08/14/07 - hamilton's affair

In today's excerpt - Alexander Hamilton's affair. Hamilton, one of the greatest of our founding fathers and principal architect of our country's highly innovative and successful financial systems, stumbles in 1791 into a liaison with a young and married prostitute. The affair led to attempted blackmail by the prostitute and her husband, and in turn to a confession by Hamilton that scandalized the new nation:

"[In 1797], Alexander Hamilton ... told a flabbergasted public about his extended sexual escapade with twenty-three-year-old Maria Reynolds, who must have been very alluring, [which started when] she arrived unannounced at his redbrick house at 79 South Third Street. He began his famous account thus: 'Sometime in the summer of the year, 1791, a woman called at my house in the city of Philadelphia and asked to speak to me in private. I attended her in a room apart from the family.' Reynolds beguiled Hamilton with a doleful tale of a husband, James Reynolds, 'who for a long time treated her very cruelly [and] lately had left her to live with another woman and in so destitute a condition that, though desirous of returning to her friends, she had not the means.' ...

"The thirty-six year old Hamilton never shrank from a maiden in distress, as Maria Reynolds must have known. He told her ... that she had come at an inopportune moment (i.e. Eliza his wife was home). He volunteered to bring 'a small supply of money' to her home at 154 South Fourth Street that evening. ... 'I inquired for Mrs. Reynolds and was shown upstairs, at the head of which she met me and conducted me into a bedroom. I took a bill out of my pocket and gave it to her. Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.'

"That encounter was the first of many times that Alexander Hamilton slipped furtively through the night to see Reynolds. Once Eliza had gone off to Albany, the coast was clear to bring his mistress home.  ...'I had frequent meetings with her, most of them at my own house.' ...

"It is baffling that Hamilton, having worked to achieve a spotless reputation as a treasury secretary, did not see that he was now courting danger and would be susceptible to blackmail ... yet he was in the grip of a dark sexual compulsion and Maria Reynolds knew how to hold him fast in her toils by feigning love. ... There seems little question that she approached Hamilton as part of an extortion racket, delivering an adept performance as a despairing woman."


Ron Chernow


Alexander Hamilton


Penguin Group


Copyright 2004 by Ron Chernow


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