The affair between Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds plays a major role in the second act of Lin-Manuel Miranda's musical Hamilton, but how historically accurate is this depiction of America's first big sex scandal? Quite accurate, it turns out - even if some key details are excluded from Miranda's dramatic retelling of the incident.
At the height of his political career in 1797, Hamilton published a wordy confession detailing the extramarital affair he carried on with the also-married Maria Reynolds between 1791 and 1792. Now known as the "Reynolds Pamphlet," the document impacted Hamilton's desire to hold higher positions within the United States government, and tainted his reputation among his peers.
The Hamilton/Reynolds affair is marked by blackmail, secret liaisons, arrests, and constant threats waved at political rivals. It also foreshadows Hamilton's premature demise in 1804, when he lost a good ol' fashioned duel to fellow Founding Father Aaron Burr.
- Photo: Hamilton / Disney+
Reynolds’s Husband Took Their Daughter And Ran Off With Another Woman
Hamilton first met Maria Reynolds when the 23-year-old woman showed up at his Philadelphia home asking for help. The young woman's husband, James Reynolds, had recently abandoned her, and she reached out to Hamilton in hopes that the secretary of the United States Treasury could provide her with some monetary assistance.
Her husband, who for a long time had treated her very cruelly, had lately 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 - that knowing I was a citizen of New York, she had taken the liberty to apply to my humanity for assistance.
- Photo: Hamilton / Disney+
Hamilton Gave Reynolds Money, Which Spawned Their Affair
Soon after she visited him, Hamilton arrived at Reynolds's residence with financial assistance. The story goes that she led him to her bedroom, where Hamilton accepted her repayment in the form of a tryst.
Over the summer and fall of 1791, the pair paid each other frequent visits and exchanged letters. When Maria reconciled with her husband in December, she sent Hamilton a note warning him about her husband's intentions:
Mr. has rote you this morning and I know not wether you have got the letter or not and he has swore that If you do not answer It or If he dose not se or hear from you to day he will write Mrs. Hamilton.
Trouble was on the horizon for Alexander Hamilton.
Hamilton Was The Second Most Powerful Man In The Country At The Time
Just 34 years old when he carried on his affair with Reynolds, Hamilton's role as the very first secretary of the United States Treasury made him one of the most prominent figures in America at the time.
In fact, the American Revolution veteran and author of The Federalist Papers was second only to President George Washington when it came to power and authority.
Hamilton was responsible for creating the new nation's overarching financial system. He was also a married man with children. Both his personal and professional lives were at risk if news of his affair with Reynolds reached the public.
Reynolds’s Husband Demanded Compensation To Keep The Affair Secret
The letter Reynolds's husband James sent to Hamilton made it clear James would only remain quiet about the affair if Hamilton paid him off.
James wrote, "For there is no person that Knowes any thing as yet. And I am tiremd [sic] to see you, by some Means or other. For you have made me an unhappy man for eve. put it to your own case and Reflect one Moment."
Hamilton purportedly paid James $1,000. However, James encouraged Hamilton and Maria to continue their romance behind the scenes, probing Hamilton for cash after each encounter. In the Reynolds Pamphlet, Hamilton describes the scenario from his perspective:
My real crime is an amorous connection with [Reynolds's] wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.
The Affair Came To Light When Reynolds’s Husband Was Arrested And Imprisoned
Ever the con artist, James Reynolds got himself wrapped up in a forgery scheme that involved acquiring pension and back pay from American Revolution veterans. When he was arrested in 1792, James sought help from Hamilton, but the treasury secretary flatly refused.
James then reached out to Hamilton's rival in the Republican Party, James Monroe. Monroe visited James in jail, where the prisoner handed over some of the letters exchanged between Maria and Hamilton. As if that wasn't bad enough, James hoped to implicate Hamilton in his own fraudulent acts.
When Confronted, Hamilton Came Clean About The Affair Right Away - Even Though That Wasn’t What He Was Accused Of
Monroe approached Hamilton with the information from James. Knowing he was being accused of serious criminal activity, Hamilton came clean about the affair with Maria in order to justify his connection to James. Monroe and other Republicans found no proof Hamilton was involved with the forgeries.
Monroe and his compatriots agreed to keep Hamilton's affair a secret, and the treasury secretary left the meeting confident about his past indiscretions remaining veiled. As he later explains in the Reynolds Pamphlet:
They knew I had been hurt at the opening of the affair - that this excepted, I was satisfied with their conduct and considered myself as having been treated with candor or with fairness and liberality.