The mistress of Alexander Hamilton and the wife of a con man, Maria Reynolds played a central role in one of the first sex scandals in American political history. Hamilton became involved with Mrs. Reynolds in 1791, when she requested his help after her husband James supposedly abandoned her. She was 23 at the time; Hamilton was 34. Their affair would make headlines -- and temporarily strip Hamilton of his political power.
Maria Reynolds' abusive husband James made his living by swindling. He was quick to realize the potential offered by his wife's illicit involvement with Hamilton, a wealthy member of the political and cultural elite. In the America of the 1700's, many men who discovered their wives involved in adulterous affairs sought redress on the dueling ground. James Reynolds demanded financial compensation instead.
Hamilton eventually paid Reynolds more than $1,000 to continue the affair without interference. But then Mr. Reynolds began to tell others that Hamilton was providing him with inside tips about government securities. When a group of congressman accused Hamilton of corruption, he revealed the truth of the romantic affair by sharing his love letters with his accusers.
In 1797 Hamilton's letters were published in a pamphlet by newspaperman James Thomson Callender. In the pages of the pamphlet, he reiterated corruption charges against Hamilton. Hamilton responded with a pamphlet of his own, in which he asserted that no financial improprieties occurred. With candor seldom shown by politicians of his day, or of any other since, Hamilton confessed his affair with Maria Reynolds and apologized.
While some undoubtedly appreciated Hamilton's candor, the disclosure of his affair with Reynolds severely damaged his reputation. It may have even cost him the presidency, a prize Hamilton felt he deserved. Although Hamilton would rise again, his power would never be so great as it had been before the affair.