Current Petraeus affair has nothing on nation’s first sex scandal

The current sex scandal involving the C.I.A., the F.B.I., the military, and possibly several private citizens isn’t the first in Washington, but it has some things in common with the huge scandal that hit Alexander Hamilton more than 200 years ago.

Alexander Hamilton in 1792.

The Maria Reynolds affair was the David Petraeus-Paula Broadwell-John Allen triangle of its day in the 1790s, with its admission of adultery, scandalous mail exchanges, and a high-profile resignation.

The Hamilton scandal also involved some elements that have nothing in common with the current situation: blackmail, a potential Founding Fathers duel, and a key role by two future U.S. presidents, Thomas Jefferson and James Monroe.

And Aaron Burr, the man who eventually killed Hamilton in 1804, made two cameo appearances as the events unfolded.

In the 1790s, Hamilton was arguably the second- or third-most powerful politician in the United States, after his mentor, Washington, and Hamilton’s arch-enemy, Jefferson.

But Hamilton had many foes due to his aggressive role in government. Hamilton had started the first political party in the nation, the Federalists and battled leaders within his own party as well as Jefferson and his followers.

Hamilton became the first treasury secretary of the United States in 1789 and was President Washington’s most-trusted adviser. But he resigned in early 1795, reportedly to seek a lucrative private sector career working as a lawyer in New York.

But Hamilton was harboring a secret.

During Washington’s first term in office, Secretary Hamilton started an affair in 1791 with Maria Reynolds, a Philadelphia woman seeking money to leave her abusive husband and return to New York.

Unknown to Hamilton, Reynolds’ husband knew of the affair. James Reynolds forced the married Hamilton to pay him blackmail if he wanted to continue the liaison. Hamilton did.

James Reynolds was then caught in a separate financial scheme and tried to implicate Hamilton in that plot in 1792. The speaker of the House, Frederick Muhlenberg; Monroe; and a third Congress member confronted Hamilton.

Not only did the treasury secretary confirm the affair, Hamilton also handed over much of his mail correspondence with Reynolds to the men. The letters apparently proved that Hamilton wasn’t involved in the second financial scheme involving Reynolds.

Monroe and Muhlenberg agreed to keep the incident quiet, but Jefferson may have known of the affair. Monroe had given copies of the letters and records of the meetings with Hamilton to John Beckley, the clerk of the House of Representatives, to be sealed.

Five year later, Beckley was fired as House clerk by the Federalists, and all of the papers were suddenly made public in 1797 in what we would call a tabloid publication run by Philadelphia publisher James Callender.

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Furious, Hamilton responded by publishing a denial and marching to Monroe’s house to ask him how the confidential papers became public. Monroe and Hamilton argued, and dueling challenges were exchanged.

A deadly battle between the future president and Hamilton seemed destined to happen, but Monroe’s second intervened in a series of letters and calmed down the two men. The second was Aaron Burr.

Burr was also the divorce attorney for Maria Reynolds.

Hamilton responded by publishing more correspondence on the matter, including 50 letters from Reynolds and fellow politicians and the dueling threats with Monroe.

The Maria Reynolds affair ended Hamilton’s likelihood of holding political office again. He remained a behind-the-scenes player in the Federalist Party, but would never become president–and his party wouldn’t win the presidency again in his lifetime.

But one lingering question remains today: What was Hamilton’s true role in the affair?

One theory that emerged in the 1970s, from a Jeffersonian scholar, was that some of the letters from Reynolds, depicting Hamilton’s innocence in the financial part of the scandal, were forged.

American Heritage magazine has a detailed account of the story online.

It also has an interesting footnote about those 50 papers that Hamilton published in 1797, which allegedly proved his innocence. The originals were supposed to be in the possession of William Bingham, a U.S. senator in Philadelphia who was one of America’s wealthiest men.

Bingham said he never received the papers in Philadelphia and the originals have been missing since then.

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