In the summer of 1791, twenty-three-year-old Maria Reynolds called on Hamilton at his Philadelphia residence, claiming that her husband had abandoned her and that she hoped that Hamilton, as a fellow New Yorker, would be willing to help her relocate to that city. (Hamilton’s family was at Albany at the time, with Elizabeth’s parents.) Hamilton agreed to see Mrs. Reynolds that evening, and it soon became clear, as Hamilton later wrote in the “Reynolds Pamphlet,” that something “other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable” to Mrs. Reynolds. And, so, the young woman became his mistress.
The affair continued into December, when Hamilton received a letter from James Reynolds (who may have been conspiring with his wife all along) stating that he knew about the affair, could no longer live with his wife because of it, and proposing that Hamilton pay him $1,000 to quit Philadelphia, leaving his wife for Hamilton do with as he thought proper. Hamilton paid the blackmail and—incredibly—continued the affair. James Reynolds, however, did not leave town, and he continued to solicit and receive smaller payments from Hamilton after each assignation.
In November 1792, Reynolds, who had been involved in dubious financial dealings with Revolutionary War pensions, was imprisoned for forgery. When Hamilton ignored his plea for help, Reynolds instead sought a meeting with his Democratic-Republican rivals, including James Monroe, claiming that Hamilton had instigated an affair with his wife and been engaged in illegal speculation while Secretary of the Treasury. When confronted, Hamilton told his political enemies of Reynolds’s blackmail scheme, and while he admitted, as he was later to write in his pamphlet, that he was guilty of an “irregular and indelicate amour,” he was able to convince them that he had not been involved in speculation.
Hamilton seems to have finally ended his relationship with Maria Reynolds at this point (she remarried in 1795), and there the entire episode might have terminated, but for three things: James Monroe had made copies of the correspondence between Hamilton and the Reynoldses; Monroe sent copies of the letters to Thomas Jefferson; and Hamilton continued to attack Jefferson’s public policies and personal conduct. So it was that in the summer of 1797 the affair and the accusation of speculation came to public notice in two scorching pamphlets by James Callendar, subsequently collected in The History of the United States for 1796; Including a Variety of Interesting Particulars Relative to the Federal Government Previous to That Period (Philadelphia, 1797). Facing ruin, Hamilton responded by issuing his own extraordinary pamphlet, in which he fully admitted to the affair with Maria Reynolds but disproved the charge of financial impropriety. Popularly known as the “Reynolds Pamphlet,” the full title of the publication is Observations on Certain Documents Contained in No. V & VI of “The History of the United States for the Year 1796,” In Which the Charge of Speculation Against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, is Fully Refuted. Written by Himself (Philadelphia, 1797).
The “Reynolds Pamphlet” was published in late August. Among those who rallied to Hamilton’s support was Edward Jones, the first chief clerk of the Treasury Department. He seems to have been involved in gathering exculpatory evidence for Hamilton. One of the principal testimonies he collected was this remarkable letter by Richard Folwell, a Federalist author and publisher, purportedly revealing details about the conduct and character of Maria Reynolds and the financial frauds of her husband.
“Having observed, by a Perusal of the History of the United States, that Odium was levelled at the Character of Col. Hamilton, and hearing that he intended to answer the Charges, I thought I possessed the Knowledge of some Traits in the Character of the Persons with whom he seems to be in Company with in that Work, that would in some Measure remove, if known, the Imputations levelled at the public Character of that Gentleman. Wishing, therefore, to see Right prevail, and Innocence protected, I suggested my Knowledge of the most material Incidents that would render improbable, in my Opinion, the Imputations contained in that work. By your Request, I roughly summoned them up; and am sorry, lest some material Point does not strike my Mind, that these Details have never come to the Hand of Col. Hamilton. To remove, however, this Disappointment, I will invoke my Recollection, and enter on the Particulars.
“A few days after Mrs. Reynolds’ first appearance in Philadelphia, a Relation of hers requested my Mother to receive her for a few Days, into our House, as she was a Stranger in the City, and had come here to endeavour to reclaim a prodigal Husband, who had deserted her and his Creditors at New York. This was readily consented to when her innocent Countenance appeared to show an innocent Heart. Not more than two Days after she was at our House. She found her Husband was here—had been in Gaol, and was but just liberated. In a Day or two after she said, they had an Interview, but, could not come to Terms of Pacification. Her Mind, at this Time, was far from being tranquil or consistent, for, almost at the same Minute that she would declare her Respect for her Husband, cry, and feel distressed, they would vanish, and Levity would succeed, with bitter Execrations on her Husband. This Inconsistency and Folly was ascribed to a troubled, but innocent and harmless Mind. In one or other of these Paroxysms, she told me, so infamous was the Perfidy of Reynolds, that he had frequently enjoined and insisted that she should insinuate herself on certain high and influential Characters,—endeavour to make Assignations with them, and actually prostitute herself to gull Money from them. About five days after she first came at our House, Mr. Reynolds had an Interview; and we, while she commanded Commiseration, were induced to warn her to depart, that a Character so infamous as her Husband should not enter our House. She moved to a reputable Quaker Lady’s at No. —— North Grant Street; where they lived together; but, so the Family said, did not sleep together.
“Lately I have understood that Letters were frequently found in the Entry inviting her Abroad;—and that at Night she would fly off, as was supposed to answer their Contents. This House getting eventually too hot for them, they made their Exit. During the Period of their Residence there, she informed me she had proposed pecuniary Aid should be rendered by her to her Husband in his Speculations, by her placing Money in a certain Gentleman’s Hands, to buy of him whatever public Paper he had to sell, and that she would have that which was purchased given to her,—and, if she could find Confidence in his future Prudence, she would eventually return him what he sold. From this House, if I recollect, they made their Exit for a short Time from Philadelphia; but soon returned; and gave me an Invitation to wait on them at No. —— North Sixth Street. At this Time he wanted me to adventure with him in Turnpike Script,—to subscribe for which he was immediately to embark for Lancaster. The first Deposit for which was but trifling a Share—whether one or ten Dollars I do not recollect. Some considerable Time after (if necessary, Data can be procured) they removed and lived in stile in a large House in Vine Street, next to the Corner of Fifth. Here I had an Invitation, if I recollect, and being disposed to see if possible how People supported Grandeur, without apparently Friends, Money or Industry, I accordingly called. Mrs. Reynolds told me her Husband was in Gaol; and on asking her for what, she said he had got a Man to administer to the Estate of a supposed deceased Soldier and give him a Power of Attorney to recover what was due to him by the Public. That he had accordingly recovered it, but that incautiously and imprudently having given the Heir-Apparent an indemnifying Bond, that when the Soldier came to Life, the administration delivered the indemnifying Bond up to the real Heir, that then he was detected. … Here the Curtain dropt from my View, their Career, till perhaps a Year or two after Mrs. Reynolds wrote me a Letter to call on her at a very reputable and genteel Lodging House in Arch Street, No. . In this note she apprized me of her Marriage with Mr. Clingman, which is annexed. Her Business she gave me to understand, was with me, to clear up her Character in East Nottingham, Cecil County, Maryland. That she lived there happily with Mr. Clingman, at the House of a Distant Relation of mine, till she had mentioned the knowing of our Family in Philadelphia; and that a Cousin of mine had given out that she must be the same Person who had left with her an infamous Character by the name of Mrs. Reynolds. She wished me to clear it up. I expostulated on the Inconsistency of this, that as it was bad before she had certainly increased it, as her Husband, Reynolds, I understood was alive in N. York. …
“I believe the Dates of these material Circumstances may be readily ascertained where necessary. I intended to digest the Confusion in which I throwed my former Observations that were mislaid. But you expressed Hurry. Had I a copy of that, this should be better arranged. The Same Reason of Hurry induces me to submit that this may be sent to Colonel Hamilton as it is. Relying that he will Retrench and improve—allowing me to alter what may not be agreeable to myself. … It is now two o’Clock on Sunday Morning. I am sleepy. I shall have Opportunity to do, with Mr. Jones’s Approbation and my own, what Defect may be here, that Col. Hamilton with this may not entirely do.” On the verso of the second leaf is the endorsement "(Note A) That he had never got himself involved so before; though frequently he and his partner had done the same."
While the Hamilton’s marriage survived the Reynolds affair and while his public life continued, the scandal ended any possibility of Hamilton winning an elective office.
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