America's First Sex Scandal
Alexander Hamilton always worried about his legacy, but he probably didn't want to be remembered for adultery
An adultery scandal almost seems quaint in these days, many miss the days when there was decorum and respect among politicians. President Clinton getting his dick sucked in the Oval Office may have been a precursor to the #MeToo movement, but Alexander Hamilton was the first politician to watch his career go up in flames over an ill-advised affair. Maria and James Reynolds would play a part in making sure that Hamilton's name was synonymous with America's very first sex scandal.
The affair started innocently enough. Maria Reynolds found Hamilton's home in Philadelphia and begged him for help. As she recounted her story, Her husband was neglectful, abusive, and had finally abandoned her in a city she didn't know. All she wanted was to get back to New York City, and since Hamilton was from there as well, it made sense that he would be able to help her out. Hamilton agreed but let her know he didn't have the resources right then and would have to come to see her later that evening.
When Hamilton went to the boarding house Maria was staying at, she invited him up to her room. It was at that moment that the pair cheated on their spouses for the first time. Eliza Hamilton happened to be visiting her father in Albany, leaving Alexander to his own devices. Maria and Hamilton began to see each other regularly, meeting at his house and carrying on an illicit affair.
James Reynolds came back and learned of the affair, or perhaps he and Maria had devised the scheme together, depending on what one believes. He sent the first blackmail note to Hamilton asking for $1,000 and granting permission to his newfound romantic rival to continue the affair with his wife. Hamilton began to write checks and trying to keep James quiet about his secret. In the letters, James promised to leave Philly but didn't, and kept asking for more money from Hamilton. He also encouraged both Maria and Hamilton to keep seeing each other. Hamilton declined and stopped seeing his mistress in the summer of 1792.
James Reynolds and a friend, Jacob Clingman, were arrested because they tried to defraud the government in November 1792. Clingman got out on bail and went to his congressman, Frederick Muhlenberg, and tried to cut a deal with him. There was information on Hamilton, but he wanted the charges against him to go away. No word on if Muhlenberg agreed to the terms but he shared the information with two other people, James Monroe, and Abraham Venable. The accusation included Hamilton engaging in speculation and possibly treason. If true, this would end Hamilton, who had made more enemies than any politician before or since.
Muhlenberg, Monroe, and Venable went to Hamilton's house and laid out the charges against him. To their surprise, Hamilton came clean about sleeping with someone else's wife and being blackmailed by James. He showed them the records he had kept, including letters from James and Maria. The trio of men promised to keep Hamilton's secret, but in politics, a man's word is as good as his last election. Monroe shared the documents they had seen with Thomas Jefferson and House of Representatives clerk, John Beckley.
George Washington had decided not to run for President again, Hamilton stepped down from his post and went quiet on the political front. In 1796, he had been expected to run for President but he never threw his hat into the ring, and one of his enemies, John Adams won. The Reynolds Pamphlet was published that year, under the name Phocion Some have wondered why that name. Phocion was known as "The Good" politician in Ancient Greece. Those essays contained not only Hamilton's admission that he had committed adultery but also insinuated that Thomas Jefferson had been forcing his slave, Sally Hemings, to have sex with him as well. The political firestorm was in full force.
James Callendar, a journalist known for yellow journalism, wrote several articles that claimed Hamilton had engaged in speculation in Government bonds with James Reynolds. Beckley was responsible for the release of that information to Callendar, though both Alexander and Eliza Hamilton blamed Monroe. It is believed that Eliza went to the grave holding a grudge against Monroe because she believed that he ruined her life and reputation. The Reynolds Pamphlet was released to protect the Treasury Department, The Federalist Party, and in the hopes that Hamilton may one day still be President, clearing himself of charges should also be on that list.
The serious charges never stuck, but the admission of infidelity made it impossible for Hamilton to even run for President. Though it did not end his career, he was still popular and had a lot of influence with his party. His rivalry with Adams exploded with Hamilton taking on the incumbent President and wrecking the chances of his party holding onto the Presidency. When the election of 1800 came in as a tie, Hamilton supported Jefferson against Aaron Burr. Once again he had proved that his influence was immense. It would also lead to his demise.
Since those days, America has seen many sex scandals. But the first is such a twisted tale that it is hidden in every crevice of the country's corners. It also helped change the course of history in ways that we may never know.