A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

Cruel winter I - the Reynolds Affair uncovered (December 1792)

At the same time the trouble with France was beginning to brew, Hamilton's personal and professional lives were beginning to collapse.

On December 15, 1792, three congressmen, James Monroe, Abraham Venable, and Frederick Muhlenberg, confronted Hamilton in his Treasury Department office with charges of shady dealings with one James Reynolds, currently in jail. Reynolds claimed that Hamilton had given him treasury funds to play the stock market, and further, that he possessed evidence that the money had changed hands. Monroe and his partners went to Hamilton's office expecting to transcribe his confession of official corruption. What they ended up with was something quite different, and was to become one of the more bizarre incidents in American political history.

Yes, Hamilton admitted, he had given James Reynolds money, but it was his own, not treasury funds; and, no, the money was not for speculation, but to pay him off following an affair Hamilton had with Reynolds' wife, Maria, during the summer of 1791. At some point, Reynolds found out about their affair, and confronted Hamilton, requesting "satisfaction" for the wrong done to him. Hamilton neither admitted nor denied Reynolds' accusation, but pressed him to name the terms of his "satisfaction." Reynolds terms, in lieu of a treasury department position, which Hamilton refused to grant him, were a thousand dollars and the obligation to continue the affair with Maria--for additional payments. In short, Mr. Reynolds was a clever pimp who was now harboring some very destructive information on one of the highest officials in the country. Hamilton went along with the plan, continuing to pay Reynolds to bed his wife until he found a way to extricate himself as quietly as possible from the whole messy affair.

The discomfort of all participants in the unusual little conference was palpable. It was probably the first time a gathering had seen the unflappable Hamilton visibly agitated. So embarrassed by his admissions were the inquisitors, that they told Hamilton there was no need for him to tell the whole story. But Hamilton insisted upon telling them the whole sordid story, perhaps fearing that a partial admission would only give rise to further suspicions in the future. Hamilton preferred to relate the details of his humiliating affair than foster the belief that he was officially corrupt.

After Hamilton had completed his tale, Monroe, Venable, and Muhlenberg declared the incident a closed book. According to Hamilton, they departed with "expressions of regret at the trouble and embarrassment which had been occasioned to me." Hamilton must have been quite aware, however, that his affair had turned out to be a fatal mistake. It happened that his inquisitors were Republicans; Republicans who were now in possession of information-- facts admitted by Hamilton himself--that could be pulled out and used at any time to destroy him personally and professionally. And despite assurances from the three that Hamilton's secret was safe with them, it was only a matter of time until the Reynolds affair came back to haunt him.

The experience deeply disturbed Hamilton, whose self-confidence was already slowly wearing away. He wrote to John Jay a few days after the incident that he had neglected their correspondence because he had been preoccupied with "malicious intrigues to stab me in the dark . . . that distract and harrass me to a point, which [renders] my situation scarcely tolerable . . ."