The Hamilton–Reynolds affair involved Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who had a four-month affair with Maria Reynolds between 1791 and 1792, during George Washington's presidency. Upon discovery of the affair by Maria's husband, James Reynolds, Hamilton paid him over $1,300 (about a third of his annual income) of blackmail money to maintain secrecy. Hamilton was forced to admit to the affair after James Reynolds threatened to implicate him in Reynolds' own scheme involving unpaid back wages intended for Revolutionary War veterans. The affair was one of the first sex scandals in American political history.
In the summer of 1791, 23-year-old Maria Reynolds allegedly approached the married 34-year-old Alexander Hamilton in Philadelphia to request his help and monetary aid claiming her husband James had abandoned her. Hamilton did not have any money on his person, so he retrieved her address in order to deliver the funds in person. Once Hamilton arrived at the boarding house where Maria was lodging, she brought him upstairs and led him into her bedroom; he later recounted, "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, with varying frequency, until approximately June 1792.
Over the course of those months, while the affair took place, James Reynolds was well aware of his wife's unfaithfulness. He continually supported their relationship to regularly gain blackmail money from Hamilton. In the Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton goes as far as to argue that James Reynolds, along with his wife, conspired the scheme to, in Hamilton's own words, "extort money from me." 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 this activity came into public view, insisted on monetary compensation instead. In fact after Hamilton had shown unequivocal signs that he wanted to end the affair in the autumn of 1791 Hamilton received two letters on December 15, 1791, one each from Mrs. and Mr. Reynolds. The first letter, from Maria, warned of her husband's knowledge and of James' attempting to blackmail Hamilton. By this point Hamilton discontinued the affair and briefly ceased to visit, but both Reynoldses apparently were involved in the blackmailing scheme as both sent letters inviting Hamilton to continue his visits. After extorting $1000 in exchange for secrecy over Hamilton's adultery, James Reynolds rethought his request that Hamilton cease his relationship with Maria and wrote inviting him to renew his visits "as a friend", only to extort forced "loans" after each visit which the most likely colluding Maria solicited with her letters. By May 2, 1792, James Reynolds changed his mind again and requested that Hamilton no longer see his wife, but not before receiving additional payment; in the end the blackmail payments totaled over $1,300 including the initial extortion (equivalent to $20,000 in 2019). Hamilton at this point was possibly aware of both Reynoldses being involved in the blackmail and welcomed as well as strictly complied with Reynolds' request to end the affair.
Historian Tilar J. Mazzeo has advanced a theory that the affair never happened. Outside of the Reynolds Pamphlet, there is no evidence that the affair occurred; others connected with the scandal, from James Monroe, who held the papers relating to James Reynolds, to Maria Reynolds herself, said that it was a cover-up for a financial scandal. Hamilton never produced the manuscript copies of Maria's letters, though the newspapers and Maria both suggested obtaining a handwriting sample. Hamilton said that they had been placed with a friend of his, who claimed that he had never seen them, suggesting that the letters could have been forged. The newspaper writers also pointed out that Maria's letters correctly spell long, complex words and yet sometimes misspelled simple words in a way that makes no phonetic sense; as Thomas Jefferson biographer Julian P. Boyd stated, the letters could resemble what an educated man believed an uneducated woman's love letters to look like. A Hamilton biographer also stated that the letters look like the letters between Alexander and his wife Eliza, which could explain why Eliza burned her letters.
In November 1792, after James Reynolds was jailed for participation in a scheme involving 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 falsely admitting complicity to the charges. James Monroe, Abraham Venable and Frederick Muhlenberg were the first men to hear of this possible corruption within the nation's new government and on 15 December 1792 decided to personally confront Hamilton with the information they had received, supported by the notes of Hamilton's payments to Reynolds that Maria had given them to corroborate her husband's accusations. Denying any financial impropriety, Hamilton revealed the true nature of his relationship with Maria Reynolds and her husband in all its unsavory details. He even turned over the letters from both Maria and James Reynolds.
Apparently convinced that Hamilton was not guilty of the charge of public misconduct, Monroe, Venable 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 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 with 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 December 1792. Hamilton confronted Monroe over the leakage of the supposedly confidential documents. Monroe denied any responsibility. Hamilton came very close to calling Monroe a liar, and Monroe retorted that Hamilton was a scoundrel and challenged him to a duel. The duel was averted by the intercession of none other than Aaron Burr, who years later would himself kill Hamilton in a duel. After writing a first draft in July 1797, on 25 August 1797 Hamilton responded to Callender's revelations by printing his own 95-page pamphlet called Observations on Certain Documents, later known as the "Reynolds Pamphlet", 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 his reputation. While Hamilton's admitted affair served to confirm rival Thomas Jefferson's conviction that he was untrustworthy, it did nothing to change Washington's opinion of him, who still held him in "very high esteem" and who still viewed Hamilton as the dominant force in establishing federal law and government.
In popular culture
This early sex scandal in American history has received multiple fictional portrayals. It was first depicted in the 1931 biographical film Alexander Hamilton. In the 2015 musical Hamilton, the Reynolds affair is a key moment in the Second Act, figuring directly in the songs "Say No to This" (in which the affair begins), "We Know" (in which Hamilton is initially confronted by Jefferson et al.), "Hurricane" (in which Hamilton decides to write the Reynolds Pamphlet), "The Reynolds Pamphlet", and "Burn", which depicts Hamilton's wife Eliza burning all of her letters to him in response to the publication of the pamphlet and to the events the pamphlet describes and then suggesting that Hamilton himself "burn." The affair also plays a role in David Liss's book The Whiskey Rebels.
- Hamilton, Alexander. "Printed Version of the "Reynolds Pamphlet", 1797". Founders Online. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
- Hamilton, Alexander, “Printed Version of the ‘Reynolds Pamphlet,’ 1797, Founders Online, available from https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-21-02-0138-0002; Internet, accessed 15 October 2018.
- Freeman 2002
- Hamilton, Alexander. "Draft of the "Reynolds Pamphlet", July 1797". Founders Online.
- Schachner, Alexander Hamilton, 1946, pp. 366-369
- Reynolds, Maria. "Letter to Alexander Hamilton from Maria Reynolds [15 December 1791]". Founders Online. National Archives. Retrieved 30 June 2016.
- Reynolds, James. "Letter from James Reynolds to Alexander Hamilton, 19 December 1791". Founders Online.
- Reynolds, James. "Letter from James Reynolds to Alexander Hamilton, 17 January 1792". Founders Online.
- Reynolds, James. "Letter from James Reynolds to Alexander Hamilton, 2 May 1792". Founders Online.
- Schachner, Alexander Hamilton, 1946, p. 366
- Murray, p. 165.
- Mazzeo, Tilar (2018). Eliza Hamilton. NY: Simon and Schuster. p. 295. ISBN 978-1-5011-6630-3.
- Mazzeo, Tilar (2018). Eliza Hamilton. NY: Simon and Schuster. pp. 296–297. ISBN 978-1-5011-6630-3.
- Isenberg 2007, pp. 120–121
- Isenberg 2007, p. 163
- Wheelan 2005, p. 88
- Hamilton, Alexander. "Printed Version of the "Reynolds Pamphlet", 1797". Founders Online.
- Ferling 2013, pp. 283—284, 301—302.
- Ferling, John (2013). Jefferson and Hamilton: the rivalry that forged a nation. Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1608195428.CS1 maint: ref=harv (link)
- Freeman, Joanne B. (2002). Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300097559.
- Isenberg, Nancy (2007). Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. New York: Penguin.
- Mazzeo, Tilar (2018). Eliza Hamilton. New York: Simon and Schuster.
- Wheelan, Joseph (2005). Jefferson's Vendetta. New York: Carroll & Graf.
- Cerniglia, Keith A. "An Indelicate Amor: Alexander Hamilton and the First American Political Sex Scandal," Master's Thesis, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 2002.
- Chernow, Ron (April 26, 2004). Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Press. ISBN 1-59420-009-2.
- Cobbs, Elizabeth The Hamilton Affair (Arcade Publishing, August 2016). A historical novel on Alexander Hamilton and his wife Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton including a fictional account of the Reynolds affair and its impact on the Hamiltons' marriage. ISBN 9781628728552
- Safire, William (2000). Scandalmonger. ISBN 0-684-86719-2. A fictional account of the affair as well as background information about the enmity between Jefferson and Hamilton.
- Cogan, Jacob Katz. "The Reynolds Affair and the Politics of Character." Journal of the Early Republic 16, no. 3 (1996): 389-417, doi:10.2307/3124057