Before David Petraeus, There Was Alexander Hamilton’s “Beauty in Distress”

America’s first major political sex scandal took place in Philly.

Long before the salacious Petraeus scandal, there was America’s first major political sex scandal, which took place right here in Philadelphia. It was, as far as sex scandals go, every bit as titillating as this one.

Alexander Hamilton had been married to his wife Elizabeth (who had a white afro and man hands) for more than 10 years when a sexy, young, blue-eyed woman named Maria Reynolds arrived at his home in Philadelphia at 3rd and Chestnut in the summer of 1791. Reynolds was shown in, and asked if she could speak with Hamilton privately. She told Hamilton that she was destitute and needed money to get back to her family in New York. Hamilton wrote later that she was a “beauty in distress.” He told her that he would love to help, but that the current time and place were not “convenient.” (If you catch his drift. Wife was home and all.) So he asked if perhaps he could drop the money off at her place later that evening. Wink, wink. She acquiesced.

Hamilton arrived at Maria’s home at 154 South 4th Street later that evening with money in his pocket, his powdered wig glistening in the moonlight, and knocked on the door.

“I enquired for Mrs. Reynolds,” he later wrote, “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.”

Excuse me while I pour ice-cold water on my crotch.

But things got messy, as they so often do in these libidinous affairs. Mrs. Reynolds’ husband found out about the affair, and decided that instead of getting angry, he’d get even. So he demanded $1,000 from Hamilton. George Washington’s right-hand man paid Reynolds, and decided to stay away from his wife. But Maria must have held some sort of irresistible lure over Hamilton, and several months later he resumed his visits, along with large sums of money paid to her john husband.

Later in 1792, Mr. Reynolds got arrested for illegal speculation. Not surprising, considering he was a con artist. While in jail, he passed along a note to Congressman Fred “The Mule” Muhlenberg that he had damaging info about the Secretary of the Treasury. Muhlenberg, in turn, passed along this info to Senator James “Sweet Jimmy” Monroe and Congressman Abraham “Abe” Venable, both political enemies of Hamilton’s.

Monroe, Venable, and Muhlenberg then went to see the handsome, well-dressed Federalist. Hamilton spilled the beans on the affair and the blackmail, but assured them that he had nothing to do with the shady financial schemes of Reynolds. He handed over all of the letters between himself and Maria. The anti-Federalists decided to drop the matter, and it seemed like it would never see the light of day. But long after the matter seemed buried, the notes of Hamilton’s meetings with the three men somehow found their way into the hands of Philly muckraker James Callender, who publicized the affair in his pamphlet, History of 1796.

Hamilton was furious at Monroe, who, he was convinced, had leaked the letters (Monroe was close friends with Hamilton’s chief rival, Thomas Jefferson). He challenged Monroe to a duel. It looked like two of America’s Founding Fathers were going to engage in bloodshed. Fortunately, Monroe’s second intervened and calmed both parties down. That second’s name? Aaron Burr. Seven years later he would put a cap in Hamilton’s ass.

Love, passion, murder, man hands. The Hamilton-Reynolds Affair makes the Petraeus-Broadwell Affair look like child’s play.

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  • Thomas Haslam

    Delightful recounting. Just a little unfair in the modernization, I think – for the most part, they were trying to be gentlemen and not gangsters. But their notion of being a gentleman was much more robust than ours – so I think certainly you’re got the spirit right. They were playing for keeps – realizing there would likely be no second chances. No appearances on talk shows, or future careers as radio hosts or media pundits. A time when scandals were entertaining, but something more than just entertainment.