Alexander Hamilton - Ron Chernow (2005)

Chapter 21. EXPOSURE

The turbulent events of 1792—the rise of political parties, the newspaper wars, the furious intramural fights with Jefferson—should have made Alexander Hamilton extra vigilant about threats to his reputation. Now at the apex of his power, the thirty-seven-year-old treasury secretary had enemies ready to exploit his every failing. Despite this vulnerability, he continued his affair with Maria Reynolds and went on paying hush money to James Reynolds. His moral laxity and absurd willingness to risk exposure at such a moment remain a baffling conundrum.

Adding danger was the sudden appearance of a menacing new spectator: Jacob Clingman, a friend of James Reynolds and a former clerk of the erstwhile House Speaker Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania. Arriving at the Reynolds home one day, Clingman was stunned to discover Alexander Hamilton leaving. Several days later, Clingman beheld another dreamlike tableau. He was alone with Maria Reynolds when someone rapped at the door and the treasury secretary entered. Perhaps startled by Clingman’s presence, Hamilton pretended, ridiculously, that he was delivering a message. He handed Maria a slip of paper, explaining that he had been “ordered” to give it to her by her husband, and left. The stupefied Clingman wondered how James Reynolds could boss around America’s second most powerful man. Responding to his inquiries afterward, Maria Reynolds boasted that Hamilton had paid her husband “upwards of eleven hundred dollars.”1 James Reynolds likewise bragged to Clingman that he had gotten money from Hamilton for speculation. An archcritic of Hamilton’s policies, Clingman was predisposed to see such payments as proof of Hamilton conniving with speculators in government securities. On one occasion, Clingman accompanied James Reynolds to visit Hamilton, waited outside, then watched his companion emerge with one hundred dollars. This certified his suspicion of Hamilton’s venality.

Hamilton claimed that he had tried to terminate his liaison with Maria Reynolds. Whenever he told her that he wanted to break off the relationship, this femme fatale responded with sighs, groans, and weepy theatrics. She would beg to see him one last time and hint that, if denied her wishes, frightful consequences might ensue:

Yes Sir Rest assuirred I will never ask you to Call on me again I have kept my Bed those tow dayes and now rise from My pillow wich your Neglect has filled with the sharpest thorns I no Longer doubt what I have Dreaded to no but stop I do not wish to se you to say any thing about my Late disappointments No I only do it to Ease a heart wich is ready Burst with Greef I can neither Eate or sleep I have Been on the point of doing the moast horrid acts at I shuder to think where I might been what will Become of me. In vain I try to Call reason to aide me but alas there Is no Comfort for me2

Maria’s maid was kept busy bustling through the night, relaying such erratic notes. One can only imagine Hamilton’s cold sweats and unremitting horror at the thought of discovery by Eliza, who was now pregnant with their fifth child.

James Reynolds followed current events, and his threatening letters often coincided with key episodes in Hamilton’s public life. Reynolds thought that Hamilton was an unscrupulous official who had given William Duer money for speculation and secretly made thirty thousand dollars from their illicit relationship—false information that he passed along to Clingman. So in late March 1792, as Hamilton grappled with financial panic in New York, James Reynolds forced him to grapple with turmoil in his private life. The day after Duer was imprisoned, both James and Maria Reynolds wrote to Hamilton and tightened the noose. They acted their roles to perfection: James, the strong but aggrieved husband, who had lost his wife’s affections because of Hamilton; and Maria, the fickle, confused wife, hopelessly smitten with her lover, who gave way to operatic ravings and invocations of her cruel fortune. Did Hamilton find it poignant or merely grotesque that she still addressed him in writing as “Colonel Hamilton” and “Sir”?

In the letters sent after Duer’s arrest, Maria Reynolds spouted poppycock about how she was “doomed to drink the bitter cup of affliction” and how “death now would be welcome.” She renewed her pleas for another visit.3Simultaneously, James Reynolds told Hamilton that he had no wish to harm him but demanded satisfaction for his loss of domestic felicity. “I find when ever you have been with her. she is Chearful and kind,” James Reynolds explained to Hamilton. “But when you have not in some time she is Quite to Reverse. and wishes to be alone by her self.” This disturbed him, of course, as a loving husband. Maria had told Hamilton that her husband wished to meet him the next evening, so James Reynolds explained, with elaborate mock courtesy, that he hoped to convince Hamilton that “I would not wish to trifle with you And would much Rather add to the happiness of all than to disstress any.”4

Whatever happened at this meeting, it only emboldened James Reynolds to demand more money. At first, he did so with a cringing humility. A week later, this master of malapropisms wrote to Hamilton, “Sir I hope you will pardon me in taking the liberty I do In troubling you so offen. it hurts me to let you Know my Setivation. I should take it as a protickeler if you will Oblige me with the loane of about thirty Dollars…. I want it for some little Necssaries of life for my family, sir.”5 To give a thin veneer of legality to his extortion, Reynolds pretended to be a proud family man who needed loans to tide him over tough times. He even gave Hamilton receipts and promised to repay the “loans.” Four days later, Reynolds again requested money, this time forty-five dollars; the blackmailer was becoming more brazen. In a reply written without salutation or signature, Hamilton told Reynolds of his “scarcity of cash” and informed him with mounting anger, “Tomorrow what is requested will be done. ’Twill hardly be possible today.6 The man who felt no need to placate Thomas Jefferson or James Madison had to grovel before the raffish James Reynolds, whom he later described bitterly as “an obscure, unimportant, and profligate man.”7 He was so frightened of Reynolds that he wrote to him in disguised handwriting, lest Reynolds use it as “the engine of a false credit or turn it to some other sinister use,” Hamilton said.8

On April 17, 1792, Reynolds informed Hamilton that his adulterous romance with Maria had destroyed their marriage: “She has treated me more Cruel than pen cant paint out. and Ses that She is determed never to be a wife to me any more.” In his most self-effacing mode, Reynolds said that he would not chide Hamilton: “I Freely forgive you and dont wish to give you fear or pain a moment on the account of it.”9 On the other hand, he continued, it lay in Hamilton’s power to make some amends, and he said that he would come to Hamilton’s office—which must have made the latter quake. Six days later, Reynolds demanded another thirty dollars and said he would await an answer at Hamilton’s office.10 In his letters, James Reynolds began to dispense with the fake, effusive professions of friendship and got straight down to business.

On May 2, 1792, James Reynolds sent Hamilton a letter that fully awakened him to the dire threat to his career. Hamilton already had political troubles enough: he was about to attend an emergency meeting to rescue the Society for Establishing Useful Manufactures from William Duer’s embezzlement. In this letter, Reynolds explained that he had hoped Maria’s infatuation for Hamilton would gradually subside. Since this had not happened, Reynolds declared, he would prohibit Hamilton from visiting her. Reynolds also reproached Hamilton for always sneaking in the back door of their house, as if he was ashamed to visit them. With a flamboyant show of self-pity, Reynolds asked, “am I a person of Such a bad Carector. that you would not wish to be seen in Coming in my house in the front way.”11 It now dawned on Hamilton belatedly that the blackmail scheme might have a political dimension: he remembered the “accidental” encounter with Jacob Clingman at the Reynolds house. Were his enemies trying to entrap him? Years later, Hamilton described the May 2 letter as a masterpiece: “The husband there forbids my future visits to his wife, chiefly because I was careful to avoid publicity. It was probably necessary to the project of some deeper treason against me that I should be seen at the house. Hence was it contrived, with all the caution on my part to avoid it, that [Jacob] Clingman should occasionally see me.”12 It is strange and almost inconceivable that a man of Hamilton’s cynical worldliness should have taken so long to fathom this danger.

Sadly, it was the perceived threat to his career, not regret over his pregnant wife, that restored Hamilton to his senses. He finally mustered sufficient willpower and steeled himself against Maria Reynolds’s further entreaties. Her last attempt came on June 2, 1792: “Dear Sir I once take up the pen to solicit The favor of seing again oh Col hamilton what have I done that you should thus Neglect me.”13 This garbled note was followed by a fresh letter from James Reynolds, asking for three hundred dollars to invest in shares of the new Lancaster Turnpike.

Instead of appeasing Reynolds, Hamilton replied tersely, “It is utterly out of my power I assure you ’pon my honour to comply with your request. Your note is returned.”14 Rebuffed, Reynolds reduced his demand to fifty dollars and threw in a frightening new touch, saying that he would stop by Hamilton’s house that evening. The treasury secretary paid up, but it was the last time Reynolds extorted money from him.

Hamilton probably thought the whole nightmarish episode had ended when it had only just begun. Incredibly, he had allowed this affair, enacted in the heart of the nation’s capital, to proceed for almost a year. In a letter to a Federalist politician that September, Hamilton continued to present himself as a paragon of virtue, saying, “I pledge myself to you and to every friend of mine that the strictest scrutiny into every part of my conduct, whether as a private citizen or as a public officer, can only serve to establish the perfect purity of it.”15 The treasury secretary, it turned out, did protest too much.

During the summer of 1792, Hamilton was preoccupied with exposing Freneau’s link with Jefferson and Madison and winning the internecine cabinet warfare. He had neither the time nor the inclination to dally with Maria Reynolds, and this ruined James Reynolds’s plans. The blackmailing couple had moved to a large house on Vine Street, near the corner of Fifth, and hoped to cover costs by renting rooms to “genteel boarders,” as James phrased it. The only snag was that they lacked cash to furnish the rooms.

As always, James Reynolds exhibited a keenly sadistic sense of timing. On August 22, Eliza Hamilton gave birth to the couple’s fifth child, John Church Hamilton. “Mrs. Hamilton has lately given me another boy, who and the Mother are unusually well,” Hamilton told Washington’s secretary, Tobias Lear.16 Perhaps James Reynolds thought that, with a newborn baby, Hamilton might be more easily coerced. On August 24, he wrote and tried to touch him for another two hundred dollars. A week later, he wrote again, lamenting that he had received no reply. Since Hamilton had stopped seeing his wife, James Reynolds seemed to have surrendered all power over him. Perhaps feeling guilty over Maria Reynolds, Hamilton stuck close to home, and in one letter that fall referred to his “growing and hitherto too much neglected family.”17

The Reynolds affair might never have come to light if James Reynolds and Jacob Clingman had not been charged in mid-November with defrauding the U.S. government of four hundred dollars. The two swindlers had posed as executors of the estate of a supposedly deceased war veteran, Ephraim Goodenough, who had a claim against the government. In their scheme, Reynolds and Clingman prevailed upon one John Delabar to perjure himself and corroborate their story. Goodenough’s name had been selected from a confidential list of soldiers owed money by the government—a list purloined from the Treasury Department. The man who prosecuted Reynolds and Clingman was Oliver Wolcott, Jr., who had been named comptroller of the treasury the previous year. An admirer of Wolcott’s integrity and knowledge, Hamilton had persuaded Washington to appoint him over a competing candidate touted by Jefferson.

Reynolds and Clingman ended up in a Philadelphia jail. Because the Treasury Department filed the charges, James Reynolds suspected that Hamilton was engaged in a vendetta. He wrote to Hamilton twice, asking for help, but received no assistance. Hamilton then learned from Wolcott that Reynolds was insinuating loudly that he could “make disclosures injurious to the character of some head of a department.”18 Hamilton saw exactly where this was heading and advised Wolcott to keep Reynolds imprisoned until the accusations were cleared up.

Released on bail, Jacob Clingman turned to the most powerful man he knew: his former boss, Congressman Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania. The former House Speaker agreed to intercede on behalf of Clingman but not Reynolds, whom he had heard was a “rascal.” He decided to speak with Hamilton in the company of New York senator Aaron Burr. At the interview, a circumspect Hamilton agreed to do everything consistent with honor to aid Clingman. Muhlenberg persuaded Oliver Wolcott to strike a deal: if Clingman and Reynolds refunded the money defrauded from the government, returned the stolen list of soldiers, and identified the Treasury employee who had leaked the document, then charges against them might be dropped. Evidently, the two men met these conditions by early December 1792. “It was certainly of more consequence to the public to detect and expel from the bosom of the Treasury Department an unfaithful clerk to prevent future and extensive mischief than to disgrace and punish two worthless individuals,” Hamilton later wrote.19

The matter might have ended there except that Clingman kept suggesting darkly to Muhlenberg that he harbored damning information about Hamilton. As Muhlenberg recalled, “Clingman, unasked, frequently dropped hints to me that Reynolds had it in his power, very materially, to injure the secretary of the treasury and that Reynolds knew several very improper transactions of his.”20 At first, Muhlenberg scoffed at this. Then Clingman told him that Hamilton was hip deep in speculation and had provided James Reynolds with money for that illicit purpose. What most impressed Muhlenberg was Reynolds’s contention that “he had it in his power to hang the secretary of the Treasury.”21 Muhlenberg did not believe that he could hide such information, and on Wednesday morning, December 12, he turned to two other Republicans, Senator James Monroe and Representative Abraham B. Venable, both of Virginia. Monroe’s entry into the drama was especially ominous for Hamilton, given his recent National Gazette pieces. It is not clear that Hamilton knew that Monroe was the author of these pieces, but he certainly knew of Monroe’s intimacy with Jefferson and Madison.

Thanks to Maria Reynolds, Clingman had some unsigned notes sent by Hamilton to James Reynolds, which Muhlenberg now showed to Monroe and Venable. Hardly reluctant to pursue the charges, the Virginians went straight to see James Reynolds in his prison cell. The prisoner teased them with vague but tantalizing hints that “he had a person in high office in his power and has had a long time past.” He further let drop that “Mr. Wolcott was in the same department” as this mystery person “and, he supposed, under his influence or control.”22 Though the allusion to Hamilton was patent, the wily Reynolds said that he would not divulge more information until he was freed.

Meanwhile, Maria Reynolds was scarcely idle. This artful twenty-four-year-old woman seemed able, on short notice, to secure appointments with high officials. She went to see Pennsylvania’s governor, Thomas Mifflin, who expressed sympathy with her plight. Maria Reynolds told Mifflin about, among other things, her love affair with Hamilton. She also took advantage of the situation to visit her illustrious former lover, who was trying to walk a fine line between official propriety and self-protection. On the one hand, Hamilton echoed Wolcott’s position that Clingman and James Reynolds should return the list of soldiers to the Treasury along with their ill-gotten money. On the other hand, according to Maria Reynolds, Hamilton also pressed her to burn his damaging letters to her husband. Fully aware of the value of these notes as an insurance policy, the siren of Philadelphia politics was smart enough to keep two or three.

Having no notion of any Hamiltonian adultery, Muhlenberg and Monroe visited Maria Reynolds at home on the evening of December 12, seeking more information about alleged financial collusion between Hamilton and her husband. At first, she was not communicative. Only gradually did she open up about business relations and about how she had burned a large number of signed notes that Hamilton had sent to James Reynolds. She said that Hamilton had promised to aid her and had urged her husband to “leave the parts, not to be seen here again…in which case, he would give [her] something clever.” She piqued her visitors’ curiosity by boasting that her husband “could tell something that would make some of the heads of departments tremble.”23 To boost her credibility, she showed them a letter she had received from Hamilton the week before.

It was an eventful day in the life of Alexander Hamilton, who knew that influential legislators had grilled James Reynolds that morning. At some time after midnight, having been freed from prison hours earlier, James Reynolds sent a young female messenger to Hamilton’s house. Then he and Clingman paced outside, awaiting an answer. The girl emerged with a message that James Reynolds should call on Hamilton in the morning. Shortly after sunrise, Reynolds met Hamilton and left a vivid impression of the distraught treasury secretary, who “was extremely agitated, walking backward and forward [across] the room and striking, alternately, his forehead and thigh; observing to him that he had enemies at work, but was willing to meet them on fair ground and requested him not to stay long, lest it might be noticed.”24 Although any account from James Reynolds is suspect, the compulsive pacing and nervous gesticulations were typical of Hamilton. Once the interview was over, James Reynolds vanished from Philadelphia, fleeing either creditors or further prosecution. He had promised Monroe and Venable that he would reveal all at ten o’clock that morning, but the two Virginian legislators now discovered that he “had absconded or concealed himself.”25

The flight of James Reynolds only heightened the suspicions of Muhlenberg, Monroe, and Venable that Hamilton was guilty of official misconduct. They were ready to present their shocking findings to Washington and had already drafted a letter to him. Before sending it, however, they thought it their duty to confront Hamilton with the allegations. On the morning of December 15, the three-man delegation filed into Hamilton’s office, with Muhlenberg taking the lead. Hamilton recalled, “He introduced the subject by observing to me that they had discovered a very improper connection between me and a Mr. Reynolds. Extremely hurt by this mode of introduction, I arrested the progress of the discourse by giving way to very strong expressions of indignation.”26 Faced with Hamilton’s wrath, the three legislators reassured him that they were not making any accusations but felt honor bound to discuss the matter with him before reporting to Washington. When they showed Hamilton his own handwritten notes to Reynolds, he instantly—and to their amazement—acknowledged their authenticity. He said that if they came to his house that evening, he would clear up the mystery by showing them written documents that would eliminate all doubt as to his innocence. Oliver Wolcott, Jr., was also invited to attend the meeting.

At home that evening, Alexander Hamilton treated the three Republican legislators to a salacious tale dramatically at odds with the scandalous one they had expected to hear. He had gathered a batch of letters from James and Maria Reynolds and recounted the history of his extramarital affair. Another man might have been brief or elliptical. Instead, as if in need of some cathartic cleansing, Hamilton briefed them in agonizing detail about how the husband had acted as a bawd for the wife; how the blackmail payments had been made; the loathing the couple had aroused in him; and his final wish to be rid of them. When the three legislators realized that the scandal involved marital infidelity, not government corruption, at least one of them “delicately urged me to discontinue it as unnecessary,” Hamilton recalled. “I insisted upon going through the whole and did so.”27 They heard the impassioned, run-on letters from Maria Reynolds and the truculent demands for money from James Reynolds. It was as if Hamilton were both exonerating and flagellating himself at once.

The small delegation seemed satisfied with Hamilton’s chronicle, if not a little flustered by the awkward situation. They apologized for having invaded his privacy. In retrospect, Hamilton detected subtle but perceptible differences in their reactions: “Mr. Muhlenberg and Mr. Venable, in particular, manifested a degree of sensibility on the occasion. Mr. Monroe was more cold, but entirely explicit.”28 In a memo the next day, Monroe wrote, “We left [Hamilton] under an impression our suspicions were removed. He acknowledged our conduct toward him had been fair and liberal—he could not complain of it.”29 Their accusatory letter to Washington was shelved. On the sidewalk afterward, Muhlenberg had drawn Wolcott aside and, with genuine sympathy for Hamilton, said that he wished he had not been present to watch his humiliating confession in such an intimate matter. In contrast, Monroe continued to meet with Jacob Clingman. In early January, Clingman complained to him that Hamilton had been exonerated of charges of official corruption. “He further observed to me,” Monroe wrote afterward, “that he communicated the same to Mrs. Reynolds, who appeared much shocked at it and wept immoderately.30

Muhlenberg, Monroe, and Venable had sworn they would keep the incident confidential. Given that the political world of the 1790s was one vast whispering gallery, Hamilton must have wondered if they would indeed honor their pledge. Two days later, upon reflection, he asked his three interlocutors for copies of the documents they had shown him. In allowing them to make the copies, Hamilton made a critical error, for Monroe entrusted the task to John Beckley, clerk of the House of Representatives. Beckley—the cunning, serviceable Jeffersonian loyalist who figured in so many intrigues against Hamilton—decided to preserve a set of papers for himself. For the rest of his life, Monroe refused to admit that he had violated his confidentiality pledge to Hamilton and provided the documents to Beckley. Thus, by December 17, 1792, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison knew about Hamilton’s confrontation with the three legislators. Jefferson chose to misconstrue what had happened, interpreting the event as proof not just of Hamilton’s love affair with Maria Reynolds but of his venal speculation in government securities—exactly what Hamilton had striven to refute. Beckley continued to ply Monroe and Jefferson with unsubstantiated rumors about the treasury secretary.

Equally unfortunate for Hamilton was that the man who retained the original papers was James Monroe. Later on, Monroe stated that he had “deposited the papers with a friend”—that friend being, in all likelihood, Thomas Jefferson.31 On January 5, 1793, Monroe published his last installment of the “Vindication of Mr. Jefferson.” He used the piece to telegraph a warning to Hamilton that he would not hesitate, if necessary, to exploit his knowledge of the Reynolds affair: “I shall conclude this paper by observing how much it is to be wished [that] this writer [i.e., Hamilton] would exhibit himself to the public view, that we might behold in him a living monument of that immaculate purity to which he pretends and which ought to distinguish so bold and arrogant a censor of others.”32 Hamilton knew what the snide reference to “immaculate purity” meant. For the rest of his time as treasury secretary, he was shadowed by the awareness that determined enemies had access to defamatory material about his private life. This sword of Damocles, perpetually dangling above his head, may provide one explanation of why he never made a serious bid to succeed Washington as president.

The marriage of Alexander and Eliza Hamilton survived the affair but the marriage between James and Maria Reynolds did not. In May 1793, Maria, reverting to Mary, filed for divorce in New York and hired as her lawyer, of all people, Aaron Burr. She now tagged James Reynolds as an unprincipled scoundrel and accused him of having committed adultery on July 10, 1792, with a woman named Eliza Flavinier of Dutchess County, New York. The date is intriguing, since it follows by a little more than a month Hamilton’s refusal to pay more blackmail money to James Reynolds, suggesting that Maria may have outlived her usefulness to him. The same day that the divorce became official, Maria married Jacob Clingman. By representing Maria Reynolds in this case, Aaron Burr was vouchsafed a glimpse into the disorderly private affairs of Alexander Hamilton—a glimpse that might later have inflamed him when Hamilton raised questions about Burr’s own misconduct.

And how did Hamilton react to the consequence of his execrable lack of judgment? We have no letters between Alexander and Eliza Hamilton that refer even obliquely to the scandal. But a close reading of Hamilton’s writings offers his view of adultery in a most unlikely place: the middle of an unpublished essay, written months later, on the need for American neutrality in foreign affairs. In one passage, he reiterated his faith in marital fidelity and his knowledge that adultery damaged families and harmed the adulterer as well as the deceived spouse.

A dispassionate and virtuous citizen of the U[nited] States will scorn to stand on any but purely American ground…. To speak figuratively, he will regardhis own country as a wife to whom he is bound to be exclusively faithful and affectionate. And he will watch with a jealous attention every propensity of his heart to wander towards a foreign country, which he will regard as a mistress that may pervert his fidelity and mar his happiness. ’Tis to be regretted that there are persons among us who appear to have a passion for a foreign mistress, as violent as it is irregular—and who, in the paroxysms of their love seem, perhaps without being themselves sensible of it, too ready to sacrifice the real welfare of the political family to their partiality for the object of their tenderness.33

The Reynolds affair was a sad and inexcusable lapse on Hamilton’s part, made only the more reprehensible by his high office, his self-proclaimed morality, his frequently missed chances to end the liaison, and the love and loyalty of his pregnant wife.