Maria Reynolds and her husband conned Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton out of one-third of his salary.
Whether warranted or not, political sex scandals always receive a lot of attention. And apparently, the public’s appetite for such stories is hardly new. Indeed, before there was Monica Lewinsky, Maria Reynolds was the center of what is largely believed to be America’s first political sex scandal.
Reynolds was just 23 when her husband seemingly abandoned her and she turned to one of the nation’s most powerful men — Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. They were involved for but a summer before Reynolds’ husband blackmailed Hamilton, forcing the politician to air his dirty laundry for all the nation to see.
Hamilton’s reputation would never fully recover, but Maria Reynolds managed to escape the ordeal largely unscathed.
Who Was Maria Reynolds And How Did She Meet Alexander Hamilton?
History has, in some ways, reduced Reynolds to a one-dimensional character. Though she is almost exclusively remembered for her involvement with Alexander Hamilton, her story began long before that scandal and continued long after it.
Born Maria Lewis in New York City in 1768, Reynolds’ family appeared to be working class. Her father was a laborer of some kind and was unable to write his own name. Reynolds managed to learn to read and write, though her education beyond this was likely very limited.
Reynolds married James Reynolds when she was 15 years old in 1783. James Reynolds had served in the commissary department during the Revolutionary War and afterward, tried to claim damages from Washington’s government on multiple occasions. The couple moved from New York to Philadelphia after they were married and had one daughter, Susan Reynolds, in 1785.
It is believed that Reynolds’ affair with Hamilton began several years later during the summer of 1791. Reynolds approached a then-34-year-old Alexander Hamilton at his home in Philly asking for help. She told him that her abusive husband had abandoned her and that she needed money to return to her family in New York.
In unpublished papers, Hamilton admitted that Reynolds was a “Beauty in despair.” His friends described her as innocent and emotional.
Shortly after, Hamilton visited Reynolds at the boarding house where she was staying with the money she had requested. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Hamilton, was away for the summer, opening the door for the summer romance.
According to his own account, Hamilton followed Reynolds to her bedroom where “some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.”
Over the summer, Reynolds reconciled with her husband but was still game for the affair. And so was her husband. It wasn’t uncommon for 18th-century men to settle their differences in a pistol fight. Alexander Hamilton would do just that when he agreed to end his 15-year rivalry with Vice President Aaron Burr in the notorious Hamilton-Burr duel which left one dead and the other wanted for murder.
But James Reynolds didn’t want to fight — he wanted compensation. So he concocted a plan to have his wife continue seeing Hamilton in order to periodically receive blackmail money from him.
The Nation Learns Of The Hamilton-Reynolds Affair
The summer Hamilton was seeing Reynolds was a busy one for him personally. He was starting up the Bank of the United States and delivered what is believed to be his magnum opus, his Report on the Subject of Manufactures, which outlined the basics of the American economic system.
He also received a letter from James Reynolds which threatened to tell Eliza Hamilton of his affair with Maria Reynolds should he not send cash. Hamilton obliged.
Things escalated in 1792 when James Reynolds was arrested along with his friend Jacob Clingman for unpaid back wages from the Revolutionary War. Clingman was released on bail while Reynolds continued to blackmail Hamilton in order to secure his freedom. Hamilton paid a total of $1,300 to the Reynolds’, which is over $35,000 by today’s standard and was over one-third of his own salary at the time.
Reynolds also contacted some of Hamilton’s political rivals and told them that he had damaging information on the Secretary of the Treasury. Word of Hamilton’s affair soon reached Thomas Jefferson.
Finally, in 1797, an embarrassed Hamilton published what is known as the Reynolds Pamphlet, a 100-page 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 wrote. He then candidly explained how his first visit to Maria Reynolds’ home ended with the two of them in bed.
In the Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton noted 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 wrote, “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.”
The Consequences Of The Reynolds Pamphlet
Immediately after her husband was arrested with Clingman, but before the release of the pamphlet, Maria Reynolds had petitioned for a divorce, which was rare at the time. But she was successful in doing so thanks to none other than Aaron Burr, her lawyer, and Hamilton’s noted enemy. She later married Jacob Clingman, her ex-husband’s friend and partner in crime.
After the pamphlet was released, Maria Reynolds was subjected to public criticism and so in 1797, she moved to Britain with her new husband. She later returned to Philadelphia without her new husband, and though there are no divorce records, she soon began to go by the name Maria Clement.
Unfortunately, the party most hurt by the scandal was likely Hamilton’s wife. Eliza Hamilton was shamed for her husband’s infidelities as one newspaper wrote: “Art thou a wife? See him, whom thou has chosen for the partner of this life, lolling in the lap of a harlot!!” Despite the scrutiny, Eliza Hamilton stood by her husband and even tried to revive his reputation after he died.
Meanwhile, though the details of Maria Reynolds’ life beyond her return to Philadelphia 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 reportedly became religious and joined the Methodist church. With the help of Burr, Maria Reynolds 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. Given the time in which she lived and the scandal in which she had been involved, Maria Reynolds was no victim.
After this look at the Hamilton-Reynolds affair, check out some of the seediest things the founding fathers have ever done. Then, read about the mysterious disappearance of Theodosia Burr, Aaron Burr’s daughter who boarded a ship and was never seen again.