A Biography of Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804)

Decline: The death of a cultivated reputation-and an aegis

As Hamilton probably suspected--and dreaded--after the bleak winter night when he confessed his affair with Maria Reynolds to the trio of investigators, the whole thing came back to haunt him in July 1797. The affair reappeared in the form of a pamphlet entitled History of the United States for 1796, in which the author repeated James Reynolds' charges that Hamilton had skimmed funds from the Treasury to engage in joint speculative ventures.

It was a story that Hamilton could have easily and with dignity ignored, having left office after the most rigorous inquisitions into his conduct and coming out blameless. But Hamilton was not one to leave well enough alone. Always hyper-sensitive to charges of public corruption, Hamilton became frantic when he found out about the pamphlet. Equally troubling to him was the realization that one or more of the three congressmen who had initially confronted him with Reynolds' charges apparently broke their gentleman's agreement that they were satisfied with Hamilton's explanation and that his secret was safe. Hamilton requested and received statements from Venable and Muhlenberg that they had believed Hamilton's explanation of his dealings with Reynolds, but he was unable to get a satisfactory statement from James Monroe, indicating to Hamilton that Monroe had never believed him, and worse, had been the source of the leak. Infuriated, Hamilton goaded the future president until a duel seemed imminent. Monroe offered to issue a statement in defense of Hamilton's position, a lackluster one to be sure, but one which would certainly allay any doubts about Hamilton's official uprightness.

Obviously not satisfied with that, in a rash and blatantly foolish decision--the reasoning behind which continues to mystify historians--Hamilton published his own refutation: a 97 page pamphlet containing, among other things, a confession of his adulterous affair in embarrassing detail, complete with citations from letters from both James and Maria Reynolds.

So important was his public image, his need for a spotless official reputation, that Hamilton was willing to risk destroying his marriage and humiliating his colleagues by publicly admitting marital infidelity. Hamilton's actions baffled his friends, and caused more than a little concern about his mental stability. The general reaction of his friends was to shake their heads and hold their breath until the whole thing blew over. Hamilton himself seemed impervious to the consequences, going about his business as if nothing had happened; but he never completely regained his standing and respect afterwards. His enemies found unlimited opportunity for ridicule, and the Republican press was still making jokes about "Mrs. Reynolds' gallant" in 1804.

What Elizabeth thought is anyone's guess--she destroyed all her correspondence following her husband's death, and so is silent to history. For Hamilton, who had been harboring the possibility of such a disclosure, not to mention the attendant guilt, for the previous four years, the Reynolds pamphlet was probably both a necessary release, and an assurance that the affair could never again be used against him.

The Death of Washington
Perhaps most symbolic of the disappointments and decline Alexander Hamilton would face in the new century was the death of George Washington on December 14, 1799. More than anyone else, George Washington understood Hamilton's unique abilities, and put him in situations where his talents could be developed and used. Landed aristocrat though he was, Washington never allowed prejudice to cloud his confidence or his trust in the brilliant West Indian. Hamilton repaid by reserving his best efforts for Washington, and the President was well aware of the fact, as he wrote to Hamilton when he resigned from the Treasury:

"In every relation, which you have borne to me, I have found that my confidence in your talents, exertions and integrity, has been well placed. I the more freely render this testimony of my approbation because I speak from opportunities of information w[hi]ch cannot deceive me, and which furnish satisfactory proof of your title to public regard."

In Hamilton's eyes, no higher tribute could be bestowed upon him. Washington had enabled him to shine, and now that Washington's sun had set, Hamilton found himself facing the twilight. "He was an Aegis very essential to me," Hamilton lamented.

Indeed, his protector was gone, and Hamilton was a leader now--of a frayed political party which he would shortly tear asunder.