The Hamilton-Reynolds affair went down on history as America’s first ever political sex scandal – one that ruined Alexander Hamilton’s chances of ever becoming president.
Drama, sex, blackmail, secrets – even one of America’s great forefathers wasn’t immune to the pitfalls of human impulses, it seems.
Some of you may know all the details of the sordid affair already. The juicy details are popularized in one of Broadway’s most popular musicals, Hamilton.
However, little is actually known of the woman involved in the notorious scandal.
Her name was Maria Reynolds. And this is her story.
Maria Lewis was not born wealthy or affluent, unlike many of the characters involved in this malicious American chapter.
Born in New York City on the year of 1768, she was the daughter of merchant/laborer Richard Lewis and Susanna Van Der Burgh.
The Lewises were not well off. Her father Richard could not sign his own name. Her mother, however, could, so Maria grew up at least literate, but largely uneducated.
She had one half-brother and five full siblings.
Marriage to James Reynolds
Maria married James Reynolds at the age of 15.
Not much is known of James’ history. He had served in the commissary department during the Revolutionary War. He was several years older than Maria.
They had one daughter, Susan, born on August 18, 1785.
If he had a steady job to support his family after the war, no one knows. But he did frequently try to claim damages to be reimbursed by the government.
The Hamilton-Reynolds affair
The Reynolds family moved to Philadelphia sometime before 1791. There occurred the chain of events that snowballed everything on its path.
That summer, Maria knocked at the door of Alexander Hamilton’s home. She relayed the story of her mistreatment from a cruel husband who abandoned her.
She asked him for monetary help so she could return to her friends in New York. Alexander was willing to help.
That evening, he visited Maria’s boarding house with the intention of giving her a $30 banknote.
Of the visit, Alexander said:
“I enquired for Mrs. Reynolds and was shown up stairs, at the head of which she met me and conducted me into a bedroom. I took the bill out of my pocket and gave it to her.
“Some conversation ensued, from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would [also] be acceptable.”
Thus, the affair started. She was 23, he was 34. It lasted for only a few months. But Hamilton paid a larger price for it.
Discovery, blackmail, and extortion
Naturally, Maria’s husband discovered the affair.
Whether he was genuinely heartbroken about it is questionable, given his actions that followed. He quickly recognized the affair as a way to get easy money.
He subsequently blackmailed Alexander Hamilton. First, he made Alexander pay $1000, promising he’ll keep quiet and leave town.
But he didn’t. Instead, he asked for more money.
He encouraged Alexander to keep seeing her wife. And each visit, Alexander would pay him $30 to $50.
Maria was either completely complicit of the blackmail, or she was manipulated into it by her husband. Either way, she continued to write letters and “seduce” Alexander whenever her husband was out of the house.
“A Beauty in Distress”
There’s little to no descriptions of Maria Reynolds’ physical appearance.
One acquaintance of Alexander said that her “her innocent Countenance appeared to show an innocent Heart.”
Some people observed that she was highly emotional and was easy to weep.
In his original draft of the Reynold’s Pamphlet, Hamilton referred to her as “a beauty in distress.” and a “pretty woman.”
These phrases, however, were not used in the published work.
The Reynolds pamphlet
James Reynolds somehow dragged Alexander Hamilton’s name into a swindling scheme that would implicate the latter with corruption.
Rather than risk his political career, he admitted his affair to another group of politicians who agreed to put an end to it and speak of it no more.
The affair did not go public until five years later.
However, copies of letters exchanged between Alexander and the Reynolds fell into the hands of his long-time nemesis, Thomas Jefferson.
Jefferson’s team helped publish a pamphlet, reviving accusations of Hamilton’s involvement with Reynolds and his friend, Cling man. The pamphlet suggested that the affair was a cover story for shady financial dealings.
Alexander Hamilton retaliated with his own 95-page pamphlet. In the first 37 pages, he confessed the details of his affair and the extortion that followed.
His dreams of becoming president ended. Maria faced public scorn and had to live the rest of her life in obscurity.
Life after the affair
Perhaps Maria wasn’t meant for a quiet life after all. Some interesting things happened after their affair went public.
In 1973, with the help of Aaron Burr, Maria was able to divorce her husband. Before the divorce, she was living with Jacob Clingman, James’ old cronie.
She later married Clingman and moved to Alexandria, Virginia.
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When the Hamilton-Reynolds pamphlet got published, public scorn against Maria proved too much that it drove her and her second husband out of America.
She returned several years later without Clingman. No divorce records were found.
Maria then became employed as a housekeeper for Dr. Mathew.
Her daughter, Susan, was sent to a boarding school in Boston in 1800. Congressman William Eustis and Aaron Burr were responsible for placing her there.
Maria married her employer in 1806 and became Mrs. Mathew. Two years later, Susan came to live with them.
We can assume that this turn was Maria’s happy ending. As Mrs. Mathew, she was highly respected in the community as a doctor’s wife.
She turned to religion and joined the Methodist church, officially leaving her past behind.
An acquaintance said that Maria was “highly amiable and handsome” and that she “enjoyed the love and good will of all who knew her.”
Maria died on March 25, 1828.
Interestingly, in 1842, a merchant named Peter Grotjan claimed to have met Maria many years earlier. Apparently, Maria told her that she wrote her own pamphlet, explaining her side of the Hamilton-Reynolds affair.
If it ever existed, it was never published.
But had it been, perhaps we’d know a more rounded tale of America’s first ever political sex scandal.
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