Hamilton Is No David Petraeus

The intense publicity surrounding David Petraeus and his high-profile affair and resignation has led to comparisons between the Petraeus-Bradwell affair and Hamilton’s high profile affair with Maria Reynolds.  Articles include One Sex Scandal In American History That Tops The Petraeus Affair and Before David Petraeus, There Was Alexander Hamilton’s “Beauty in Distress”.  The New York Times also mentions Hamilton today in the article With Digital Trail, an End to the Hushed Affair.

The above sources lay out the sensational details of the affair: Hamilton became involved with Maria Reynolds in 1791, when she came to his home in Philadelphia and claimed that she was destitute and had been abandoned and abused by her husband.  Hamilton and Reynolds became involved immediately.  Maria’s husband, James Reynolds knew about the affair (and may have even pushed Maria to seduce Hamilton) and sought money from Hamilton.  James Reynolds was arrested for financial crimes and accused Hamilton of entering into monetary relationships with Reynolds for personal gain and abusing his position.  Reynolds accused Hamilton of being deeply concerned in speculation and frequently advancing money to Reynolds for these purposes.  The information came into the hands of Congressman Frederick A. Muhlenberg, who shared it with Senator James Monroe and Congressman Abraham Venable.  These three men confronted Hamilton in December 1792, and Hamilton immediately disclosed the affair and showed them letters from Reynolds in order to clear himself of the corruption charges.  The exchange concluded with the understanding that the three men would keep silent about the details of the affair.  The three men also gave a copy of the initial documents with information from Reynolds that was discredited by Hamilton to John Beckley, clerk of the  House of Representatives.  In 1793, Reynolds divorced her husband and Aaron Burr served as her divorce lawyer.  In 1795, Hamilton resigned as Treasury Secretary, where he had been making only $3,500 a year, and resumed private practice in New York, making around $11,000 a year.  In 1797, Beckley was fired as Clerk of the House and he turned over his copy of the documents to infamous Republican journalist James T. Callender.  Callender, without making any further investigation about truth of the claims, immediately published Beckley’s documents.  Scandal erupted and corruption accusations swirled.  Hamilton believed that his political enemy Monroe, who Washington had just recalled from his position as ambassador to France, was behind the documents being released.  The two men came to the brink of a duel, and Aaron Burr, Monroe’s would-be second, helped negotiate between the two parties and averted the duel.  In August 1797, Hamilton published a pamphlet with all of his correspondence with Reynolds, deciding that admitting to a sordid affair would be better than the stain of the public corruption allegations.  

When the pamphlet was published, Hamilton’s allies were shocked:

When the work appeared, Hamilton’s friends were appalled. “What shall we say …” Webster wrote, “of a man who has borne some of the highest civil and military employments, who could deliberately … publish a history of his private intrigues, degrade himself in the estimation of all good men, and scandalize a family, to clear himself of charges which no man believed. …” General Henry Knox wrote to General David Cobb, “Myself and most of his other friends conceive this confession humiliating in the extreme, and such a text as will serve his enemies.”

While the details of the affair are indeed scandalous, the most revealing and important part of the story is Hamilton’s response to it.  His decision is a perfect example of what makes him such an interesting and complex historical figure.  Hamilton was flawed and succeptible to temptation in his personal life, but he was doggedly honest in his professional life.  He ignored the personal consequences of admitting to the affair and made a full confession, something that few political figures of any period would do.  To Hamilton, even the unsubstantiated stirrings of corruption were unacceptable. 

Unlike David Petraeus and the countless other politicians involved in modern sex scandals, Hamilton did not make a public revelation out of necessity, but out of his sense of honor.  Even though Hamilton was no longer in office when news of the affair broke, he placed the sanctity of the position over his private interests and his own reputation.  If Hamilton had listened to his friends or had a modern day spin doctor, he would have allowed the rumors to live instead of feeding the fire with a full, dramatic revelation.  For better and for worse, Hamilton was a person who followed his own mind and lived by his own unbendable code with regard to his political life, even when his personal life fell short of that code. 

For a full account of the Reynolds affair, see The Notorious Affair of Mrs. Reynolds, a 1973 American Heritage article.

3 thoughts on “Hamilton Is No David Petraeus

  1. Nicole says:

    What a great article! It’s great to read such a detailed and factual account. I especially liked your remarks on Hamilton’s sense of honor and absolute truthfulness in his public life. Most people don’t give him the credit he deserves in that regard.

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