Hamilton–Reynolds sex scandal
The Hamilton–Reynolds Affair was a political scandal around the time of the presidencies of George Washington and John Adams. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had a two-year affair with Maria Reynolds while paying Maria's 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 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 her husband James had abandoned her and her daughter. The two began an illicit affair that would last until 1792.
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.
Maria Reynolds eventually divorced James Reynolds. Her attorney in the proceedings was Aaron Burr. However, Hamilton paid Reynolds more than $1,000 in blackmail over several years to maintain secrecy about the affair. But 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 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 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 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. Hamilton responded to 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 his reputation.
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- A fictionalized account of the affair as well as background information about the enmity between Jefferson and Hamilton.