Maria Reynolds and the First U.S. Political Sex Scandal

Drawing of the Continental Congress leaders, including Alexander Hamilton
The affair of Maria Reynolds and Alexander Hamilton (second from left) shocked colonial society.

Hulton Archive/Apic/Getty Images

Maria Reynolds is best known for her role in the United States' first political sex scandal. As the mistress of Alexander Hamilton, Maria was the subject of much gossip and speculation, and she ultimately found herself embroiled in a blackmail scheme.

Fast Facts: Maria Reynolds

Known For: Mistress of Alexander Hamilton, an affair that led to the publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet and the United States' first sex scandal

Born: March 30, 1768 in New York, New York

Parents: Richard Lewis, Susanna Van Der Burgh

Spouse(s): James Reynolds, Jacob Clingman, Dr. Mathew (first name unknown)

Died: March 25, 1828 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

Early Life

Maria was born in New York City to middle-class parents. Not much is known about her early life. Her father, Richard Lewis, was a merchant and itinerant laborer, and her mother Susanna Van Der Burgh had been married once before. (Of note, Susanna’s sixth great-grandson would become President George W. Bush.)

Although Maria wasn’t formally educated, her letters to Hamilton show that she was marginally literate. In 1783, when Maria was fifteen, her parents consented to her marriage to James Reynolds, several years her senior, and two years later she gave birth to their daughter, Susan. The couple moved from New York to Philadelphia at some point between 1785 and 1791.

James had served during the Revolutionary War as a commissary agent, alongside his father, David. In addition, he had a pattern of filing claims with the government for damages and losses accrued during the war. In one letter to George Washington, dated 1789, James Reynolds asked for a land grant.

The Hamilton Affair

During the summer of 1791, Maria, then twenty-three years old, approached Hamilton in Philadelphia. She asked for help, saying James had abused and then abandoned her for another woman. She begged Hamilton, who was thirty-four and married, for financial assistance so that she could return to New York with her daughter. Hamilton agreed to deliver money to her, and promised to stop by Maria’s boarding house to drop it off. Once Hamilton arrived at Maria’s Philadelphia lodgings, she led him to her bedroom, and the affair began.

The affair continued for the summer and fall of that year, while Hamilton’s wife and son were visiting family in upstate New York. At some point, Maria informed Hamilton that James sought a reconciliation, to which she had agreed, although she had no intention of ending the affair. She then arranged for Hamilton to meet James, who wanted a position in the Treasury Department.

Hamilton refused, and indicated that he no longer wanted to be involved with Maria, at which point she wrote again, saying her husband had found out about their relationship. Soon, Reynolds himself was sending angry letters to Hamilton, demanding money. In December 1791, Hamilton paid Reynolds $1,000 — a staggering sum at that time — and ended the affair with Maria.

However, a month later, Reynolds surfaced again, and this time invited Hamilton to renew his romantic attentions towards Maria; she also encouraged Hamilton’s visits. Each time, Hamilton sent Reynolds money. This continued until June 1792, when Reynolds was arrested and charged with forgery and fraudulently purchasing pensions from Revolutionary War veterans. From jail, Reynolds continued to write Hamilton, who refused to send the couple any further payments.

The Scandal

Once Maria and James Reynolds realized there was to be no further income from Hamilton, it wasn’t long before whispers of scandal got back to Congress. Reynolds hinted at public misconduct, promising to testify against Hamilton, but instead vanished after being released from jail. By then, though, the damage was done, and the truth about the affair with Maria was the talk of the town.

Worried that accusations of financial misdeeds could destroy his political hopes, Hamilton decided to come clean about the affair. In 1797, he wrote what would become known as the Reynolds Pamphlet, in which he detailed the relationship with Maria and the blackmail by her husband. He maintained that his wrongdoing was adultery, not financial malfeasance:

“My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time 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.”

Once the pamphlet was released, Maria became a social pariah. She had divorced Reynolds in absentia in 1793, and remarried; her second husband was a man named Jacob Clingman, who was implicated along with Reynolds in the pension speculation scheme. To escape further public humiliation, Maria and Clingman left for England in late 1797.

Later Years

There are no details about Maria’s life in England, but when she returned to the United States years later, it was without Clingman. It is unknown whether he died, she divorced him, or she simply left. Regardless, she was using the name Maria Clement for a time, and worked as a housekeeper to a physician named Dr. Mathew, whom she later married. Her daughter Susan came to live with them, and enjoyed some degree of social status with her mother’s new marriage. In her later years, Maria cultivated respectability and found solace in religion. She died in 1828.

Sources

  • Alberts, Robert C. “The Notorious Affair Of Mrs. Reynolds.” American Heritage, Feb. 1973, www.americanheritage.com/content/notorious-affair-mrs-reynolds.
  • Chernow, Ron (2004). Alexander Hamilton. Penguin Books.
  • Hamilton, Alexander. “Founders Online: Draft of the ‘Reynolds Pamphlet’, [25 August 1797].” National Archives and Records Administration, National Archives and Records Administration, founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-21-02-0138-0001#ARHN-01-21-02-0138-0001-fn-0001.
  • Swenson, Kyle. “America's First 'Hush Money' Scandal: Alexander Hamilton's Torrid Affair with Maria Reynolds.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 23 Mar. 2018, www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/03/23/americas-first-hush-money-scandal-alexander-hamiltons-torrid-affair-with-maria-reynolds/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.822b16f784ea.