An embarrassed Hamilton published the Reynolds Pamphlet, which was a 100-page long account of his affair with Maria Reynolds.
Whether warranted or not, political sex scandals always receive lots of attention. Apparently, the public’s appetite for such stories is hardly new. In the 1700s, Maria Reynolds, the mistress of Alexander Hamilton, was the center of what is known as America’s first political sex scandal.
The consequences of political sex scandals can be as serious as subjection to impeachment or as trivial as content for tabloid fluff. In some cases, when they are amongst a slew of various other scandals, there are no consequences at all. The people involved in the scandals outside the politicians receive varying degrees of attention. But whatever amount of attention they receive, it usually revolves around their connection to the affair itself, reducing them to a one-dimensional character.
Maria Reynolds is most widely known for her involvement with Hamilton thanks to a document called the Reynolds Pamphlet. But her story began before the public exposure and continued after it.
Maria married James Reynolds when she was 15 years old in 1783. James served in the commissary department during the Revolutionary War. The couple moved from New York to Philadelphia after they were married. Their daughter, Susan Reynalds, was born in 1785.
Maria’s affair with Hamilton began several years later during the summer of 1791. Maria was 23, and she approached a then 34-year-old Alexander Hamilton at his home in Philly asking for help. Her abusive husband had abandoned her, and she needed money so that she could return to New York.
Shortly after, Hamilton visited Maria at the boarding house she was staying at with the money she had requested. Hamilton’s wife was away for the summer, opening the door for the summer romance.
Over the same summer, Maria reconciled with her husband but was still game for the affair. And so was her husband. James knew of it and encouraged it in order to periodically receive blackmail money from Hamilton.
In 1792, James Reynolds was arrested along with Virginian Jacob Clingman for unpaid back wages from the Revolutionary War. Clingman was released on bail while James tried to blackmail Hamilton, threatening to expose of the affair.
In 1797, an embarrassed Hamilton published what is known as the Reynolds Pamphlet, which was a 100-page long account of his affair with Mrs. Reynolds and the blackmail scheme of her husband.
“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,” Hamilton writes.
He then candidly explains the story of his visit to Maria’s home to give her the help she initially asked for in the form of money, only to discover that she was interested more in an affair.
“Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.”
In the pamphlet, Hamilton notes that the complicated nature of the situation made it difficult for him to end the affair, even though he wanted to on several occasions. He says, “her conduct, made it extremely difficult to disentangle myself. All the appearances of violent attachment, and of agonizing distress at the idea of a relinquishment, were played off with a most imposing art.”
After the pamphlet was released, Maria received much scrutiny and was subjected to much public criticism.
Immediately after the ordeal with her husband’s arrest but before the release of the pamphlet, Maria petitioned for a divorce, which was rare at the time. She was successful in doing so thanks to Aaron Burr, her lawyer and Hamilton’s noted political rival. She later married Jacob Clingman, her ex-husband’s friend and partner in crime.
After the release of the pamphlet in 1797, amongst the scrutiny she was receiving, Maria and Clingman moved to Britain. She later returned to Philadelphia without him, and though there are no divorce records, she was then going by the name Maria Clement.
Though the details of her life past that point are scarce, it has been claimed that she got a job as a housekeeper for a doctor, who she subsequently married as well.
She also became religious and joined the Methodist church. With the help of Burr, Maria was able to send her daughter to a Boston boarding school where she could receive a proper education which was also not common for women at the time.
Though her reputation is dominated as being the center of America’s first sex scandal, her divorce during a time when divorce was much less common, as well as indications that she took steps in, indicate that she didn’t fall victim to circumstance. She was unique in her own right. Maria Reynolds may have been many things, the mistress of Alexander Hamilton in America’s first political sex scandal being just one of them.