By Dillon Carroll
Recently, General David Petraeus resigned as director of the CIA after his affair with his biographer became public. This scandal has rocked the Hill and it got us at the Synthesis thinking about sexual affairs in history-where does the Petraeus affair rank in most scandalous affairs in US history? Without a doubt, the Reynolds Affair takes the cake.
The Reynolds Affair involved then Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton-who most Americans mistake for being a former president because he is on the 10-dollar bill. Hamilton was a rising star in American politics in the 1790s-born out of wedlock in the Caribbean, he moved to New York City, studied at King’s College (later renamed Columbia University), and was an advisor to General George Washington during the Revolutionary War. Washington, after he was elected president, named Hamilton the Secretary of the Treasury in 1789. In 1791, Hamilton secretly began an affair with a beautiful young woman named Maria Reynolds. The two were discovered by Maria’s husband, James, who, in return for his silence, demanded money from Hamilton. Shortly thereafter, James caught the eye of several people in Philadelphia (which was the seat of the capital in the 1790s). Philadelphia was a small city at this time, everyone knew everyone, and James was suddenly buying up large amounts of US Securities. People in Philly got nervous, how did James Reynolds get so much money? The whispers and rumors reached the highest level, the ears of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who suspected political corruption and sought to tear out the root. They confronted James Reynolds, who quickly crumbled under the pressure of the Virginians and confessed that the money was from Alexander Hamilton.
Jefferson and Madison suspected Hamilton was at the center of some financial scheming-they thought perhaps Hamilton was using US treasury money to buy US Securities to privately enrich himself. They marched to Hamilton’s house and confronted him. Hamilton confessed, but not in the way they suspected. Hamilton admitted that he was paying Reynolds, but confessed that James had sniffed out the affair and was blackmailing Hamilton. Jefferson and Madison were shocked, but they agreed to remain tight-lipped and say nothing. This was a sign of the times; Hamilton and Jefferson were political opponents, leaders of the nascent political parties. If John Boehner found out Timothy Geithner was having an affair it would be plastered across the front-page news, but in 1791, sharing this private information was viewed as ungentlemanly. However, the secret could not stay secret long and by 1795, most of Philly had heard the rumors. Hamilton publicly confessed that year, and resigned as Secretary of the Treasury.
How earth shattering was the Reynolds Affair? Hamilton never again entered public politics. This fact is truly amazing given how influential he was in the formation of the Republic. Hamilton, almost single-handedly, had put the young Republic on more solid financial ground. The Republic had emerged from the Revolution 27 million dollars in the red, the states owed over 25 million, and this is a lot of money back then. Hamilton proposed the national government nationalize the debt, and he issued that new debt as securities and sold it to many wealthy merchants. This was a bold idea; many founding fathers were uncomfortable with nationalizing debt. Suddenly, the elite in America had a vested interest in keeping the Republic alive, or they would never get paid. In one fell swoop Hamilton was out of politics, never to return, and he retired in disgrace to New York City. He still played a key role in politics, and his influence against Aaron Burr in the election of 1804, led to the duel with Burr that took his life. But his political career had ended much earlier, and it has to rank as the most scandalous affair in US history.