The Romantic Hamilton

In honor of Valentine’s Day, here are some of my favorite snippets of Hamilton’s writing to/about his wife Elizabeth.  Of course, Hamilton wasn’t always the perfect husband- he was away from his family often at the peak of his political career, and he had a much-publicized affair with Maria Reynolds, but :

From a July 2, 1780 letter:

“I love you more and more every hour.  The sweet softness and delicacy of your mind and manners, the elevation of your sentiments, the real goodness of your heart- it’s tenderness to me- the beauties of your face and person- your unpretending good sense and that innocent symplicity and frankness which pervade your actions, all these appear to me with increasing amiableness, and place you in my estimation above all the rest of your sex.”

From an October 1780 letter

“I have told you, and I told you truly that I love you too much. You engross my thoughts too intirely to allow me to think of any thing else. You not only employ my mind all day; but you intrude upon my sleep. I meet you in every dream—and when I wake I cannot close my eyes again for ruminating on your sweetnesses. ‘Tis a pretty story indeed that I am to be thus monopolized, by a little nut-brown maid like you—and from a statesman and a soldier metamorphosed into a puny lover. I believe in my soul you are an inchantress; but I have tried in vain, if not to break, at least, to weaken the charms—you maintain your empire in spite of all my efforts—and after every new one, I make to withdraw myself from my allegiance my partial heart still returns and clings to you with increased attachment.

Among other causes of uneasiness, I dread lest you should imagine, I yield too easily to the barrs, that keep us asunder; but if you have such an idea you ought to banish it and reproach yourself with injustice. A spirit entering into bliss, heaven opening upon all its faculties, cannot long more ardently for the enjoyment, than I do my darling Betsey, to taste the heaven that awaits me in your bosom. Is my language too strong? it is a feeble picture of my feeling:?no words can tell you how much I love and how much I long—you will only know it when wrapt in each others arms we give and take those delicious caresses which love inspires and marriage sanctifies….”

Excerpts from a November 1798 letter:

Indeed, my Betsey, you need never fear a want of anxious attention to you, for you are now dearer than ever to me.  Your happiness is the first and sweetest object of my wishes and cares.  How can it be otherwise?  You are all that is charming in my estimation and the more I see of your sex the more I become convinced of the judiciousness of my choice.

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.