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Posts Tagged ‘Maria Reynolds’

James Callender.  The name probably means little to you.  The name meant nothing to me until I started reading about this country’s Founding Fathers a few years back.  But you would certainly know the type of man he was if I gave you just a one-word description.  That word, first used by Theodore Roosevelt in the early 20th century (as I learned on Jeopardy a few days ago), is “muck-raker”.  Wait, is that two words?  One word?

Whatever, James Callender was a muck-raker.  In his biography of Alexander Hamilton, Ron Chernow describes him as a “hack writer“, an “ugly, misshapen little man who made a career of spewing venom.”   He spent most of his life doing it and, as we’ll soon see, his life ended in muck.  That’s the kind of guy he was.

He arrived in the United States, having left Scotland, in the early 1790s.  Well, “left” is something of a euphemism…”got out of town in a hurry” is more apt, fleeing the country to escape a sedition rap from the British government.  It didn’t take him long to anger folks on this side of the pond, either.

He got in with Republican interests early on, landing a job with Benjamin Franklin Bache’s newspaper, the Aurora.  Firing darts at Federalists like Washington, Adams, and Hamilton made him really good friends with Republicans like Jefferson.  In fact, our third President called Callender “a man of genius” and “a man of science fled from persecution.”

It was all tea and crumpets when James Callender released History of 1796, a pamphlet which exposed to the public a scandal involving “the prime mover of the federal party.”  He enticed his audience by writing that “we shall presently see this great master of morality, although himself the father of a family, confessing that he had an illicit correspondence with another man’s wife.”  He then went on to publish all the papers concerning Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds.  These were the accounts Hamilton had given to James Monroe, Frederick Muhlenberg, and Abraham Venable.

As we remember, these three men approached Hamilton because they believed the Treasury Secretary was involved in some sort of financial corruption with James Reynolds.  When he buried them with the details of the affair and the extortion, the men left knowing that Hamilton, while acting immorally, was not acting illegally.  Of course, Callender paid no attention to niceties like the truth, and published the corruption stuff anyways.

But Callender was an equal-opportunity muck-raker.  In 1802, he broke another story, this one about the relationship between President Jefferson and one of his slaves, Sally Hemings.  It was probably at this time that Jefferson’s opinion of James Callender changed from that of a man of science to “hypochondriac, drunken, penniless, and unprincipled.

And then there was the court case in 1803.  The People vs. Croswell involved Harry Croswell, a publisher charged with libel who claimed that Thomas Jefferson had paid Callender to defame President George Washington.  Of course, that meant that James Callender would likely be called to the witness stand.  He never made it.

On July 17, 1803, his body was found in the James River.  Apparently, he was in a drunken stupor and drowned in three feet of water…or did he?  History is unclear.

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I was doing some digging on the Internet the last week and came across an article that referenced the following verses from the Bible…“But there is nothing covered up that will not be revealed, and hidden that will not be known.  Accordingly, whatever you have said in the dark will be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in the inner rooms will be proclaimed upon the housetops.”  Taken from the New Testament’s book of Luke, they are perfectly suited to Today’s History Lesson.

Alexander Hamilton’s affair with Maria Reynolds left a blot on what was the exceptional (if controversial) life of one of America’s most important and influential Founders.  In his biography of the man, Ron Chernow summarizes this black episode by writing, “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.”

And he very nearly got away with it.

He probably would have had not James Reynolds ended up in jail.  The husband of Maria Reynolds was, in modern parlance, “a complete jerk.”  He let his wife continue in an illicit relationship with a member of President Washington’s Cabinet, then worked to extort money from him, all the while putting on the facade of the wronged man.

But Reynolds was also a scammer, and that’s how Hamilton’s secret became known.  Reynolds (and another man) tried to defraud the government by passing themselves off as the executors of a dead war veteran in order to collect $400 in benefits.  The plan’s failure landed Reynolds in jail.  And because the name of the war veteran came from a list stolen from Hamilton’s Treasury Department, the charges filed against the defendants were made by Treasury.  Immediately Reynolds suspected Hamilton of engaging in a bit of “payback”, and began dropping hints that he had information damaging to the Secretary.

At first it was believed that the Treasury Secretary was engaged in some sort of illegal activity…maybe illegal speculation or diverting funds or collusion.  Congressman Frederick Muhlenberg was the first to suspect the worst (having talked extensively with Jacob Clingman, Reynolds’ partner-in-crime), and visited with fellow Congressman Abraham Venable and Senator James Monroe.  The three men decided to write a letter and give it to the President, but to visit Hamilton before making the delivery.

On the morning of December 15, 1792, the three entered Hamilton’s office and confronted the Secretary about improper dealings with James Reynolds (who by now had been released from jail and had skipped town).  He responded angrily about the manner of their approach but denied nothing, instead inviting them to his home that evening, where he said he would explain everything.

That night, the three Congressmen, expecting to hear a tale of misdeeds and impropriety that had taken place behind the office door, were instead given a detailed account of a tawdry affair that had taken place behind a bedroom door.  Alexander Hamilton, as was typical, was incredibly detailed.  Chernow continues, “…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.”  Alexander Hamilton came completely clean…letters, payments, details, dates, times…everything.

The letter to the President was set aside.  James Monroe would later write, “We left under an impression our suspicions were removed.  He acknowledged our conduct toward him had been fair and liberal – he could not complain of it.”

The three men all swore they would keep Hamilton’s confession completely private.  But as our Scriptures above will attest, Hamilton’s deeds were now public, even if the circle of “those in the know” was small.  It wouldn’t take long for news of those deeds to spread.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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Alexander Hamilton was obsessed with his reputation.  As Treasury Secretary, he did everything possible to maintain the integrity of the office.  He was detailed, almost to a fault, with the records.  Every “i” was dotted and every “t” was crossed.  Nothing untoward interested Hamilton in the slightest.  The mere thought of impropriety was anathema to him.

His entire professional career was, almost without exception, lived above reproach.  When there was suspicion of wrong-doing, it was always unfounded.

So it comes as something of a surprise that Hamilton displayed such incredibly bad judgement when it came to Maria Reynolds.  The wife of James Reynolds (an acquaintance of the Secretary), Maria was 11 years younger than Hamilton.  She came to him as the distressed spouse of an abusive husband and mother of a young daughter.  Her desperation likely resonated with Hamilton who, as the son of a “fallen woman”, felt a greater sympathy to her plight as he remembered his mother’s struggles.

She asked for some money, and he offered to bring some by her home in the evening.  He would recount the events later when he penned, “…I put a bank bill in my pocket and went to the house.  I inquired for Mrs. Reynolds and was shown upstairs, at the head of which she met me and conducted me into a bedroom.  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.”

It doesn’t take much imagination to figure out what, in 18th-century language, was being described here.

And so began an affair that lasted the better part of 3 years.  It only took a few months for Hamilton to realize he was making mess of things and try to extricate himself.  But James Reynolds was having none of it.  He truly was abusive and he was a rake, but he was also calculating and knew the Treasury Secretary was in a bad position.  Rather than fly into a rage or demand a duel, James began extorting Hamilton, threatening to expose the affair to Eliza (his wife) while essentially forcing him to maintain an illicit relationship.  Mr. Reynolds had become a pimp, and his wife the prostitute for hire.

Alexander Hamilton clearly knew he was in danger, but his weakness for women, his appetites, the obvious lure of Mrs. Reynolds, and her husband’s threats served to keep him hooked.

James wrote ridiculous letters, saying things like, “…you have acted the part of the Cruelist man in existence.  you have made a whole family miserable.  She ses there is no other man that she Care for in this world.  now Sir you have bin the Cause of Cooling her affections for me.”  Blackmail was Reynolds’ strong suit, grammar not so much.

In mid-December, Hamilton and James Reynolds met face-to-face, and the Treasury Secretary was informed that one thousand dollars would go a long ways to healing a husband’s “wounded honor”…not to mention keeping Eliza Hamilton out of the loop.

The following week, on December 22, 1791, made the first blackmail payment to James Reynolds.  He would make another a couple of weeks later.

Alexander Hamilton was a tremendous thinker and visionary, but his terrible decisions regarding Maria Reynolds would serve to sully his good name.

Recommended Reading: Alexander Hamilton

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