The Hamilton–Reynolds affair was the first major sex scandal in American political history. It involved Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who conducted an affair with Maria Reynolds from 1791 to 1792, during the presidency of George Washington. When he discovered the affair, Reynolds' husband, James Reynolds, subsequently blackmailed Hamilton over the affair, who paid him over $1,300, about a third of his annual income, to maintain the secrecy. In 1797, Hamilton publicly admitted to the affair after his political enemies attacked and accused him of financial corruption during his time as the Treasury Secretary. Hamilton responded by writing, "The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance."
In the summer of 1791, 23-year-old Maria Reynolds allegedly approached the married 34-year-old Alexander Hamilton in Philadelphia to request his help and financial aid by claiming that her husband, James, had abandoned her. Hamilton did not have any money on his person and so he retrieved her address to deliver the funds in person. Once Hamilton arrived at the boarding house at which Maria was lodging, she brought him upstairs and led him into her bedroom. He later recounted, "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." The two began an illicit affair that would last, with varying frequency, until approximately June 1792.
Over the course of those months, while the affair took place, James Reynolds was well aware of his wife's unfaithfulness. He continually supported their relationship to gain regular blackmail money from Hamilton.
In the Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton goes as far as to argue that James Reynolds, along with his wife, had conspired the scheme to "extort money from me." The common practice in the day was for the wronged husband to seek retribution in a pistol duel, but Reynolds, realizing how much Hamilton had to lose if the activity came into public view, insisted on monetary compensation instead. After Hamilton had shown unequivocal signs that he wanted to end the affair in autumn 1791, Hamilton received two letters on December 15, 1791, one each from Mrs. and Mr. Reynolds. The first letter, from Maria, warned of her husband's knowledge and of James' attempting to blackmail Hamilton. By then, Hamilton discontinued the affair and briefly ceased to visit, but both James and Maria were apparently involved in the blackmailing scheme, as both sent letters inviting Hamilton to continue his visits. After extorting $1000 in exchange for secrecy over Hamilton's adultery, James Reynolds rethought his request for Hamilton to cease his relationship with Maria and wrote inviting him to renew his visits "as a friend," only to extort forced "loans" after each visit, which the most-likely-colluding Maria solicited with her letters. By May 2, 1792, James changed his mind again and requested for Hamilton to stop seeing his wife but not before James had received additional payment. In the end, the blackmail payments totaled over $1,300 including the initial extortion (equivalent to $29,000 in 2022).
The cultural historian Tilar J. Mazzeo has advanced a theory that the affair never happened. Outside of the Reynolds Pamphlet, there is no evidence that the affair actually occurred. Others connected with the scandal, from James Monroe, who held the papers relating to James Reynolds, to Maria Reynolds herself, said that it was a coverup for a financial scandal. Hamilton never produced the manuscript copies of Maria's letters, but both the newspapers and Maria suggested obtaining a handwriting sample. Hamilton said that they had been placed with a friend, who claimed that he had never seen them, which suggests that the letters may have been forged.
The newspaper writers also pointed out that Maria's letters correctly spell long, complex words but sometimes misspelled simple words in a way that made no phonetic sense. As the Thomas Jefferson biographer Julian P. Boyd stated, the letters could resemble what an educated man believed an uneducated woman's love letters to look like. A Hamilton biographer also stated that the letters look like the letters between Alexander and his wife, Eliza, which could explain why Eliza burned her letters.
In November 1792, after James Reynolds was jailed for participation in a scheme involving unpaid back wages intended for Revolutionary War veterans, he used his own knowledge about Hamilton's sex affair to bargain his way out of his own troubles. Reynolds knew that Hamilton would have to choose between revealing his affair with Maria or falsely admitting complicity to the charges. James Monroe, Abraham Venable, and Frederick Muhlenberg were the first men to hear of this possible corruption within the nation's new government, and on December 15, 1792, they decided to confront Hamilton personally with the information that they had received, supported by the notes of Hamilton's payments to Reynolds that Maria had given them to corroborate her husband's accusations.
Denying any financial impropriety, Hamilton revealed the true nature of his relationship with the Reynoldses in all of its unsavory details. He turned over the letters from both of them.
Apparently convinced that Hamilton was not guilty of the charge of public misconduct, Monroe, Venable, and Muhlenberg agreed not to make public the information and documents on the Reynolds Affair. Monroe and his colleagues assured Hamilton that the matter was settled. However, Monroe sent the letters to his close personal friend, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson and Hamilton were self-described nemeses, and five years after receiving the letters, Jefferson used the knowledge to start rumors about Hamilton's private life.
Also in 1797, when Hamilton no longer held the post of Secretary of the Treasury, the details of his relationship with Maria and James Reynolds came to light in a series of pamphlets authored by the journalist James Thomson Callender. Included were copies of the documents that Hamilton had furnished to the Monroe commission in December 1792.
Hamilton confronted Monroe over the leakage of the supposedly-confidential documents. Monroe denied any responsibility. Hamilton came very close to calling Monroe a liar, and Monroe retorted that Hamilton was a scoundrel and challenged him to a duel. The duel was averted by the intercession of none other than Aaron Burr, who years later would ironically challenge and kill Hamilton in a duel. After writing a first draft in July 1797, on August 25, Hamilton responded to Callender's revelations by printing his own 95-page pamphlet, Observations on Certain Documents, later known as the "Reynolds Pamphlet," in which he denied all charges of corruption. However, he openly admitted his relationship with Maria Reynolds and apologized for it.
While his candor was admired, the affair severely damaged his reputation. While Hamilton's admitted affair served to confirm rival Jefferson's conviction that he was untrustworthy, it did nothing to change Washington's opinion of him, who still held him in "very high esteem" and still viewed him as the dominant force in establishing the federal law and government.
In popular culture
This early sex scandal in American history has received multiple fictional portrayals.
Theater and film
- A stage play, Hamilton, ran on Broadway in 1917, was co-written by George Arliss, who also played the title role. Jeanne Eagels portrayed Maria Reynolds and Pell Trenton played James Reynolds.
- The biographical film Alexander Hamilton, based upon the 1917 play, was released in 1931, with George Arliss reprising his role. June Collyer portrayed Maria Reynolds and Ralf Harolde portrayed James Reynolds.
- In the 2015 musical Hamilton, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda (who also debuted the title role), the Reynolds affair is a key moment in the Second Act. It figures into the following songs:
- "Say No to This", in which the affair begins.
- "We Know", in which Hamilton is confronted by Burr, Jefferson, and James Madison.
- "Hurricane", in which Hamilton decides to write the Reynolds Pamphlet.
- "The Reynolds Pamphlet", in which Hamilton is humiliated by Burr, Jefferson and Madison as his affair is revealed.
- "Burn", which depicts Hamilton's wife, Eliza, burning all of her letters to him in response to the Pamphlet's publication, the events the Pamphlet describes and then suggesting that Hamilton himself "burn."
- On July 3, 2020, Disney+ released the film Hamilton, an authorized film of the Broadway stage production, with Miranda playing Hamilton, Jasmine Cephas Jones playing Maria Reynolds, and Sydney-James Harcourt playing James Reynolds. All three actors were part of the Original Broadway Cast.
- Scandalmonger (2000), by William Safire.
- The Whiskey Rebels (2008), by David Liss.
- The Hamilton Affair (2016), by Elizabeth Cobbs.
- I, Eliza Hamilton (2017), by Susan Holloway Scott.
- My Dear Hamilton (2018), by Stephanie Dray and Laura Kamoie.
- Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton (2018), by Tilar J. Mazzeo.
- George Washington II: The Forging of a Nation, a 1986 television miniseries, includes the events of the affair. Richard Bekins portrayed Hamilton, with Lise Hilboldt portraying Maria Reynolds.
- “Printed Version of the “Reynolds Pamphlet,”, 1797, Founders Online, National Archives, https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-21-02-0138-0002. [Original source: The Papers of Alexander Hamilton, vol. 21, April 1797 – July 1798, ed. Harold C. Syrett. New York: Columbia University Press, 1974, pp. 238–267.]
- Hamilton, Alexander. "Printed Version of the "Reynolds Pamphlet," 1797". Founders Online. Retrieved 17 July 2016.
- Hamilton, Alexander, “Printed Version of the ‘Reynolds Pamphlet,’“ 1797, Founders Online, available from https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-21-02-0138-0002; Internet, accessed 15 October 2018.
- Freeman 2002
- Hamilton, Alexander. "Draft of the "Reynolds Pamphlet," July 1797". Founders Online.
- Schachner, Alexander Hamilton, 1946, pp. 366-369
- Reynolds, Maria. "Letter to Alexander Hamilton from Maria Reynolds [15 December 1791]". Founders Online. National Archives. Retrieved 30 June 2016.
- Reynolds, James. "Letter from James Reynolds to Alexander Hamilton, December 19th, 1791". Founders Online.
- Reynolds, James. "Letter from James Reynolds to Alexander Hamilton, January 17th, 1792". Founders Online.
- Reynolds, James. "Letter from James Reynolds to Alexander Hamilton, May 2nd, 1792". Founders Online.
- Schachner, Alexander Hamilton, 1946, p. 366
- Murray, p. 165.
- Mazzeo, Tilar (2018). ElizaHamilton. NY: Simon & Schuster. p. 295. ISBN 978-1-5011-6630-3.
- Mazzeo, Tilar (2018). Eliza Hamilton. NY: Simon & Schuster. pp. 296–297. ISBN 978-1-5011-6630-3.
- Isenberg 2007, pp. 120–121
- Isenberg 2007, p. 163
- Wheelan 2005, p. 88
- Hamilton, Alexander. "Printed Version of the "Reynolds Pamphlet", 1797". Founders Online.
- Ferling 2013, pp. 283–284, 301–302.
- Ferling, John (2013). Jefferson and Hamilton: the rivalry that forged a nation. Bloomsbury Press. ISBN 978-1608195428.
- Freeman, Joanne B. (2002). Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. New Haven: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0300097559.
- Isenberg, Nancy (2007). Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr. New York: Penguin.
- Mazzeo, Tilar (2018). Eliza Hamilton. New York: Simon & Schuster.
- Wheelan, Joseph (2005). Jefferson's Vendetta. New York: Carroll & Graf. ISBN 9780786714377.
- Cerniglia, Keith A. "An Indelicate Amor: Alexander Hamilton and the First American Political Sex Scandal," Master's Thesis, Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 2002.
- Chernow, Ron (April 26, 2004). Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Press. ISBN 1-59420-009-2.
- Cogan, Jacob Katz. "The Reynolds Affair and the Politics of Character." Journal of the Early Republic 16, no. 3 (1996): 389–417, doi:10.2307/3124057