Weird History
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The Beef Between Thomas Jefferson And Alexander Hamilton Goes Deeper Than You Thought

Updated October 11, 2017 68.1k views11 items

The first—and perhaps the most important—political rivalry in U.S. history was between Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The two Founding Fathers clashed over political differences, each trying to sway President George Washington to his side. But there’s more to the Hamilton and Jefferson feud than you thought.

Why did Thomas Jefferson hate Alexander Hamilton? He called Hamilton a corrupt monarchist, a traitor to the country—and their beef went far beyond political differences. In the rivalry between Jefferson and Hamilton, both men would destroy their own reputations in order to attack each other.

The rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson started out as a political disagreement, but it soon became deeply personal. And their fight would turn two shocking affairs into the biggest scandals of early American history.

Photo:
  • Photo: Albert Rosenthal / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    In Their First Major Showdown, Hamilton Clearly Won—But The Fight Wasn’t Over

    Hamilton held sway in Washington’s cabinet, but things changed with the election of 1796. Jefferson himself ran for President, but fell short, earning himself a spot as John Adams’s Vice President due to a quirk in the Constitution (which would quickly be corrected).

    Hamilton marshaled the Federalists, his political allies in Congress, to oppose Jefferson’s Republican Party. In 1798, Hamilton’s Federalists passed the Alien and Sedition Acts, designed to suppress political dissent. 

    Jefferson raged against the law, calling it “detestable” and “worthy of the 8th or 9th century.” As for the Federalist government, it was a “reign of witches.” And Jefferson saw Hamilton as the impetus behind the whole mess, proclaiming him “our Bonaparte” at the same time that Napoleon was conquering Europe.

  • Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Hamilton Had An Affair, Giving Jefferson The Ammo He Needed To Destroy Him

    In 1791, Hamilton met a woman named Maria Reynolds who begged him for help. Hamilton saw Maria as a “beauty in distress” and a “pretty woman.” Their adulterous affair quickly turned to blackmail when Maria’s estranged husband, James Reynolds, demanded one thousand dollars—about $25,000 today—to keep the relationship secret.

    Worried that Reynolds would tell his own wife, Hamilton paid the money. He also continued the affair.

    When James Reynolds was arrested in November 1792 for forgery, he wrote to Hamilton’s rivals, promising information that would destroy Hamilton’s reputation. James Monroe, who heard Reynolds’s tale, went to Hamilton to hear his side of the story. Hamilton privately confessed the affair, and Monroe agreed to let the matter drop.

    But Monroe also made a copy of the letters from Maria Reynolds and gave them to Thomas Jefferson.

  • Photo: Gilbert Stuart, 1805 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Jefferson Waited Five Years To Spill Hamilton’s Secret Affair

    As the rivalry between Hamilton and Jefferson boiled, it grew more and more personal. In 1796, while Jefferson was running for President, Hamilton accused the Virginian of hypocrisy. Jefferson might seem like a simple, humble farmer, Hamilton declared, but the Virginian's reputation was “a flimsy veil to the internal evidences of aristocratic splendor, sensuality, and epicureanism.”

    Was Hamilton referencing rumors about Jefferson’s affair with his slave—and his dead wife’s half-sister—Sally Hemings?

    Jefferson decided it was time to open the floodgates. He turned to his “attack dog,” muckraking journalist James Callender, to finally reveal the salacious tale of Hamilton's affair.

  • Photo: John Trumbull, 1805 / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Callender Accused Hamilton Of Adultery And Corruption, Forcing Hamilton To Admit The Affair

    James Callender published the story of Hamilton's affair in 1797. He called James Reynolds a pimp and printed Maria’s letters to Hamilton. He also attacked Hamilton's loyalty to his country, writing, “So much correspondence could not refer exclusively to wenching... No man of common sense will believe that it did. Hence it must have implicated some connection still more dishonourable.”

    At this, Callender publicly accused Hamilton of large-scale corruption, the same charge that Jefferson had been pushing for years.

    Hamilton believed that his only chance to defend himself against the corruption charge was to admit to the affair. “My real crime”––and his only crime––“is an amorous connection with his wife.”

    Hamilton’s admission was shocking. Naturally, it did little to help his reputation. One New Yorker told Hamilton, “You have widened the breach of dishonor by a confession of the fact.”