Scandalmonger: A Novelby William Safire
A presidential hopeful has taken a beautiful, vulnerable woman as his mistress, though both are married to others. His rival for the presidency of the United States has even more sensational secrets to guard about his own past. An ambitious journalist unearths the stories of the private lives of both, and he hefts in his hand what he calls "the hammer of truth."
The time is the end of the eighteenth century. The political figures whose intimate lives are about to be revealed are Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The journalist out to shape the course of the young nation's history is "that scurrilous scoundrel Callender," the fugitive from Scottish sedition law who pioneered the public exposure of men in power. The women he makes famous are the mysterious Maria Reynolds and the slave Sally Hemings.
The novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Safire brings these real characters in our history to life. He recounts the dramatic clash of the Founders and the first journalists -- drawn from actual events of the nation's beginnings -- that has special relevance for our time. Scandalmonger is dramatized history at its best and presidential politics at its most fascinating.
For those who think that Washington sex scandals and lurid journalism are recent developments, this novel will be a revelation, for Safire shows vividly how media intrusiveness into private lives -- and politicians' cool manipulation of the press -- are as old as the Constitution.
The "scandalmonger" of the title is James Thomson Callender, a writer with a poisonous quill pen who is secretly on the payroll of Vice President Jefferson. When Callender publishes documents leaked to him about a secret Congressional investigation into Treasury Secretary Hamilton's financial dealings, Hamilton counters with a confession of an affair with the blackmailing Mrs. Reynolds -- admitting to a sin but not a crime.
Callender's scathing newspaper attacks on Hamilton and on President John Adams as a "hoary-headed incendiary" so incensed the Federalists in power that they enacted the Sedition Act to crush freedom of speech. The scandalmonger was convicted and jailed, but his widely reported martyrdom after an unfair trial angered many voters and helped to sweep the Jeffersonians into power.
The new President pardoned his partisan publicist but refused to reward him -- indeed, cut him off in favor of less divisive supporters. Broke and betrayed, Callender set out to wreak vengeance on his former hero by breaking the story of Jefferson's fathering of children with his slave Sally Hemings -- an account that would be scornfully disbelieved until largely authenticated by DNA evidence almost two centuries later.
Central to the story of Scandalmonger is the enigmatic allure of Maria Reynolds, a haunting adventuress who in real life bedazzled both Hamilton and his arch-enemy, Aaron Burr, and, in this novel, attracted the reviled scandalmonger as well.
Much of the dialogue of Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe is drawn from their letters. The accounts of libel and sedition trials to suppress the opinions of Callender and his bombastic newspaper antagonist, "Peter Porcupine," are accurate. Hamilton's passionate and ironic defense of freedom of the press is true (although the notes of his speech were fleshed out by Safire, a former White House speechwriter). In a unique "Underbook," the author scrupulously sets forth his scholarly sources, separating fiction from dramatized history -- and in so leveling with the reader, truly re-creates the passionate controversies of an era that presages our times.
"A fresh and thought-provoking look at the monument set: George Washington, John Adams, James Madison, Aaron Burr, Meriwether Lewis, James Monroe and other dead
"Colonial all-stars are brought to life in these pages." -Rocky Mountain News (Denver)
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Read an Excerpt
December 17, 1792
"The man now in jail who got me into all this trouble says he has enough on the Treasury Secretary to hang him."
The note from his former clerk startled Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg. Squinting at the familiar, crabbed handwriting, the member of Congress from Pennsylvania -- about to begin his second term as Speaker of the House of Representatives -- read on: "Reynolds claims to have proof showing that Hamilton secretly engaged in speculation in government securities."
Alexander Hamilton corrupt? Muhlenberg's well-ordered Germanic mind refused to entertain the scandalous thought. President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury had been General Washington's courageous aide-de-camp in the War for Independence. He gave unity to the Union by having the Federal government assume the debts of the States. Everyone knew that Hamilton was the Cabinet officer that the great man would rely on most heavily in the second term soon to begin. To suggest that this exemplar of financial probity was enriching himself at public expense was to shake the very foundations of the new Republic. And with war brewing between England and France, such a damning charge against Hamilton, an avowed admirer of the British, would be grist for the mills of the new anti-Federalist faction so entranced by everything French.
Muhlenberg was certain that Jacob Clingman, who had worked in his Philadelphia mercantile house and later served as his assistant in Congress, was honest at heart. The unfortunate young man had become involved with a ne'er-do-well from New York named James Reynolds in a scheme to buy up the claims for unpaid past wages of the Revolution's veterans. After almost a decade, most of the old soldiers thought the claims would never be paid, and were selling them for 10 cents on the dollar. But some speculators, said to know of Hamilton's plan to pay the old debt in full, were avidly seeking the government's list of veterans and the amounts they were owed. Reynolds and Clingman were discovered impersonating claimants and jailed; only Muhlenberg's intercession, attesting to the young man's character, had allowed his former clerk to be free pending prosecution.
The Speaker laid the accusatory note on his desk. Muhlenberg was a "low" Federalist, not as all-out for central power as the Hamiltonian Federalists, but loyal to President Washington. He was relieved that the Republic's leader had consented to be re-elected, the month before, to a second term. Because the Pennsylvanian had long frowned on the emergence of a republican faction with ties to France, he was also glad that Washington was retaining that troublesome faction's leader, Thomas Jefferson, in his Cabinet as Secretary of State. By holding both the pro-French Jefferson and the pro-British Hamilton close to him, Washington could keep the United States united and neutral. Muhlenberg was convinced that the nation, not two decades from its Revolution, was wholly unprepared to fight another war.
But what if the outrageous charge that Hamilton was abusing the public's trust turned out to be true, or even partially true? The stain would not only sully the President's reputation but would discredit the entire new government. The farmers in Pennsylvania's West had already been infuriated by Hamilton's proposal for a whiskey tax, a scheme of Eastern moneymen that would punish Western growers of grain and distillers of its alcohol. The bankers in Boston did not seem to realize that whiskey was a more trusted medium of exchange than banknotes. A financial scandal in Hamilton's department, by adding substance to the republican suspicion that the Treasury Secretary was a secret monarchist, would tear the new nation apart.
A charge of corruption in the Cabinet should be brought directly to the attention of the President, Muhlenberg was certain, but not until the allegations were examined. This brief note slandering Hamilton could be merely a false accusation by some panicked wrongdoer. Did not a brave patriot, a national hero with a financial reputation as spotless as Hamilton's, deserve the benefit of the doubt -- especially against the self-serving hearsay of an accused speculator?
But the letter from young Clingman required urgent action. "Reynolds's threats have borne fruit," his former assistant wrote. "Hamilton's Comptroller, Wolcott, has signed the order for Reynolds's release tomorrow morning. He will take his wife Maria and their child and sail for England. I have some letters you must see today."
That forced Muhlenberg to move quickly. A financial scandal, if such there were, would not vanish with the disappearance of one of its agents. The new pamphleteers, often working for the publications of what Washington himself disparaged as "self-created societies," were sowing disunity. They would see to it that every suspicious whisper and outright calumny would be repeated in print, breathing fire into the growing spirit of faction. Reynolds had to be interrogated before he got out of jail tomorrow morning, and his charge against Hamilton corroborated or put to rest.
The portly Speaker pushed himself out of his chair and buttoned his waistcoat. His political sense told him that one man alone could not conduct the investigation. He would need a companion to give at least the appearance of factional and geographical impartiality. Because Muhlenberg's own background was in the Lutheran clergy and the mercantile trade, he would need a colleague versed in the law.
John Adams, the Vice President? He had been known to call Hamilton "the bastard son of a Scotch pedlar." While that ancestral slur was true enough, it was unfair to hold Hamilton's low birth in the West Indies against him, and Adams's angry remark indicated he would have a personal prejudice.
Aaron Burr? Muhlenberg considered his friend Burr, Senator from New York, to be the sort of shrewd lawyer ordinarily perfect for such a mission. A good friend of Jemmy and Dolley Madison, too; indeed, Burr had introduced the longtime bachelor to the sunny widow. But a month before, when the Speaker had prevailed on the republican Burr to take him to see the Federalist Hamilton, the Senator's fellow New Yorker, to recommend leniency for the young clerk, Muhlenberg sensed a tension between the two. They were not only of opposing political factions but seemed to dislike each other in a personal way.
What about Jonathan Trumbull, who had replaced him as Speaker in the past term? No; "Brother Jonathan" was too close to President Washington, too ardent a Federalist, and was from Connecticut, which was too far north. Needed for balance in confronting Hamilton was a man of the Senate; a Southerner or Westerner, preferably a Virginian; a lawyer but not a sitting judge; someone trusted by Jefferson and the other anti-Federalists gathering around him.
James Monroe. The perfect choice. Muhlenberg knew the youthful Virginian had been Jefferson's law student, his political acolyte and the man Jefferson was even now urging Washington to appoint as his Minister to France. "Cool and collected," as Jefferson liked to say, prudent and correct, Monroe was not personally amiable, but had a reputation of being both high-minded and hardheaded.
The Pennsylvanian snatched up the troubling note and set out across the chambers for the Virginia Senator's office.
Monroe, the accusation from Reynolds's confederate in hand, was hardly able to hide his delight at what Muhlenberg, in his rich German accent, was telling him. Jefferson's break with Hamilton was absolute; the Secretary of State saw the Treasury Secretary as twisting the Constitution into a device for snatching power from the States and individuals in the name of "empire." For months, in general terms, Jefferson had been warning President Washington that Hamilton was guilty of dealing out Treasury secrets among his financier friends. The Treasury Secretary had countered that Jefferson was an incendiary promoting national disunion and public disorder. Now here was a specific case supporting Jefferson's suspicions of Hamilton's character to lay before the Chief Magistrate.
"The President must be made aware of this," Monroe told the Speaker firmly. "There is no offense more reprehensible, in an officer charged with the finances of his country, than to be engaged in speculation."
"Of course." But Muhlenberg hesitated. "Don't you think we should see Hamilton first, in case he has some logical explanation?"
Though eager to use the evidence to undermine Hamilton's influence with Washington, Monroe agreed. He considered it important to give the fair-minded Speaker every impression of his own impartiality. "And before we do," he suggested, "perhaps we should see the judge who or-dered tomorrow's release of Reynolds. To see if Hamilton had a hand in that."
Muhlenberg shook his head, no. "The Attorney General of Pennsylvania signed the release order. I know the man. If we go to him, the news will be all over Philadelphia in a matter of hours."
Monroe reluctantly accepted the need for discretion. "The young man who wrote this note -- when he was your clerk, was he reliable? Do you trust his word?"
"He's easily misled and I believe was duped by Reynolds. But in the years he worked in my store, Jacob Clingman never stole a thing. I'd vouch for him to that extent. I arranged for his release on bail, but I refused to do the same for Reynolds."
Monroe believed he could do with more evidence, particularly letters in Hamilton's handwriting, before he confronted the Treasury Secretary, who would surely deny everything. And he felt a need for some political basis for interceding in this affair. "The name Reynolds is familiar," he said, frowning as if to remember. "Is this man one of the Virginia Reynoldses?"
"He's a New Yorker, but I suppose it's possible he has family in Virginia."
"Could be a constituent of mine in trouble, then." He rose. "Let's see what letters your informant Clingman has. Then we can interview Reynolds." Monroe presumed that if Reynolds had incriminating documents from Hamilton, they would probably be at his home. Because this was to be his last night in jail, there might be an opportunity to visit the Reynolds domicile and speak to his wife or housekeeper without his presence, perhaps even to search his desk. "After we hear what this Reynolds says, then we can visit Hamilton."
The Speaker nodded his agreement. "At that point," he said, "we would be in a position to lay this before the President."
Jacob Clingman, coatless -- it was a mild winter in Philadelphia -- was brought into the Congressional office. He was genuinely glad to see Speaker Muhlenberg, the only man of power who had ever befriended him. He did not recognize the tall, sharp-nosed, cold-eyed man with him, introduced by the Speaker only as "my colleague." Probably a lawyer, Clingman thought.
"I vouched for your good character, Jacob," said his business mentor, who had once been his Lutheran pastor, "but not that of Reynolds. I verily believe him to be a rascal."
"He is that and worse, sir. Reynolds says that he has it in his power to injure the Secretary of the Treasury, and I think that is why he is to be released tomorrow."
"That cannot be the reason Comptroller Wolcott gives," said the lawyer with the cold eyes.
"No. Wolcott is in a tight place," Clingman told his interrogators. "He was doing his job, investigating a fraud, and tripped over this much bigger speculation scandal involving Reynolds and the Secretary. Then, to save his superior any embarrassment, Comptroller Wolcott had to find reasons not to prosecute us. So Reynolds made full restitution of the money, and gave him the list of veterans that we used. He even told the Comptroller which Treasury clerks in New York had slipped him the list. That's when his case was dropped, and Reynolds gets out tomorrow all free and clear. But my case is still pending and I don't know why."
"Do you have any personal knowledge," the unidentified interrogator asked, "of a direct connection between Reynolds and Comptroller Wolcott's superior?"
"Hamilton, you mean?" When the lawyer kept looking silently at him, Clingman blurted out more than he had wanted to say. "In January, not quite a year ago, I went to Reynolds's house, and just as I came in, Colonel Hamilton was leaving. I knew it was him. It's a face everybody knows who does business with the Treasury."
"The colonel cuts a memorable figure, true. Do you recall any other time you saw them together?"
"Not exactly together." Now he was wading into deeper water. Clingman looked to Speaker Muhlenberg for reassurance, and received a friendly nod. "A few days after that, I was at the Reynolds house with Maria, Mrs. Reynolds, Mr. Reynolds being out." Hoping he would not be asked to explain that, he hurried on. "It was late at night and somebody knocked at the door. I got up and opened it and saw it was Colonel Hamilton. He looked surprised. Maria came up behind me. Colonel Hamilton handed her a paper and said something curious."
When he hesitated, trying to call up the exact words, Muhlenberg barked a quick, guttural, "Vot?"
"What Colonel Hamilton said was, 'I was ordered to give this to Mr. Reynolds,' and he turned and left."
"Why did you find that curious?"
"Because who could 'order' the Secretary of the Treasury to give anybody anything?" Clingman quickly retreated to his respectful demeanor. "That's the very question I asked Mrs. Reynolds, sir, and she said she supposed Colonel Hamilton did not want to be recognized. This was late at night."
"Did you see what was written on the paper?" the lawyer asked.
"No, it was in a blank envelope."
"Then why did you say it was a paper?"
Clingman felt his heart clutch into a tight fist. "I don't know. It was an envelope with a paper in it, I guess. It wasn't thick." At least they weren't asking him what he was doing late at night in the Reynolds house, alone with Maria.
"Surely you asked Mrs. Reynolds about Hamilton's visits?" Congressman Muhlenberg observed.
"She said he had been assisting her husband for some months. Only a few days before, her husband had received eleven hundred dollars from Colonel Hamilton." He had no cause to hold back: "She said her husband told her that the Treasury Secretary had made thirty thousand dollars by speculation, thanks to him."
"That is a very serious charge to repeat, young man," said the lawyer.
Clingman was eager to substantiate it. "When I must have looked as if I didn't believe her, Maria said her husband had applied to Colonel Hamilton for money to subscribe to the turnpike road at Lancaster, and received a note from him saying no."
"You asked to see that note, of course?" said the lawyer.
He looked uncertainly at Muhlenberg, who nodded encouragement. Clingman reached inside his shirt, took out a small packet of notes, and slid it across the table to the Congressman, who read the top one aloud: " 'It is utterly out of my power, I assure you upon my word of honor, to comply with your request. Your note is returned.' No signature. Well, if Hamilton wrote this, he did the right thing."
"But if that handwriting is Hamilton's," the lawyer said, "it does prove a certain connection. That's hardly the way he would turn down a request from a stranger." Three other cryptic notes, unsigned, were in the packet, with Reynolds's endorsement "From Sec. Hamilton, Esq." on them. "We'll hold on to these, if it's all right with you, Mr. Clingman." He asked for Reynolds's home address and Clingman told him. As the two men prepared to leave, the lawyer said, "What else can you tell us about Mrs. Reynolds? Is she young?"
"She's twenty-two, same as me. She comes from a good family, connected to the Livingstons, in New York." The connection was remote, but the Livingston clan was as powerful as the Clinton family in that state. He hoped they would understand that Maria was not at fault in all this. "She left her parents' home hurriedly, under trying circumstances, and in her marriage has been much abused." The clerk said nothing of her fine figger or elegant carriage or the way Maria's dark blue eyes could quickly fill with tears; all that they could find out for themselves. "Has a daughter named Susan, about five or six years old, a sweet child terrified of her father. The Reynolds family, sirs, is not a happy one."
The men from Congress took their seat in the warden's office, a sullen gray room with a poor painting on the wall of George Washington astride his white horse. James Reynolds was brought to them from his cell.
"I am Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg, Mr. Reynolds, and this is my colleague in the Congress."
"Does your colleague have a name?"
"I am Senator James Monroe of Virginia. Are you one of the Richmond Reynoldses?"
"No, I am a New Yorker."
"I was misinformed. Are you the man who claims to have a person in high office in his power?"
Reynolds showed them a sly smile. "Thanks to my associate in high office, who sometimes writes me the most abusive letters, I am getting out of this place tomorrow morning. Under this gentleman's influence, Comptroller Wolcott had no choice but to find a way to drop my prosecution. It would have embarrassed his superior."
"We are interested in examining those letters," said Muhlenberg.
"All in good time, perhaps. I will do nothing to prevent my discharge."
The Speaker pressed: "Will you meet us tomorrow morning as soon as you are released?"
"I'd be delighted." The prisoner added darkly, "And I'll have much to tell you about a prosecution that was commenced to keep me low, and oppress me, and ultimately to drive me away from this city. But not yet."
"Tomorrow, then," said Muhlenberg, to pin down an elusive witness. "We come to your home at three."
Monroe, less trusting than the Speaker, suspected they had seen the last of James Reynolds. The chicken was likely to fly the coop as soon as the lid was lifted. If Hamilton had taken the chance to get Reynolds out of jail, the brilliant Secretary would not hesitate to get him out of the country before he could tell his tale.
Seated at a desk in the failing light of the warden's office, with the stout Speaker looking over his shoulder, Monroe wrote the first draft of a letter to President Washington reporting in detail the interviews just held with Clingman and Reynolds. He thought it important to get the testimony about Hamilton's perfidy down on paper while it was fresh in his mind. He intended to amend the letter the next day and make a copy to show to Secretary of State Jefferson, in utmost confidence, of course.
An hour later, with the troubled Muhlenberg in tow -- Monroe assumed that the poor fellow must be worrying about how a corruption scandal in the Treasury would dismay his fellow Federalists -- he directed the carriage driver to an address on South Fourth Street.
Monroe sat forward, most of his weight on his feet to absorb the bumps and ruts in the road. He found the port city of Philadelphia close and oppressive; it teemed with 55,000 Pennsylvanians, ten times the population of his native Richmond. In winter, one usually froze; in summer, at night one's ears were assaulted by the incessant croaking of frogs in the nearby swamps. He was glad to have voted to remove the national capital, eight years hence, to a place at the mouth of the Potomac River.
Curiously, that compromise on location was Hamilton's doing. In return for the South's willingness to let the national government take over all State debts, the Northern Federalists agreed to situate the capital near Virginia. Hamilton won his long-sought centralization of financial power, the basis for national empire; Jefferson won the presence of a new national capital near his home and far from the urban influences of Boston, New York and Philadelphia. Monroe knew that Jefferson and Madison thought the compromise would serve the anti-Federalists well in the long run, but the Virginia Senator was not so sure; Hamilton was dangerous because he understood the use of government power better than most and seemed to enjoy its exercise more than anyone. Like his New York rival Aaron Burr, he was fourteen years younger than Jefferson and would be around a long time.
The Reynolds house was in a pleasant neighborhood not far from Alexander Hamilton's home; one could hardly hear the frogs. Monroe stood back and let Muhlenberg rap on the door.
Maria Reynolds appeared and motioned them to enter as if she expected their visit and was resigned to it. The tall young woman's blue eyes directly engaged him; on first impression, she struck the Virginian as both capable and vulnerable. Dressed in a high-necked maroon dress with a tight bodice that had been the fashion a few years before, the striking young lady held herself proudly. Monroe presumed from the interview with Clingman that the two were having an illicit romance; if so, he decided, the sallow young man was getting much the better of the bargain.
He let Muhlenberg take the lead in gaining her confidence. Mrs. Reynolds offered them tea and served it with a relaxed grace that Monroe considered almost Southern. Though the teapot was respectable silver, the earthenware dishes were chipped, the pewter mugs were somewhat battered and the furniture in the modest home was inelegant. A general messiness suggested the presence of a small child and a lack of domestic help. Gentle questioning by the avuncular Congressman from Pennsylvania revealed that she was a Van Der Burgh from New York, related by marriage to the wealthy Livingston clan. Or so she said. Monroe wondered, but did not ask, what could have driven a young lady of such fine bearing and aristocratic attraction to leave home at a tender age and follow the fortunes of a blackguard like Reynolds.
"We have just come from your husband, who will be free to come home tomorrow," Monroe informed her. He did not essay a smile. "And we understand that Colonel Hamilton has been a frequent visitor in this house." He left the impression that the prisoner had told them that.
"I know," she said. "A friend of my husband's observed your visit at the jail and rushed here to tell me to expect two gentlemen from the Congress. I have been instructed to tell you nothing and -- more important -- to give you nothing."
"Ach," said Muhlenberg, taken aback.
"But that is not your intent," said Monroe quickly. He assumed she would not have told them about being forewarned had she not intended to cooperate to some extent.
"I am reluctant, sir," the composed young woman replied, "to say anything that would renew Mr. Reynolds's difficulties with the law."
Monroe judged that she expected to be persuaded. "Let me be frank," said the Virginia Senator, to whom candor did not come easily. "Your husband is not the primary object of our concern. Tell us, as a good citizen, all you can about the visits of Colonel Hamilton and any written communication your husband may have received from him."
She took a deep breath. "My husband sent word to me to burn them and I did." Monroe instantly doubted that; if letters from Hamilton to her husband existed, it would be in the interest of both Reynoldses to hold on to them. "He said that Colonel Hamilton told him that he would provide us with enough money to leave the country as soon as he was released." That part, at least, sounded true.
"The person who came just now with a message from your husband -- what else did he tell you, besides to tell us nothing?"
"He said Mr. Hamilton had enemies who would try to prove he engaged in some speculation, but that he would be shown to be immaculate."
"And what did you say?"
"I said I rather doubted that."
Monroe raised his eyebrows. "Why do you doubt it?" When she remained silent, he refined the question, presenting it this time more firmly: "What led you to believe Hamilton would not be 'immaculate'?"
She shrugged. "My husband often said he could tell of something that would make the heads of great departments tremble."
Muhlenberg put in a question that had not occurred to Monroe. "You say you burned letters to your husband from Hamilton. Did he send any letters directly to you, that you kept?"
For the first time, Maria Reynolds lost some of her poise. "Colonel Hamilton asked me to destroy those. I did. Last week, in that fireplace."
"You would recognize his handwriting, then?" asked Monroe. He lay before her one of the unsigned notes to Reynolds that Muhlenberg and he had taken from Clingman. "This is from Colonel Hamilton, is it not?"
She glanced at it and nodded.
"And this one?"
Maria Reynolds nodded again.
"But the handwriting on the two notes is not the same, Mrs. Reynolds," Monroe said, as if puzzled. He thought that he had caught her out in a falsehood, but he did not want to appear the aggressive questioner.
She showed no surprise, which surprised him. "In the first one, Hamilton tried to disguise his handwriting. He often did that." She hesitated, appearing to weigh the alternatives of trusting them or not. "I do have a note from Colonel Hamilton that arrived only last week -- I haven't destroyed it yet." She went to the desk and took a sheet out of the middle drawer. "That's the Colonel's normal writing."
It was a brief note, dated the sixth of December, offering to be of help to her, and signed boldly "Hamilton." Muhlenberg reached for it, but Maria Reynolds did not part with it. After denying again that she had any other written communication from the Treasury Secretary, or that any money had been included with that last note, she rose and politely showed them to the door.
Jacob Clingman had been upstairs in the Reynoldses' bedroom throughout the interview. When he heard the door close, he raced down and embraced Maria to comfort her. After a few moments, she pushed him away and told him she had shown them the note Hamilton sent her a few days before.
"Did they ask you about us?"
She shook her head. "Only about Hamilton and my husband. They showed me the notes you gave them, and I said they were in Hamilton's writing, sometimes disguised."
"Did they ask about any relationship between you and Hamilton?" Clingman knew that the Treasury Secretary had taken advantage of her at least once, over a year ago. She had told him it was during her faithless husband's pursuit of another woman, when she found herself lonely and destitute, but she had assured him that she yielded to the handsome Hamilton only in a moment of passionate gratitude. Jacob believed her when she said it was a single occasion of moral weakness, not a prolonged affair.
She sat down. "They did not ask if he and I were lovers. They are gentlemen. They would never presume to inquire into indelicate matters."
"If this ever gets into the hands of newsmongers," Clingman warned her as gently as he could, "everyone will believe the worst."
"Jacob, that hateful man I was so foolish to marry when I was fourteen years old," she said, "now wants me to play the whore. I won't do that. Not to save him, not for the money I need so desperately, not for anything. I won't abase myself. I have a daughter -- " She took the handkerchief from his breast pocket and covered her eyes.
Stroking her hair, Clingman asked, "Does Hamilton have letters of yours?"
"I never wrote him, never had occasion to. After Reynolds and I reconciled, I saw my husband write him often, pleading for money -- the Colonel surely has those, if he hasn't destroyed them. But nothing from me."
"Then your reputation is safe. You don't have to worry." Clingman assumed she was protected from her husband's design to have her "play the whore" not only by her own past discretion, but by Hamilton's interest in keeping their brief amorous encounter secret, lest it bring dishonor to him and shame to his wife and children. It seemed like a safe bet.
December 18, 1792
At three the next afternoon, Monroe and Muhlenberg appeared at the Reynolds home to find the freed prisoner had come and gone. Maria Reynolds let them in and said Reynolds told her he was sailing to New Jersey. Her eyes were reddened, but she carried herself bravely. Muhlenberg expressed his indignation at her husband's deception of the investigators and his abandonment of wife and child. Monroe was unsurprised; in his eyes, Reynolds was a thief.
Clingman was there and had a useful piece of evidence for them. He said that Reynolds, unaware that his confederate was cooperating with the Congressional investigators, had left a mangled note for him: "Let me read it to you," Clingman said. " 'I hope I have not forfeited your friendship, Jacob...' -- here three lines were scratched out -- 'I will have satisfaction from HIM.' The 'him' is Hamilton, of course. 'He has offered to furnish me and Mrs. Reynolds with money to carry us off. If I agree to go immediately, he will see that Mrs. Reynolds has money to follow me. That is all I can say till I see you.' He didn't sign it, but this is his writing."
"What was scratched out?" Muhlenberg asked.
"He scratched it out, not me," Clingman said, "so I don't know. Here's another note that came to me at home first thing this morning, from Comptroller Wolcott." The note was on official Treasury stationery, and read, "Mr. Wolcott will be glad to see Mr. Clingman today, at half after ten
"And did you see him?"
"Of course, and he took me directly into Colonel Hamilton's office at Treasury. They wanted to know who I was seeing from the Congress and what was the nature of your questioning."
"You told them?"
"I told the truth, Speaker Muhlenberg. They made it clear they would reopen the proceedings and put me in jail if I didn't cooperate. I said I went to you -- you're the only one who has helped me in all this, and Colonel Burr, a little. I told them you brought along this gentleman" -- he indicated Monroe -- "whose name I did not know, and still don't."
Monroe allowed himself a thin smile and did not introduce himself. Let Hamilton wonder who else was on his trail besides the Speaker, a mild Federalist as well as a generous soul, inclined to forgiveness. "What did Hamilton say to that?"
"He desired me to go into the Gallery, where I could see the Members of the House, and inquire of your name from the bystanders."
"Do that," directed the Senator, who would not be in that chamber. "And when you don't see me there, report that to Wolcott and his superior. In your meeting this morning, what else did they want to know?"
"Hamilton wanted -- demanded -- to know if I turned over any documents. I told him what I gave you, the three. He said I had done very wrong to do that." The former clerk looked back plaintively at Maria. "I'm caught in the middle." She put a comforting hand on his shoulder. Monroe sensed that she was in control of whatever they would do.
"Keep telling us the truth, Jacob," said Muhlenberg, "it's the only way you can keep the story straight in your head."
"Now that your husband has fled, Mrs. Reynolds," said Monroe, "is there anything you think we should know?" Certain that the conspirators would leave the investigators a false story to misdirect them, he was stunned by her answer:
"My husband told me he was received by Hamilton this morning."
Muhlenberg thundered some imprecation in German.
"Reynolds said that the Treasury Secretary was extremely agitated," she went on, "walking backward and forward, striking alternately his forehead and his thigh."
That detail struck Monroe as having the ring of truth. He had once seen Hamilton agitated, making such gestures unique to him; he remembered thinking it was lucky Hamilton did not carry a riding crop.
"Colonel Hamilton said he had enemies at work," Maria Reynolds continued, now at ease with her interrogators, "but he was willing to meet them on fair ground. Then he told my husband not to stay long in his Treasury office in case his presence might be noticed."
Monroe asked, "Did Hamilton give him any money, did Reynolds say?"
"He didn't say. There were times," she volunteered, "when Hamilton did give him money -- as much as a thousand dollars at a time -- but I don't know about this morning." She added, more wistfully than bitterly, "He surely didn't leave any for my daughter and me."
Outside, in the carriage, Muhlenberg exploded: "Can you imagine? Hamilton frees this criminal Reynolds and then secretly sends for him. Then the criminal breaks his appointment with us and disappears for good. Hamilton probably gave him hush money. Do you suppose the wife is part of the plot?"
Monroe thought that Mrs. Reynolds was a charmer who could keep a secret. He also guessed that, as a sensible woman, she had not been inclined to burn any letters that might become useful to her. She was also a disenchanted wife unlikely to follow her reprobate husband out of the country. Maria Reynolds was probably committing adultery with Clingman, and the testimony of both of them had to be evaluated in that light.
"In a curious way, she's protecting Hamilton," Monroe told his fuming fellow investigator, "even as she gives us information to discomfort him. I can only presume Mrs. Reynolds's motive is also to protect her husband. She may be feigning her irritation with his sudden departure. Perhaps she considers loyalty to be the greatest virtue."
The Speaker said he could hardly believe what they had found. "We have evidence that the Secretary of the Treasury has been colluding for months with a confessed speculator. Think of it! And this morning he obstructs a Congressional inquiry by freeing and sending away a material witness. Monroe, finish the letter you began last night to President Washington. We must take it to him right away."
Monroe shook his head. "That was my own first impulse, and you were right to restrain me, Mr. Speaker. Hamilton has been tracking us as we have been tracking him. I think he expects us to come and confront him." The Treasury Secretary was a formidable public figure, personally fearless, certain to present a vigorous defense. Monroe rather looked forward to Hamilton's explanation of his dealings with Reynolds, and to the report he would write of their confrontation to Jefferson, and then to the President. "I propose we do just that tomorrow morning. Then we can take both the accusation and his explanation to President Washington."
Muhlenberg saw the wisdom in knowing Hamilton's explanation before going to the Chief Magistrate. "We'll need copies made of everything -- Hamilton's notes, his letters, our reports of each interview, the draft of our letter to Washington, Clingman's affidavit."
"Get your man Beckley to do that tonight, if he has to work all night." John Beckley was Clerk of the House. Monroe said "your man" as if to defer to the Speaker of that body, but he wanted Beckley, an intensely loyal Jefferson partizan, in charge of the copying. Those documents might -- in good time, perhaps in a few years, before the next Presidential election -- bring disgrace down on Hamilton's Federalists. Muhlenberg hesitated; apparently wondering whether it was wise to trust the journeyman Beckley. Then the Speaker nodded assent and gathered all their notes.
December 19, 1792
Alexander Hamilton waited in his Treasury office for his accusers. It was a workmanlike office in a two-story building. The adjacent State Department building of three stories had more spacious offices, but pomp had no attraction for him. Nor was the acquisition of wealth his primary concern. He would leave the Treasury a poorer man than when he went in, and his closest friends told him they would probably have to bury him at their own expense. That was what made this investigation so galling: more important to Hamilton than money or even power was fair renown. The reward he sought in public service was reputation, and the high regard of his countrymen, earned on battlefield and in convention hall, was being stolen from him by backbiters and miscreants.
He was determined not to be diverted from his main pursuit by cavils or trifles. For two days, Hamilton had closely followed the progress of the Congressional investigators. From the reports of the bumpkin Clingman and the blackguard Reynolds, he had been able to ascertain much of what the investigators knew and which incriminating documents they had obtained. He had arranged for the disappearance of the central witness against him. As an experienced trial attorney preparing a vigorous and most unconventional defense, Hamilton now needed to know his accusers' preliminary conclusions and whether they planned to make them public or take them privately to the President.
He motioned them to a couch in the sitting area of his office. The heavyset Speaker sunk deep into the cushions; the ascetic Monroe demurred, choosing a hard wooden chair.
Muhlenberg's evident agitation did not surprise Hamilton. The Pennsylvanian was understandably upset by the disappearance of Reynolds after he was let out of jail, but that investigator's displeasure was the penalty Hamilton had to pay for removing a most damaging witness from the scene. Hamilton was more concerned about the judgments of the Congressman's austere companion; Reynolds, on the morning that Hamilton sent him out of town, had identified the second man as James Monroe.
The Treasury Secretary knew that the Virginian was closer to Thomas Jefferson than any other member of the Senate. Monroe in the Senate was as attuned to Jefferson's machinations as James Madison was in the House, but was more subtly combative and far more politically astute. Months before, Hamilton had been informed that Jefferson had gone to President Washington with unsubstantiated charges that Hamilton had been guilty of "dealing out Treasury secrets among his friends." He considered that a vicious half-truth. Perhaps he had been indiscreet in dinner-table discussions with longtime associates in the political wars, and perhaps his somewhat greedy friend William Duer had profited from the information, but Hamilton never intended to "deal out secrets" for anyone's personal gain. In this more specific matter involving Reynolds, Hamilton was aware that whatever Monroe learned, Jefferson would soon know; and whatever the underhanded Secretary of State wanted done, his henchman Monroe would do.
His fellow Federalist Muhlenberg, however, was the one who made the accusation directly: "We have discovered a very improper connection between you and James Reynolds, the speculator and perjurer."
Hamilton rose from his chair and motioned his accuser to be silent. "I resent that, sir. You do not have the facts to substantiate such a wild and vicious charge." He calibrated a rise in his indignation, using a voice capable of conveying intimacy in a bedroom or ringing out in a courtroom: "I am aware that you have been marching all over Philadelphia asking questions of criminals and spreading rumors that I am no better than a common thief. I fought long and hard for this country's independence, gentlemen, and I did not risk my life for its freedom to join in some tawdry scheme to undermine its financial integrity."
"You misapprehend us, Hamilton," Monroe came in smoothly. "We do not intend to take as established fact the information we have been given suggesting an improper pecuniary connection between you and Mr. Reynolds." His voice was calm, his demeanor judicial. "Some documents of a suspicious complexion came to us, unsought. We have the duty to pursue the truth."
Hamilton focused his glare on Muhlenberg, who backed off as well. "Our agency in the matter is influenced solely by a sense of public duty," the Speaker said formally, "and by no motive of personal ill will." As Hamilton resumed his seat, seemingly mollified, the Congressman added, "We had contemplated putting this matter directly before the President, but before we do, we thought you should have the opportunity of an explanation."
"I appreciate that." He was prepared to do his utmost to keep this from Washington's eyes. "And I think you will find that the course you chose in coming to me first was the wise one."
"This unsigned note," said Muhlenberg, laying down a letter as if it were a card in a high-stakes game. "Do you know who may have written it?"
Hamilton responded to their gambit by sacrificing a pawn. To deny authorship would add to their suspicions, but to assert it freely would begin to disarm them. "I wrote that. I tried to disguise my handwriting, but the note is from me."
"Why did you try to -- "
Hamilton held up a hand. "The affair among us is now on a different footing," he said as if his initial indignation had been assuaged. "I always stand ready to meet fair inquiry with frank communication." He looked directly at Monroe. "As it happens, I have it in my power -- with written documents -- to remove all doubt as to the real nature of this business. I will be able fully to convince you that absolutely no impropriety of the kind imputed to me did in fact exist." He rose confidently. "You will not be forced to embarrass yourselves by making an accusation to the President that would be quickly shown to be false. Allow me to assemble some papers. Tonight at my house you will have the explanation that will lay this to rest."
"After dinner, then," said the icily correct Monroe, who Hamilton was convinced was keeping Jefferson fully informed of evidence that might lead to the removal of his Cabinet adversary. "We'll be there."
Oliver Wolcott, Comptroller of the Currency, the son and grandson of Governors of Connecticut, was the trusted subordinate Hamilton invited to be his witness and supporter at the meeting with the inquisitors. Wolcott had stumbled onto Reynolds's wrongdoing and then demonstrated his loyalty to Hamilton by finding a suitable excuse for not prosecuting the case. This action did not trouble his conscience because Reynolds had not only made restitution, but had revealed the name of the Treasury clerk who provided him illicit information, whom Wolcott promptly fired. In the more serious case of Hamilton's friend William Duer, who had misappropriated official Treasury warrants and used them as collateral for private loans, Wolcott had no choice but to refer the case to Richard Harison, United States Attorney in New York. Harison was a Hamilton appointee who investigated dutifully the complaints of hundreds of investors who lost money with Duer, but who let the case lapse without indictment.
Wolcott saw the political wisdom in that. Had Harison in New York allowed the Duer case to go forward, or had Wolcott allowed Reynolds to drag Hamilton's name through the mud, the scandals would be a burden to a Hamilton campaign for the Presidency in 1796, should the aging Washington decide to retire. Under a President Hamilton, Oliver Wolcott expected to serve as Treasury Secretary; Federalism would triumph over the disunionist agrarian faction; the nation's westward expansion would be properly financed, and the Jefferson republicans and other apologists for the bloody French Jacobins would be routed once and for all.
"The charge against me," Hamilton began, "is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. The truth is that I have been wholly indifferent to the acquisition of property and am poorer today than when I entered public office. I have not more than two thousand dollars in the world."
"There are these letters," said Muhlenberg, "some in a disguised hand, which was in itself evidence of a need to conceal the truth, and which you admit now to be your own writing -- "
"I will show you many more letters attesting to a connection between Reynolds and me. The fact of the connection is not in dispute. But the purpose of the connection is not what you suspect."
This was all news to Wolcott. He had never dared ask what hold this criminal Reynolds had on his superior.
"My real crime," Hamilton went on, "is a loose connection -- an amorous connection, I should say -- with his wife. More shocking than that, gentlemen, this amour was pursued for a considerable time with his privity and connivance."
That revelation was met with silence. Wolcott could imagine Hamilton's dalliance with Maria Reynolds -- an undeniably beautiful and mysterious woman, with aristocratic features not unlike Hamilton's -- but the notion of conspiring with her husband to seduce and entrap the Treasury Secretary stretched credulity. Could it be that the husband was the pimp and his wife the whore? And Hamilton was doing business with them? Wolcott made an effort not to appear profoundly shaken.
"That much I can prove with these documents here." Hamilton laid a sheaf of letters on the table. "These letters to me covering a period of eighteen months are from Reynolds and his wife. As you shall see, they show a combination with the design to extort money from me."
Since the investigators from the Congress were too dumbstruck to say anything, Wolcott put in, "Which you paid?"
"I paid and paid and paid. This confession," Hamilton said, "is not made without a blush. I condemn myself because if this were ever to become public, it would inflict a pain upon my wife, who is eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity and love."
"When did the extortion begin?" Monroe asked, ignoring Hamilton's expressions of sentiment about his wife.
"Sometime in the summer of last year a woman called at my house here in Philadelphia and asked to speak to me in private...."
June 17, 1791
As Hamilton chose to remember it, the slender young woman standing in the sunlight of a summer Sunday afternoon, her face shadowed by a fashionable hat, appeared to be distraught. She was well dressed, obviously not a mendicant.
"Colonel Hamilton, could I have a few moments of your time?"
Hamilton asked if whatever was troubling her could not be better attended to at his Treasury office the next day. She seemed on the verge of tears and in a choked voice replied that it was a personal matter; she did not think it proper to disturb him at the Treasury Department.
"My family is in the drawing room," he said, motioning her in, "so let me attend you in my study over here."
After declining a glass of sherry, she folded her hands in her lap and introduced herself. "I am the daughter of Edgar Lewis of New York, and sister to Gilbert Livingston, whose family I believe you know."
Hamilton nodded his recognition of this distinguished lineage; one Livingston was Governor of New Jersey, another a political and financial ally of his in New York. By "sister," she undoubtedly meant "sister-in-law." She also identified a brother as a longtime sheriff of Dutchess County. He felt a fleeting urge to tell the wellborn young lady that, in contrast, he was an immigrant at seventeen from the Leeward Islands, the bastard son of a freethinking mother and a deserting father, and had spent the past twenty years in America as revolutionary warrior and creative banker living down his shameful family background. He let it pass; in her fragile emotional state, his statuesque visitor with the near-violet eyes was too appealing to interrupt.
"I was married seven years ago, Colonel Hamilton, to James Reynolds." She was now hardly more than twenty, he estimated, and might have been forced by necessity of pregnancy to marry that young. Few women of her class were as courageously amoral as Hamilton's mother, willing to bear and rear a child out of wedlock. "His father was in the Commissary Department during the war with Great Britain, in which you so valiantly fought."
"The name Reynolds is familiar." It was a common name, and he did not recall the man, but she evidently felt the need for further familial endorsement.
"My husband is a cruel and dishonest man. He has abandoned me, and my daughter, to live with another woman." She searched for a handkerchief in her purse, avoiding his eyes. "He has left us destitute."
His surge of sympathy for her distress was genuine. The man who abandoned a woman of such breeding and carriage, not to mention good looks, was not just a rogue but a fool. "How may I help?"
She looked up with hope. "I desire to leave Philadelphia to return to my friends and family in New York. The cost of such a move is at present beyond my means, and I cannot take a position in commerce because my young daughter requires my care." She took a deep breath. "Because I know you are a foremost citizen of New York, I have taken the liberty to apply to your humanity for assistance."
As Hamilton was to recount it, he sensed something odd in the application; a New York background in common was more excuse than good reason for soliciting his help. Yet the simplicity and modesty in her manner of relating the story impressed him with its truth, and her beauty was undeniably affecting. Hamilton was eager to comply. He had thirty dollars in the house, the kind of substantial sum that would take her home to her relatives in New York, but he did not want to dismiss her so quickly. And his family was in a nearby room. "The moment is not convenient to me, but if you will tell me the place of your residence, I will bring or send a small supply of money tonight."
"I live at 154 South Fourth Street." That was a short walk away from Hamilton's home at Walnut and South Third. "Not five minutes from here. You are so kind."
After dinner with his wife and children, Hamilton announced he had an appointment at the George, a nearby tavern, and put a $30 bank bill in his pocket. He envisioned the day when banknotes would be issued throughout the nation by the United States Bank, backed by the full faith and credit of the Federal government, and not issued pell-mell by local banks that were all too often on the brink of insolvency.
Keeping his mind on his banking, Hamilton recalled how Congress had passed his bank bill over the objections of James Madison and the Jeffersonians, who argued that its powers could not be found in the Constitution. These believers in a rural society of yeomen and farmers had almost persuaded Washington to veto the banking legislation designed to finance an empire based on urban manufactures, but the President asked Hamilton to present the reasons for the validity and propriety of the law. Writing a memorial day and night for a week, Hamilton devised a new theory: he persuaded the President that the Constitution contained "implied powers" to carry out functions not expressly forbidden, and that Madison's strict construction of the document would strangle the infant nation in its crib. Washington signed the bill and, perhaps without fully realizing the strength he was gathering to the Executive, laid the foundation for financing a continental empire. That was a good week's work.
He walked quickly down Walnut Street, slapping his thigh nervously with one hand, fingering the bank bill in his pocket with the other, focusing his mind on his victory over Madison about implied powers to keep his expectations down about his meeting with the young woman from New York. Was he hoping too hard for an assignation? Did he overstep in suggesting he come to her house? Her assent was so quick -- was he stepping into a trap of some sort? If her brother-in-law was Gilbert Livingston, and her half-brother was a former sheriff of Dutchess County, why hadn't she written to them for a small loan? Would he be played the fool?
Hamilton stopped in his tracks and composed himself. He was a Good Samaritan doing a good deed for a lovely woman in distress. If his fellow New Yorker responded to his gift with a cup of tea and a handshake of gratitude, he would wish her well and return home with dignity intact.
He suddenly found himself at the address the Reynolds woman had given him. A pretty child, not more than five or six, opened the door to the modest Fourth Street home, silently pointed to the stairway, and disappeared into the kitchen behind it. His eyes swept up the stairs to see Maria Reynolds standing at the top, in a black dress that accentuated her slim waist and full bosom, beckoning him to come up. He bounded up the stairs and followed her into the master bedroom. More awkwardly than he would have liked, he took the bill out of his pocket and laid it on the dresser. She ignored it, stepping close to him with a look of excited expectancy that he was sure no gentleman could fail to fulfill.
"I am glad you turned to me," he said.
"I read the articles you signed as 'Publius.' And 'Catullus.' Why do you use so many pseudonyms?"
"A single voice is not enough. I am trying to appear to be a legion, a host of pamphleteers and newsmongers."
She laid the fingers of one hand lightly on the ruffles of his shirt. "You may remove your jacket if you wish. It's a warm evening."
As he did so, he watched her step out of her shoes. Because that was not enough to bring their eyes to an equal level, she sat on the edge of her bed and looked up at him. There was none of the coquetry about her of his sister-in-law Angelica Church, his current vision of attractive womanhood, who liked to tease him with her passionate letters from abroad. He let himself believe that this woman, Maria Reynolds, desired his closeness more fervently than she needed his help. Perhaps his fame and appearance so attracted her that she used a request for carfare home as a ruse to become his friend.
Stimulated by the directness of her gaze, even more than her evident willingness to follow wherever he led, he placed his hands on her arms, pulled her to her feet and turned her around to face the mirror. After a long moment reflecting on her figure over her shoulder, he unhurriedly worked his fingers down the long row of buttons on the back of her black dress. The elation he felt surging in him was the product of the discovery of a kindred soul, the aesthetic of a beautiful woman in the act of welcoming his intimacy, and the practical comfort of anticipating her total availability within a few blocks of home. He took his time with her; this was to be no transient or furtive affair. Only when he was certain she was quite ready for him did he commit himself. She took him into her with a long cry of unashamed delight, which pleasured him no end.
The lovemaking was worthy of his passion; she inspired him to heights and depths he had never reached before in a life of no mean experience with women. After he dressed and was about to depart, Hamilton took her naked shoulders in his hands and looked profoundly into those memorably deep blue eyes. "I will give you my assistance, Maria. There is no need for you to leave Philadelphia. But I require your promise -- now that you have made me your friend, you must apply to no one else."
She gave Hamilton her promise. He began to think of the excuse he would give at home for his lateness. On the way out, she introduced him to her daughter Susan, who curtsied and vanished.
December 19, 1792
"This was more than a year ago. Some conversation ensued," Hamilton went on to tell his visitors in the study of his home, "from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable. And it would take a harder heart than mine to refuse a Beauty in distress." The men nodded their understanding. "After this, I had frequent meetings with her." He gestured at the walls. "Most of the meetings were here at my house, many right here in this room -- Mrs. Hamilton with our four children often being absent on visits to her father."
Muhlenberg, slumped in the couch, closed his eyes and shook his head, as if feeling the presence of Hamilton's paramour in the room.
"She was, and is, a very pretty woman," Hamilton observed, as if in partial expiation of his behavior. He instantly regretted saying that; the quality and power of Maria's attraction was ill described as prettiness. This genuine beauty had brought back into his life the thrill of dangerous adventure. He regretted his need to strip away her privacy, but saw little danger to her reputation because his account would remain in this room. Certainly these men of honor would not want to cause pain to his family by revealing any of this.
"Mrs. Reynolds did not indicate to us any amorous connection with you," Monroe said.
Hamilton nodded grimly. "The variety of shapes that this woman can assume is endless. In a few months, she told me her husband had solicited a reconciliation. I advised her to do it and she did, though we continued our intercourse. Her appearance of a violent attachment to me, and the pathetic importunings in her letters, made it very difficult to disentangle myself." It was important to impress upon his visitors that the impetus to continue the affair, like its origination, came from her; Maria was the seducer, conspiring with her husband to blackmail Hamilton, their victim.
"Then she told me that her husband had been engaged in speculation in claims on the Treasury," Hamilton recounted. "She said he could give me useful information about the corruption of some persons in my department. That was when I sent for him and he came to see me."
When neither investigator asked the reason, Wolcott put in, "What did Reynolds want from you?"
"Employment in the Treasury Department. I may have used vague expressions which raised his expectations. My situation with his wife naturally inclined me to conciliate this man, but the more I learned of him, the more inadmissible his employment in public service became. I hazarded his resentment by refusing. Whatever the impropriety of my private behavior, my refusal to put him on the public payroll demonstrates the delicacy of my conduct in its public relations."
"I think we need proceed no further," said Muhlenberg, his discomfort obvious at prying into a man's private passion.
"On the contrary, Mr. Speaker, I insist that you see everything, to lay this to rest once and for all."
Hamilton proceeded to lay out letter after letter, written in a feminine hand and with egregious misspellings, that he said had come from Maria importuning him to meet her, professing her love, confiding her misery: "Let me once more see you and unbosom myself to you...."
He interspersed these purported cries for his affection with near-illiterate notes from James Reynolds pleading for money. One proclaimed he had discovered their affair and forgave them, wanting only $90 for his pain, another that "she is determined never to be a wife to me any more" because of her love for Hamilton. Reynolds then in effect offered to sell his estranged wife's exclusive affections to her lover.
"This proves that they acted in concert, from the start," Hamilton concluded, "to entrap me."
Wolcott, eager to believe his friend, was not sure that such collusion in entrapment was proven; it would be fairer to say it was indicated. He hoped the investigators would be too stunned by the sexual revelations to pursue this point, and was relieved when they did not.
"They tried to use my own vile weakness," Hamilton concluded, "to extort from me the employment of Reynolds in a position where he could debauch the public trust. Not only that, but they tried to bleed whatever money they could from my personal funds, which they mistakenly thought were limitless."
Muhlenberg was shocked into an apology. "We need trouble you no more, sir."
Monroe, however, was not completely persuaded. "There is the matter of Reynolds's visit to you after his release from jail and then his disappearance," he said. "His note to Clingman, the one with the part erased, says you were providing money for his flight."
"Nonsense," Hamilton retorted, "and the 'part erased' casts suspicion on the note itself. How am I responsible for his disappearance? Isn't it probable Reynolds fled to avoid detection and punishment in other cases, and was deeply in debt? What more natural than after being jailed for a crime, to run from creditors as fast and as far as possible?"
"That's only logical," Muhlenberg agreed.
"My crime is moral, not pecuniary," Hamilton said in summation. "I have cheated my wife, and am profoundly ashamed of my behavior, but I have never cheated the public by engaging in or permitting speculation based on advance information of Treasury actions." He paused. "Do you think this indelicate amour -- deserving personal censure, but not involving the public monies -- is a fit subject to be brought before President Washington?"
"No," said Muhlenberg.
"I am inclined not to trouble him with it," Monroe agreed, to Hamilton's evident relief. "But I want to put together the complete record before making that decision final." He gathered up all the letters on the table. "May we have your notes as well?" Hamilton, determined to demonstrate that he had nothing to hide, offered up his original notes, asking only that copies be made and returned to him. "Your privacy will be respected," Monroe assured him. They were all, after all, men of honor. "The copying will be done by the Clerk of the House and given only to us."
"Your conduct toward me has been fair and liberal," Hamilton said.
In the vestibule, as the visitors were getting into their overcoats, Wolcott with appropriate casualness approached the subject Hamilton wanted him to raise with Monroe for ultimate transmission to Jefferson. "You defeated John Walker in your election to the Senate last month, did you not?"
Monroe nodded yes. Wolcott knew that on Jefferson's order the compliant Virginia legislature had chosen Monroe to represent the state. It had rejected the sitting Senator, John Walker, who was Jefferson's lifelong friend and Monticello neighbor. As a result, Jefferson and Walker were now estranged.
"We hope you will tell your friend in Virginia," Wolcott added, "that the matter of Mrs. Walker need never see the light of day."
"I don't deal in cryptic messages," Monroe snapped. "What does it mean?"
"To be honest, I don't know," Wolcott said lightly. "But your friend may know."
Outside, Muhlenberg said, "I see no need to burden the President with this. Reprehensible behavior by all concerned -- Gott in Himmel, right in his own home, maybe on the couch I was sitting on! -- but not affecting the public business." He added angrily, "What a Jezebel that woman is!"
"His explanation is plausible," Monroe said. It could be that their intercourse had been sexual and not commercial, but if that were true, why had Hamilton been so eager to make certain the male Reynolds could not be questioned? Because Muhlenberg was so obviously convinced by Hamilton's seeming candor, Monroe chose his words with care: "We left Hamilton under the impression our suspicions were removed. That's just as well, because he did not ask that all the correspondence, and his notes, be destroyed."
That removal of suspicion may have been Hamilton's impression, but Monroe chose to remain doubtful. The blackmail story was persuasive to the easily shocked Speaker, perhaps, but it was self-serving, effectively cutting off further inquiry. Moreover, it was contradicted by Mrs. Reynolds and therefore not conclusive. Were those incriminating letters in her own hand, or forged? Their egregious misspellings did not befit her well-bred manner.
He handed Muhlenberg the thick file. "Have your man Beckley deliver a copy of these to Hamilton and the originals to me. If I am assigned the embassy to Paris, I'll leave them with" -- he did not want to say Jefferson, and so picked up the phrase used by Hamilton's man Wolcott -- "my friend in Virginia." Muhlenberg would understand that to mean Secretary Jefferson.
"And I'll ask Senator Burr to keep an eye on that Reynolds woman," the Speaker said, "in case her husband returns." He took the file from Monroe, agreed to have it copied and returned to him for safekeeping at Monticello, and pressed again: "But it's not for Washington's eyes, I trust. He loves Hamilton like a son, even now calls him 'my boy.' This would sadden him unnecessarily."
"The draft report to the President, with these exhibits, will not be completed or sent," Monroe promised.
He was determined to be as good as his word. First, he would send for the clerk, Beckley, a man with loyal republican instincts and a legible hand, to make a copy of the letters Hamilton had been induced to give them, and to return the copies to Hamilton. Next, before sailing for France as Washington's Minister, Monroe would deposit his report of the investigation, with the original letters attached, in confidence with Thomas Jefferson, who would be identified in this business only as a "friend in Virginia."
He asked himself the central questions: Was Hamilton telling the truth about being seduced and blackmailed? Or was the confession of adultery an ingenious tale, perhaps with a salacious germ of truth, to cover up the nefarious abuses of the public trust by the Treasury Secretary or some of his friends?
Monroe was glad he did not have to make a decision on that, which would have required a prompt and full report to President Washington. Undoubtedly, James Reynolds was a scoundrel and Clingman his dupe, but Monroe was ambivalent about Maria Reynolds. She was either a duplicitous Jezebel, as Hamilton had convinced Speaker Muhlenberg she was, or the mysterious young woman was a pawn in an elaborate scheme of concealment her husband and Hamilton had concocted.
What about Hamilton? Although Monroe suspected that he might have passed along information that made possible profiteering by his Federalist allies, the Treasury Secretary's confession of adultery and blackmail provided a plausible explanation for his payments to Reynolds. Evidence of financial dealing by Hamilton for his own profit was far from conclusive enough to take to President Washington; indeed, the President, who treated Hamilton as the son he never had, might associate Monroe's patron, Jefferson, with the unproven charges that led to the embarrassing revelations. That would never do.
This might be a matter for another day, to be pursued only if Hamilton's Federalists stifled the rise of republican government. The secret investigation of Alexander Hamilton, Monroe believed -- whether rooted in an adulterous affair, as Hamilton shamefully asserted, or in corruption he so vociferously and perhaps creatively denied -- was a sword best kept in the scabbard, to be drawn only at a time of political danger.
December 20, 1792
John Beckley sanded down the sharp tip of his quill slightly so as to lay a strong stroke of ink on paper, easily read. The Clerk of the House, as directed by the Speaker, made a copy of the fascinating letters to and from Hamilton and delivered them to Muhlenberg overnight, to be given to the Treasury Secretary.
As instructed, he deposited the original documents with Senator James Monroe for safekeeping with his friend in Virginia. The Senator was a republican with whom Beckley was well acquainted, though one was a highborn Virginian and the other an immigrant Englishman who arrived at the age of eleven as an indentured servant. Monroe and he, Beckley liked to think, were joined by a dedication to the defense of the American citizen's right to be free of taxes, Federal restraints, and forced service in armies that would surely be required if the government were to follow the call of Hamilton's empire-building high Federalists.
As not instructed, Beckley made another copy of the letters, along with Monroe's unsent memorial to the President, for himself. That was not because he thought of himself as a librarian at heart, a safe repository of documents that deserved to be preserved in archives. On the contrary, he made the copies because he knew it would give him a guilty thrill to re-examine them. The notion that men in high places could fall prey to the basest impulses of sex or greed -- or both -- fascinated him. And who knew what use could be made of such deep secrets one day?
With a length of red-tape imported from England, the Clerk of the House tied his copies of the documents into a neat bundle and locked them in his official safe. He looked out the window to see the nation's representatives hurrying back to the House after lunch as snow was beginning to fall. Beckley wrapped a scarf around his neck, pulled on his woolen greatcoat and put on a fur hat given him by a republican candidate for Congress in Vermont, Matthew Lyon. That republican Vermonter had little chance of winning but had ringingly denounced the Hamiltonians for "screwing the hard earnings out of the poor people's pockets to enable government to pay enormous salaries and vie with European courts in frivolous gaudy appearances." Beckley liked that kind of oratory in campaigning and had sent Lyon one of the few useful anti-Federalist pamphlets to help him in his speeches. Wearing the losing Vermonter's gift hat, he set out for the Philadelphia docks.
He wanted to greet two arrivals, each of whom might be helpful in articulating the republican cause. One was an Englishman, William Cobbett, who had written Secretary of State Jefferson a few months before from Paris. The letter, nicely phrased, had been passed to Beckley: "Ambitious to become a citizen of a free State, I have left my native country, England, for America: I bring with me youth, a small family, a few literary talents and that is all." Jefferson's reply had been politely dismissive: "Public offices in our government are so few, and of so little value, as to offer no resource to talents." True enough -- the total employment of the State Department was seven, including the Secretary -- but Cobbett, undiscouraged, had come to America anyway. He was in Wilmington, teaching English to Frenchmen, and had written to say he was coming to Philadelphia today on the packet. Beckley wondered what trouble had caused him to leave England. He hoped it had been plenty; writers angry with Britain and friendly to France were what the republicans needed.
The second writer Beckley set out to meet at dockside had a more urgent reason for running to America: James Thomson Callender was a fugitive from Scottish justice. Not for his scholarly excoriation of Samuel Johnson's dictionary, or for the anti-British screed The Political Progress of Britain, a polemical history by the Scot that Beckley had enjoyed. He was on the run for writing a pamphlet that urged his fellow Scots to rise up and throw off England's chains. The warrant for Callender's arrest on the charge of sedition had been passed on to Beckley by one of the immigrant radicals as a perverse recommendation. It read that the rebellious Scot was "an Outlaw put to his highness's horn, and all movable good and gear were escheat and inbrought to His Majesty's use."
Beckley waited in the frigid barn on the docks where passengers of arriving ships passed through. He put up his sign -- "Clerk of the House" -- so they could recognize him.
First to appear was Cobbett. He was a robust, six-foot-tall Englishman, with ruddy face and close-set eyes, the beginnings of a paunch, and redolent with confidence. He warmed his hands on a pot of tea and, to Beckley's "Tell me about yourself," spoke proud and plain: "I am charged with being a troublemaker. The charge is true. As a lowly corporal and regimental clerk in His Majesty's service in Newfoundland, I discovered that the officers were stealing much of the soldiers' pay. I had read Thomas Paine's pamphlet The Rights of Man, and I wrote one like it -- The Soldier's Friend -- demanding the courts-martial of the corrupt officers. For that I was considered a snitch and made a pariah."
"Are you a fugitive, Cobbett?"
"No, because I resigned the army before they could drag me before a drumhead court. I sailed to France, where I taught myself the language. But that land is filled with revolutionaries eager to cut the throat of King Louis and hot for war with Britain, and hardly the place for an Englishman. So here I am in the Colonies."
"Family?" The imposing fellow appeared to be on the fair side of thirty, and respectably turned out in long jacket, bright red waistcoat, breeches and clean stockings.
"As soon as I could afford it, I brought my wife Nancy and our infant. The baby died." He waved aside Beckley's condolences with "No, no -- she is with child again, and this time will be better. I propose to teach English to Frenchmen in this city, charging each of them six dollars a month, more than I can get in Wilmington." He pointed to the sign above them: "What does a Clerk of the House do?"
"I take notes of the debates and votes, and distribute them to the members of Congress." That was his position by day; at night, in the coffeehouses and taverns, Beckley plotted the political takeover of Pennsylvania by supporters of Jefferson. For that, he needed radical pamphleteers and newsmongers with a gift for writing in plain words.
They were interrupted by the arrival of Callender and family. The fugitive Scot appeared with his wan wife and three shivering boys, all too thinly clad for the snowy weather. Beckley judged the wiry Callender to be in his mid-thirties, a few years older and a few inches shorter than Cobbett -- hungrier-looking, with dark hair and piercing eyes, dressed in what appeared to be the cast-off clothes of a sailor. The Clerk made the introductions and ordered some hot mulligatawny soup, a peppery stew from a recipe brought to the Philadelphia docks by emigrants from East India. Two of the boys sat on Callender's knees, while the oldest hung on his neck from behind, looking up at Cobbett warily over his father's shoulder.
"What sort of country is this, Mr. Cobbett?" asked Callender.
"This country is good for getting money, provided a person is industrious and enterprising. In every other respect," Cobbett added, "the country is miserable, exactly the contrary of what I expected."
"That's not what we expect," said Callender, taken aback.
"The land is bad; rocky. The houses are wretched, the roads impassable after the least rain. I was a farmer before I was a soldier, and I judge that America has fruit in quantity but not to compare with an apple or peach in England or France."
"It's cold, too," said the boy behind Callender.
"Freezing!" Cobbett agreed heartily. "And the people are worthy of the country -- a sly, roguish gang."
"You've only been in America a month," Beckley put in, "and this is your first day in Philadelphia."
"You'll see," Cobbett assured Callender, "the natives are by nature idle and seek to live by cheating. But the industrious foreigner can do well here, for even rogues like to deal with an honest man."
"I'm curious," said Beckley, thinking of the materials he had under lock and key, "what you think of our newspapers."
"Tupp'ny trash," Cobbett snorted. "But the Americans who read, read nothing else. The fathers read the newspapers aloud to their children while the mothers are preparing breakfast."
Callender's youngest whimpered at the mention of food, and his father signaled to the waiter to hurry with the soup. "I saw copies of your Aurora in Edinburgh, when I was keeping from starving as a recorder of deeds," the Scot said to Beckley. "It's wonderful what you can say here about the government. In America, it is your happy privilege to prattle and print in what way you please, and without anyone to make you afraid."
"Some say," Beckley offered, fishing, "that it gets too personal."
"No man has a right to pry into his neighbor's concerns," Cobbett stated firmly, "and the opinions of every man are his private concerns -- so long as he keeps them so. But! But when he makes those opinions public; when he attempts to make converts, whether it be in religion, politics or anything else; when he once comes forward as a candidate for public admiration -- then, I say, his opinions, his motives, every action of his life, public or private, become the fair subject of public discussion."
Beckley looked at Callender, who was looking with relief at the arriving bowls of steaming soup. "I agree," he said. "The conduct of men in public stations is fair game." He was solicitous about feeding his wife, who was apparently with child and in some distress after the long ocean journey. He reached behind him to scratch the back of his neck; Beckley remembered well that everyone who stepped off that ocean-crossing vessel must be afflicted with lice.
"But in your book The Political Progress of Britain," Beckley said, "you did not discuss personal character when you were excoriating their laws."
"You wrote that book?" Cobbett looked up sharply. "No wonder they threw you out. All that inflammatory nonsense about 'the six or eight hundred years of botching to produce a constitution that is a conspiracy of the rich against the poor'? Never read such seditious drivel."
"Glad you read the book closely enough to remember that line," said Callender mildly, "and that it moves you so."
"Wait." Beckley was confused by Cobbett's patriotism. "You're afraid to go back to England," he said to the bumptious British immigrant, "because you offended the British army's officer corps and you may be arrested for sedition. Yet you think this man's book, critical of British history, is seditious drivel?"
"I am an Englishman, a subject of King George III. His government may be in error, and his courtiers may be corrupt, but every loyalist knows he reigns over the greatest country in the world." Cobbett broke off a piece of stale Philadelphia bread, looked at it coldly and set it back down. "In my brief stay so far in America, I have not met an American who, in his calm and candid moments, did not admit that his country was much happier before the rebellion than it ever had been since."
"You have just met one happy to be independent of that damned tyrant," Beckley said heatedly. "And I think what you have said is a bald-faced lie."
Cobbett rose to his full height and reached for his greatcoat. "Sir, I have never lied in my entire life. I rue the day when I thought of writing to your Jefferson." He bowed to Mrs. Callender. "Madam, your three boys are models of good behavior and I congratulate you on their proper upbringing. Unfortunately, their father and his new friend here are fools. Goodbye."
"A prickly fellow," Callender observed as the Englishman stormed off. "If he writes as vividly as he speaks, he'll do well."
"Not in Philadelphia. King George is seen here to be a great villain."
"As well he is, but you Americans are free of his despotism. We Scots are not."
The oldest boy looked up between spoonsful and asked, "You suppose the big man never lied, not once?"
"Let me tell you a story, boys." Callender leaned back in his chair and looked at the high ceiling of the barn near the docks, the crowd now thinning out after the passengers had debarked. "Charles the Second of England had an unruly horse. He proposed to give the horse away to any one of his courtiers who could tell the greatest lie."
The children and their mother stopped eating to listen, as did Beckley. "During the competition among the members of the King's court," the Scot continued, "a country fellow came into the castle, for Charles was quite accessible. The man was told of the King's challenge and invited to furnish the biggest lie he could think of. 'May it please Your Majesty,' the man said, all offended, 'I never told a lie in my life.' And the King said, 'Give that man the horse! For that is the greatest lie that any man can tell.' "
The boys all laughed and banged their spoons. John Beckley reckoned that was the sort of anecdote that would register with readers of popular pamphlets like Tom Paine's. "I know a family with rooms to let, Callender. We'll take your wife and sons there, and then I want you to meet a printer friend on South Market Street. Matt Carey's an Irishman, a good red republican from Dublin doing a new edition of Guthrie's Geographical Grammar, in installments. Maybe you could do a section. Ask for twelve dollars a week, or two dollars a printed page. That's the going rate, and it's a start."
"Why are you doing this for me, may I ask?"
"Writers are needed for the anti-Federalist cause. There may come a day when you'll want to help us."
Copyright © 2000 by The Cobbett Corporation
Meet the Author
William Safire has for the past quarter century written a twice-weekly political column for The New York Times, for which he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. In addition, as the word maven in the Sunday New York Times Magazine, he is the most widely read writer on the subject of the English language. A former speechwriter in the Nixon White House, he is the author of twenty-four books, including Safire's New Political Dictionary, the speech anthology Lend Me Your Ears, and the bestselling historical novel about Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation, Freedom.
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Mr. Safire magnificently intertwines reality with fiction in this extremely laudable and highly readable novel concerning this country's Founding Fathers and their relationships with various 'scandalmongers.' Safire's work is entrancing while mingling historical fact and quote with fictional scenes and events to position the reader in that 'world' 200 years past.
Safire has done his homework and given us a novel rich in intrigue and scandal. I loved it!
This is our book club selection for the 1st meeting of the upcoming season. It is very good, very detailed and very interesting. I have learned alot while reading it and reconfirmed other things I had forgotten.