Alexander Hamilton, the greatest Secretary of the Treasury before Andrew V. Mellon–or so he will doubtless come to be known–was a brilliant man of affairs as well as a highly gifted officer of his country. Yet once he fell into as difficult a position as a public man has ever known, and extricated himself by means which show how much the conventional standards of morals have changed in America since his time. A serious charge–that of speculating in government claims–was brought against him during Washington’s second term. He completely and finally exonerated himself of any peculation or dishonorable conduct against his country, but he did so by explaining, as he said, that his real crime was “an amorous connection” with the wife of his principal accuser, one James Reynolds, “with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.”
This amazing confession was presented by Hamilton himself in a document called the Reynolds Pamphlet, which contained, besides the explanation, copies of letters written by the lady and her husband. What had taken place, evidently, was a rather common attempt at blackmail by Mrs. Reynolds with her husband’s help. She came to Hamilton in tears begging him for financial assistance for her husband; Hamilton promised to deliver funds to her house the following day when, as he explains, “Some conversation ensued, from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.” The affair went on, the lady very deeply engaged, or so it seemed, the more so as Hamilton soon tired of the situation and became annoyed by Reynolds’s repeated demands for money. Letters from Mrs. Reynolds declaring “I feel as If I should not Continnue long and all the wish I have Is to se you once more that I may my doubts Cleared up for God sake be not so voed of all humanity as to deni me this Last request” did not move him. But he was compelled to spread the whole sordid affair before the world before he was free of it.
This confession [he says] is not made without a blush. I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude fidelity, and love. But that bosom will approve [and] the public, too, will, I trust, excuse the confession. The necessity of it to my defense against a more heinous charge could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum.
Yet the curious thing, in our day, is that, having made his explanation, he really was exonerated. What man in public life today could explain away a charge of dishonesty by relating a vulgar intrigue? We have proceeded from the hearty probity of the frontier to the age of censorship. Our Sinclairs, our Daughertys, our Stewarts, our Blackmers are comfortably at large, although some of them at least have been called dishonest by no less an authority than the Supreme Court of the United States. Yet on their private lives there is no stain. They may live safely through charges of financial corruption, but a public sex scandal would be sufficient to blow them out of any further possibility of popular tolerance or support.