Historical Scandals: The Hamilton-Reynolds Affair

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton is famous for many accomplishments. As the first American treasury secretary, it is not hyperbole to credit him with the survival of the young United States. Before that, he had served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington and knew first-hand the struggle of managing the states and resources as separate entities, hence his passionate lobbying for a strong central government. He created America’s Coast Guard to increase import taxes, the first national bank to stabilize US debt and currency, and the New York Evening Post to share his side of the story with Americans. 

One might say that Hamilton was an over-sharer. He struggled to turn the other cheek when on the receiving end of insults or even when someone simply expressed an opposing opinion. Most infamously, he clashed with future president Thomas Jefferson on almost every issue facing the nation’s first administration. Jefferson, a wealthy plantation owner, liked to paint himself as a rural common man while claiming that Hamilton, an orphan from the West Indies who worked his way to the top, was an elite monarchist. It was quite a political spin. 

Hamilton wrote tirelessly, leaving little doubt how he felt about any issue and leaving us some of the most impressive records of the creation of the United States, including most of the Federalist Papers. In 1797, he wrote the pamphlet that clouded his many accomplishments in the shadow of scandal. The Reynolds Pamphlet (actually titled Observations on Certain Documents Contained in No V & VI of ‘The History of the United States for the Year 1796,’ In Which the Charge of Speculation Against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, Is Fully Refuted) was intended to convince Hamilton’s peers and the public that he had not been involved in any illegal financial activities during his time as treasury secretary. After a lengthy rebuttal of the charges against him, Hamilton penned the lines that have gone down in infamy:

“The charge against me is 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.

This confession is not made without a blush. I cannot be the apologist of any vice because the ardour of passion may have made it mine. I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang, which it may inflict in a bosom eminently intitled to all my gratitude, fidelity and love. But that bosom will approve, that even at so great an expence, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name, which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public too will I trust excuse the confession. The necessity of it to my defence against a more heinous charge could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum.”

Hamilton’s version of events has been widely accepted as truth, but not by everyone. For the few remaining years of his life, he defended his work as treasury secretary while admitting that he had been an unfaithful husband, but some continued to believe that Hamilton and other family members had benefited from insider information and financial schemes. Was the Reynolds scandal financial or adulterous? 

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, popularly known as Eliza, was the party most impacted by her husband’s confession. Biographer Tilar Mazzeo believes Eliza’s passion for preserving her husband’s memory (she outlived him by 50 years) is evidence that the affair between Alexander and Maria Reynolds never happened. Mazzeo believes the letters referring to their escapades are fake and that Eliza may have even helped Alexander concoct the story to cover up a financial scandal that could have ruined him. Mazzeo insists that forgiving and defending Alexander for a torrid extramarital affair was simply out of character for the strong, loyal Eliza, that it would make her appear foolish. But is Eliza’s biographer judging this 18th century wife too much by 21st century standards when she claims that the independent minded Eliza was ‘nobody’s fool’ and would not have acted the way she did if she believed the truth according to her husband’s lengthy pamphlet?

Eliza burned her personal correspondence, a common habit at the time to preserve one’s privacy, which makes it difficult to know what she believed of the Reynolds affair. What we do know is that she defended her husband’s name for half a century after he had died, never accusing him of wrong-doing or infidelity. Her children remembered her repeating well into old age that, ‘Justice shall be done to the memory of my Hamilton.’ She tirelessly tracked down his papers and letters, hiring multiple biographers to make sense of it all. Eliza did not behave like a woman wronged, but how did a wronged 18th century housewife behave?

18th century wives had few legal rights, and societal expectations clearly defined their roles in the home. The infidelity of a woman was considered unacceptable, after all it could lead to a man raising another man’s children. However, infidelity of a husband was, if not acceptable, considered something a wife may have to tolerate. It sometimes reflected as poorly upon the wife if a husband strayed, for she might be blamed for not keeping him content. This was Eliza’s world, and these attitudes may explain how she could forgive a tryst and publicly defend her late husband as an eminent Founding Father.

The Reynolds Pamphlet

To support her theory, Mazzeo points out that of James Callender wrote of it in his History of the United States for 1796. It was this publication that Hamilton was responding to when he wrote the Reynolds Pamphlet. Callender, a National Inquirer sort of journalist, was renewing years’ old accusations of Hamilton’s alleged financial speculation, including copies of documents that Hamilton’s enemies had presented to him for explanation back in 1791. Callender dismissed adultery as the key scandal, calling it out of character and ’eminently foolish’ for Hamilton to go to such length to cover a mere extramarital affair. But, if the treasury secretary were going to participate in illegal financial schemes, would he do it with a disreputable partner and only $50 at a time?

Eliza and her children were left in debt and at the mercy of friends when Alexander was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr at age 49. There is little evidence in the charity they were forced to seek that Hamilton had been participating in get rich quick schemes. Even less do Eliza’s words about her husband indicate that she resented anything he had done. She accepted his faults with his astounding strengths, calling him ‘my beloved, sainted husband and my guardian angel.’ It was her duty to ‘look forward to grief’ after a life that included a ‘double share of blessings.’

According to historian Ron Chernow, Hamilton kept a trunk of papers marked ‘JR’ which held correspondence from James and Maria Reynolds as well as Alexander’s records and rebuttals of the various accusations against him. As Chernow writes, ‘Hamilton’s strategy was simple: he was prepared to sacrifice his private reputation to preserve his public honor.’ He did. In excruciating detail that left little doubt that he had betrayed his wife. In contrast, there is no reliable evidence that Hamilton ever participated in illegal financial schemes. When Thomas Jefferson became president, he tasked the new treasury secretary with searching, once again, for evidence against Hamilton. Even those who wished to discredit him the most couldn’t find anything to charge him with.

Eliza said her last words on the Reynolds scandal three decades later when James Monroe, by that time a former president, visited the elderly widow. Sure that Monroe had betrayed her husband by failing to secure the documents that fell into Callender’s hands, Eliza never forgave him. Whatever made him attempt to see ‘past differences…forgiven and forgotten,’ he was dismissed with vehemence. ‘Mr Monroe, if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations and the slanders and the stories you circulated against my dear husband, if you have come to say this, I understand it. But otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.’

What do you think of the Hamilton-Reynolds Affair? Sexual escapade or financial scheme?

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Reynolds Pamphlet: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-21-02-0138-0002

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton by Tilar Mazzeo

Coming in 2022: Women of the American Revolution by Samantha Wilcoxson