An American scandal: The story of Maria Reynolds and Alexander Hamilton
Everyone knows about Bill Clinton’s torrid affair, but have you heard about Alexander Hamilton’s? The former Secretary of the Treasury was quite possibly the first American politician to be involved in an illicit rendezvous. A tale of corruption and greed, Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds was definitely one for the books. Find out more about the OG American scandal.
A sordid affair
The year was 1791. Maria Reynolds, then 23 years old, approached 34-year-old married Alexander Hamilton on a hot summers day in Philidelphia, Pennsylvania. Claiming that her husband James Reynolds had left her, she asked Hamilton for financial assistance. Since he didn’t have any cash on him at the time, he jotted down her address to drop off some money to assist her. But when he showed up at Ms. Reynold’s lodging house, it became clear that his visit was about more than monetary aid. As Maria led Hamilton upstairs, he later stated that “Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.” Their sordid affair would continue until June 1792.
During the course of their relationship, Hamilton was pulled into a ring of deception and lies by both Maria and her husband. Shockingly, her husband knew about the scandal for the entire time and used his knowledge to blackmail Hamilton. In fact, James would even encourage their rendezvous in order to gain more blackmail money. In his own words, Hamilton realized that Maria and James were involved in a plan to “extort money from me.” Although it wasn’t unusual at that time to challenge each other to a pistol duel, James chose to extort some major cash instead.
By the time that Hamilton became wise to the Reynolds’ scheme, he decided to stop participating in the relationship in the fall of 1791. But the Reynolds’ wouldn’t give up that easily, and each of them desperately wrote letters to Hamilton. While Maria’s letter forewarned Hamilton of her husband’s blackmail attempts, James’ letter actually begged Hamilton to continue his forbidden visits. Even after James acquired $1,000 in blackmail money from Hamilton, he insisted that the politician carry on with his visitations “as a friend” in exchange for more cash.
On May 2, 1792, James had a change of heart and decided to discontinue Hamiton’s visits. Of course, he received one final payment for his silence, receiving more than $1,300 in total. Again, Hamilton agreed to end to the scandalous affair. But this time, it was too late. James had already roped him into another scandal. By November 1792, James was locked up for his role in a plot that involved overdue back wages for war veterans. He presented Hamilton with a choice: either admit to the affair or implicate himself in James’ mess. Rather than incriminate himself, Hamilton chose to air his own dirty laundry.
Scandal in the house
On December 15, 1792, Hamilton spilled the tea to James Monroe, Abraham Venable, and Frederick Muhlenberg. He even handed over his collection of the Reynolds’ letters that detailed the first American scandal. His confidants agreed to keep the matter a secret, but the confidential Reynolds Affair documents did end up in the hands of Hamilton’s enemy Thomas Jefferson. After holding onto the taboo letters for five years, Jefferson decided to reveal the contents in all their glory. At this time, Hamilton no longer held his post in office, and the news of Hamilton’s infidelity was exposed in pamphlet form by the journalist James Thomson Callender. The damage was done, and the adulterous affair would go down in history as the reason why Hamilton was never elected for president.