Hamilton–Reynolds sex scandal
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The Hamilton–Reynolds sex scandal was a political scandal during the presidency of George Washington. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had a three-year affair with Maria Reynolds while paying her husband James Reynolds blackmail money to maintain secrecy. Hamilton was forced to admit the affair after James Reynolds threatened to implicate him in Reynolds' own scheme involving speculation on unpaid back wages intended for Revolutionary War veterans. The affair was one of the first sex scandals in American political history.
In 1791, 23-year-old Maria Reynolds approached the married 36-year-old Alexander Hamilton in Philadelphia, requesting his help. Claiming that James Reynolds had abandoned her and her daughter, Maria asked him for enough money to transport them back to New York City, where her family lived. Hamilton consented, and delivered the money in person to Maria later that night. As Hamilton himself later confessed, "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 be acceptable." The two began an illicit affair that would last at least three years.
Over the course of 1791 and 1792 while the affair took place, James Reynolds was well aware of his wife's unfaithfulness. He continually supported the affair to regularly gain blackmail money from Hamilton. The common practice in the day was for the wronged husband to seek retribution in a pistol duel, but Reynolds, realizing how much Hamilton had to lose if his activity came into public view, insisted on monetary compensation instead.
Hamilton eventually paid Reynolds more than $1,000 in blackmail over several years to maintain secrecy about the affair. But after Reynolds was jailed for participation in a scheme involving speculation on unpaid back wages intended for Revolutionary War veterans, he used his knowledge about Hamilton’s sex affair to bargain his way out of his own troubles. Reynolds knew Hamilton would have to choose between revealing his affair with Maria, or admitting complicity to the speculation charges. James Monroe and Frederick Muhlenberg were the first men to hear of this possible corruption within the nation's new government. Monroe and Muhlenberg confronted Hamilton with the information they had received. Denying any financial impropriety, Hamilton revealed the true nature of his relationship with Maria Reynolds in all its unsavory details, even turning over his letters from Maria.
Apparently convinced that Hamilton was not guilty of the speculation charge, Monroe and Muhlenberg agreed not to make public the information and documents on the Reynolds Affair. Monroe and his colleagues assured Hamilton that the matter was settled. However, Monroe did send the love letters to his close personal friend, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson and Hamilton were self-described nemeses, and five years after receiving the letters, Jefferson used the knowledge to start rumors about Hamilton's private life. In that same year, 1797, when Hamilton no longer held the post of Secretary of the Treasury, the details of his relationship to Maria and James Reynolds came to light in a series of pamphlets authored by journalist James Thomson Callender. Included were copies of the documents Hamilton had furnished to the Monroe commission in 1792. Hamilton confronted Monroe over the leakage of the supposedly confidential documents. Monroe denied any responsibility. Hamilton called him a liar and Monroe retorted that Hamilton was a scoundrel and challenged him to a duel. Interestingly, the duel was averted by the intercession of none other than Aaron Burr. Hamilton responded by Callender's revelations by printing his own 95 page pamphlet called Observations on Certain Documents in which he denied all charges of corruption. He did not, however, deny his relationship with Maria Reynolds; instead, he openly admitted it and apologized for it.
While his candor was admired, the affair severely damaged Hamilton's reputation. Prior to this, Maria Reynolds had divorced James Reynolds; her attorney in the proceedings was none other than Aaron Burr, who would eventually kill Hamilton in their infamous 1804 duel.
- Freeman, Joanne B. (2002). Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300097559.
- Nancy Isenberg, "Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr," New York, Penguin, 2007, pp. 120-121.
- Isenberg, Ibid., p. 163; Joseph Wheelan, "Jefferson's Vendetta," New York: Carroll & Graf, 2005, p. 88.
Weigant, Chris (7 November 2011). "America's First Political Sex Scandal: The Reynolds/Hamilton Affair". ChrisWeigant.com. Retrieved 17 November 2012.
- Cerniglia, Keith A. "An Indelicate Amor: Alexander Hamilton and the First American Political Sex Scandal," Master's Thesis, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 2002.
- Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow Penguin Press (April 26, 2004) ISBN 1-59420-009-2.
- Relevant excerpt from Chernow's Alexander Hamilton pp. 364–7 
- Scandalmonger ISBN 0-684-86719-2 by William Safire. A well documented fictionalized account of the affair as well as background information about the enmity between Jefferson and Hamilton.