Hamilton received two shocking letters. One came from Maria Reynolds with the news that her husband had discovered her infidelity. The other was an indignant statement from the betrayed husband. Maria Reynolds wrote: I have not tim to tell you the cause of my present troubles only that Mr. has rote to you this morning and I know not wether you have got the letter or not and he has swore that If you do not answer It or If he dose not se or hear from you to day he will write Mrs. Hamilton he has just Gone oute and I am a Lone I think you had better come here one moment that you May know the Cause then you will the better know how to act Oh my God I feel more for you than myself and wish I had never been born to give you so mutch unhappisness do not rite to him no not a Line but come here soon do not send or leave any thing in his power[.]
James Reynolds wrote: … You have deprived me of every thing thats near and dear to me. … Sir you took the advantage a poor Broken harted woman, instead of being a Friend, you have acted the part of the most Cruelist man in existance. you have made a whole family miserable. She ses there is no other man that she Care for in this world, now Sir you have bin the Cause of Cooling her affections for me. … but now I am determed to have satisfation. it shant be onely one [f|amily thats miserable, for I am Robbed of all happiness in this world. … now Sir if I Cant see you at your house call and see me. for there is no person that Knowes any thing as yet. And I am tiremd to see you, by some Means or other, for you have made me an unhappy man for eve. put it to your own case and Reflect one Moment, that you should know shush a thing of your wife, would not you have satisfaction yes. and so will I before one day passes me more.
After several meetings with Hamilton and an exchange of letters, Reynolds wrote out the consolation he expected for his wounded honor: … now Sir I have Considered on the matter Serously. I have This preposial to make to you. give me the Sum Of thousand dollars and I will leve the town and take my daughter with me and go where my Friends Shant here from me and leve her to Yourself to do for as you thin[k] proper. … your answer I shall expect This evening or in the morning early, as I am Determened to wate no longer till. I know my lot[.|
Hamilton paid the money in two installments—six hundred dollars on December 22 and four hundred dollars (receipted by Reynolds “in full of all demands”) on January 3, 1792 —and he abstained for several weeks from visiting; Maria Reynolds. But on January 17 Reynolds (who did not leave town) wrote: … its Mrs. R. wish to See you. and for My own happiness and hers. I have not the Least Objections to your Calling, as a friend to Boath of us. … I Rely on your befriending me if there should be any thing OfTer that would be to my advantage, as you Express a wish to befrind me. …
When Hamilton still did not call, Mrs. Reynolds begged him to visit her at least once more. He resumed his visits and Reynolds his demands for what he called loans—at least $135 in April, $350 in May, $50 in June, and $200 in August. Reynolds entreated him in March to call, since “I find when ever you have been with her. she is Chearful and kind, but when you have not in some time she is Quite to Reverse, and wishes to be alone by her self.” But in May he forbade Hamilton ever to see his wife again, declaring that he had decided to put “a finell end to it.” Hamilton had insulted him by stealing into his house by the back door. ”… am I a person of Such a bad Carector,” he asked, “that you would not wish to be seen Coming in my house in the front way.” Hamilton later concluded that the intent was to make him use the front door, where he might be seen, because of a “project of some deeper treason against me.”
The visits to Mrs. Reynolds continued at least through mid-August, 1792. Mrs. Reynolds’ entreaties had also continued in three more undated letters, from which these passages come: … oh I am disstressed more than I can tell My heart Is ready to burst and my tears wich once could flow with Ease are now denied me. … if my dear freend has the Least Esteeme for the unhappy Maria whos greateest fault Is Loveing him he will come as soon as he shall get this and till that time My breast will be the seate of pain and woe. … yes my friend I am doomed to drink the bitter cup of affliction Pure and unmixcd but why should I repine why pour forth my wretched soul in fruitless complainings for you have said It you have commanded and I must submit tow heaven Inexorable heaven Is deaf to my anguish and has marked me out for the child of sorrow. … gracious God had I the world I would lay It at your feet If I could only se you oh I must or I shall lose my senses. …
That fall events took a more serious turn. Reynolds and a crony named Jacob Clingman had worked together in buying up the claims to back pay of veterans of the Continental Army, claims the new government had not honored. Because of their dubious value, Reynolds and Clingman got them at a figure considerably below what the veterans were entitled to. (They used Treasury Department lists improperly supplied them by Simeon Reynolds, a Treasury clerk who was probably related to James Reynolds.) Now Oliver Wolcott, Comptroller of the Treasury, swore out two warrants for the arrest of Reynolds and Clingman for fraud and subornation of a witness; they had put in for the pay claims of a soldier who instead of being dead, as stated, inconveniently appeared to bring charges against them. Reynolds was jailed. Clingman, free on bail, turned for help to a congressman whom he had formerly served as a clerk: Frederick A. Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, former clergyman, a moderate Federalist who had been Speaker of the House.
Over a period of three weeks Clingman, in Muhlenberg’s words, “unasked, frequently dropped hints to me, that Reynolds had it in his power very materially to injure the Secretary oftheTreasury.… when … it was even added that … he [Hamilton] was deeply concerned in speculation, that he had frequently advanced money to him [Reynolds], and other insinuations of an improper nature, it created considerable uneasiness on my mind. …” Muhlenberg considered Reynolds “a rascal,” but he carried the story to two friends and colleagues, Senator James Monroc and Congressman Abraham Venable, both Virginians and both Antifederalists.
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.
∗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?
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.)
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.”
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.
—The letters address themselves in a “remarkable manner … going beyond the range of mere coincidence … to the specific details of the adverse testimony”—for example, the amount of blackmail money demanded.
Professor Boyd devotes considerable attention to the texts of the alleged letters themselves: … Mrs. Reynolds was capable of good grammatical construction and her spelling was generally correct. But one of her peculiarities was that she misspelled simple words while handling more difficult ones with ease. She had no trouble with tortured, happiness, disappointment, anguish, … consolation, existence, complaining , and adieu . But words of one or two syllables gave her much difficulty. She usually but not invariably wrote se for see , rite for write , mutch for much , moast for most , pilliow for pillow , and so on. …
… Like his wife, Reynolds had difficulty with simple words, spelling fue for few , booth for both , and shush for such . But he could handle polysyllabic words without difficulty, such as distraction, imprudent, disagreeable , and calculation , in addition to a number of such words that she also employed. … Like her also, he had the peculiarity of being able to spell some words in unusual ways and at the same time—often in the same letter— to give its correct form. … sprinkled as these words are rather sparingly through long passages of generally well wrought sentences framed with a due regard for conventional idiom and with the overwhelming majority of the words being in correct form, these idiosyncratic spellings can only be regarded as incredibly naive inventions.
Thus on every score, even in the absence of the original letters of James and Maria Reynolds, the conclusion is obvious. Mrs. Reynolds’ charge that the letters were forged cannot be supported by objective proof. … [But they] exhibit in their texts, in their substantive incongruities, and in their conflict with verifiable evidence overwhelming proofs of their own insufficiency. They are the palpably contrived documents of a brilliant and daring man who, writing under much stress in the two or three days available to him in 1792, tried to imitate what he conceived to be the style of less literate persons. The result was inexpert to the point of naivete, but its character is beyond doubt. The purported letters of James and Maria Reynolds … cannot be accepted as genuine.
In his summation Dr. Boyd expresses the belief as a Jeflersonian that the clash between Hamilton and Jefferson represented “two fundamentally opposed and irreconcilable ways of looking at government. … both in principle and in practice, Hamilton took his guidance from the old order, Jefferson from the new.” Hamiltonians disagree violently with that view, and they will no doubt address themselves to finding the loopholes in Dr. Boyd’s case, the possibilities for rebuttal, and the answers to questions obviously still unanswered. But Jeffersonians and Hamiltonians alike should agree with his reason for reopening an issue long considered settled and closed: ”… history, long after the passions and polemics of the time have been quieted, requires that any barrier be probed, whatever the cost, when persons have been defamed or truth injured or questions not asked.”
In any case, an intriguing story that has always been called the Hamilton-Reynolds Affair is now doubly intriguing under the new name it must carry: the HamiltonReynolds Mystery.