America’s First Political Sex Scandal

5 minute read

In the summer of 1791, a woman went to Alexander Hamilton’s home in Philadelphia, telling a story of an abusive husband who had run off, leaving her destitute. Hamilton agreed to bring money to her house. When he arrived, he later wrote, “Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.”

So began what may well be America’s first political sex scandal. Hamilton’s attachment to Maria (pronounced “Mariah”) Reynolds lasted at least a year, even after her husband, James, began blackmailing Hamilton—$1,000 in exchange for his silence. Hamilton began to pay in installments, and he tried more than once to end the relationship, but each time either Maria or James would claim she was grief-stricken and he had to see her again. The entreaties have raised the question of whether the affair was devised as a trap from the start. Making matters worse, a political foe, Jacob Clingman, saw Hamilton leaving the Reynolds’ home more than once. When confronted, Maria told him that Hamilton had been involved with her husband in some improper financial speculation.

Hamilton finally disentangled himself from the couple, making his last payment in June 1792. But rumors that he was covering up illegal speculation persisted. When Clingman brought letters implying just that to other politicians (including James Monroe), they confronted Hamilton. Eager to prove he had not compromised his role as Treasury secretary, he confessed to his private misdeeds. But though he asked the group to keep the truth secret, it eventually leaked. Some suspect the clerk who had copied Clingman’s notes for Monroe. In 1797 a crude pamphleteer named James Thomson Callender publicly charged Hamilton with inappropriate behavior.

Hamilton had been accused of infidelity in print before, and his enduring reputation as a flirt made it easy to believe he had transgressed again. (In truth, there is no proof of his straying any other time in his marriage.) Furious that his public record was being besmirched, he went on the offensive. “The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for the purposes of improper pecuniary speculation,” he wrote in a 95-page booklet. “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.”

Revealing the details of the dalliance struck many as excessive, and [Hamilton’s wife] Eliza must have been devastated by the attention. Alexander acknowledged as much in his booklet: “I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang which [this confession] may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity and love.” Washington wrote a letter to Hamilton that conveyed his distress at seeing a friend in trouble without actually acknowledging the affair. The note accompanied a gift to Eliza: a four-bottle wine cooler that she treasured for the rest of her life.

Eliza was pregnant when the infidelity became public, and Hamilton held off on publishing his response until after she delivered their sixth child. For her part, Eliza never publicly commented on the scandal, and her husband’s notes to her were still as sweet as ever. “I always feel how necessary you are to me,” he wrote in 1798. “But when you are absent, I become still more sensible of it and look around in vain for that satisfaction which you alone can bestow.”

For a while, the Hamiltons found renewed happiness and quietude in a new home in Upper Manhattan. But more tumult lay ahead. First, their son Philip was killed in a duel in 1801. Eliza was pregnant again and honored her fallen son by naming the baby Philip. Her eldest daughter, Angelica, took the loss particularly hard; she had a breakdown and never recovered. It’s said she continued to speak of her brother as if he were alive.

Alexander must have had the tragedy in mind in the days leading up to his own duel three years later, taking pains to shield his family from the preparations. But there could be no avoiding the aftermath, particularly Eliza and the children having to say good-bye to him on his deathbed.

Eliza, who never remarried, found some comfort in a lock of hair clipped from her husband’s head, and she wore around her neck a bag holding two pages: a sonnet her husband wrote to woo her and a hymn he left her on the morning of the duel. And as a new generation came to regard the widow as a fine piece of history, she took pleasure in regaling them with fond memories of “My Hamilton.”

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