Alexander Hamilton and the Inception of National News
Political Pamphlets Announce the Nation’s First Sex Scandal
Two political parties dueling it out. A sex scandal sold by a sketchy journalist. Husbands blackmailing lovers. Close friends revealed as enemies. It sounds like the plot of an HBO special or bestselling novel, but this was America in 1791, the summer that Alexander Hamilton fell in love with Maria Reynolds and became the first in a long line of philandering politicians to ruin their career with infidelity. Unfortunately for Hamilton, the affair was well-documented in some of America’s first political publications, and stands out today as glaring evidence that even in our nation’s beginning, there was scandal.
Alexander Hamilton would become chief of staff to George Washington, founder of the United States financial system, and forefather of the Federalist Party, but when he married Elizabeth Schuyler in 1780 he was little more than a pauper of illegitimate birth. Despite being one of the most prominent families in New York, the Schuylers accepted Hamilton, believing him to be a “political genius.”
For the next eleven years, it appeared that the family had been correct. Hamilton was making strides in government, was revered by his peers, and had helped author some of the nation’s most important documents – some said he even had a chance at being president one day. A relationship with a woman named Maria Reynolds would change everything.
Maria first approached Hamilton in 1791, catching his attention with a sob story about her con-man husband, James Reynolds, who she claimed had abandoned her. Maria was 23, blonde, beautiful, and quickly seduced the 34 year old Hamilton, who had been acting secretary of the United States treasury for a little over two years. It wasn’t long before Maria and James were blackmailing Hamilton, who would pay the couple well over $1,000 in the next several years.
James had seen a great opportunity and taken it, but his luck ran out when he was jailed for an unrelated scheme in 1792. Instead of lying low and learning his lesson, he called on Hamilton’s rival James Monroe, dishing out all the dirt on Maria and Hamilton and turning over letters as proof of the tryst.
Enter James Callender – a pamphleteer who would have made TMZ proud, a man known as a scandalmonger, but who had earned a reputation for finding sensitive material. It was he who would later call out Thomas Jefferson for his affair with slave mistress Sally Hemming, and he who announced Hamilton’s relationship with Maria and James in the pamphlet History of 1796, claiming money fraud as well as adultery.
Pamphlets were cheaper to make and easier to distribute than books or newspapers, making them a popular choice for religious and political publications of the day. For the first time news about American politicians was circulating, and with it, reports on the nation’s first sex scandal. It made sense for Hamilton to publish his side of the story in a pamphlet of his own, Observations on Certain Documents, but while he succeeded in convincing the pubic no money schemes had taken place, he also cemented the ruin of his reputation, and subsequently, his career.
Ironically, the duel that later ended Hamilton’s life was with Aaron Burr, the lawyer who aided Maria in her divorce from James following the scandal. And Callender? Years later he drowned in the James River, drunk and face down in less than three feet of muddy water. No doubt those he had called out recognized that the conservative citizens of the New World would not approve of infidelity, and ended Callender’s life before he wrote something truly devastating.