The “First” U.S. Political Sex Scandal: Maria Reynolds

Oh my God I feel more for you than myself and wish I had never been born to give you so mutch unhappisness

Maria Reynolds

Every story has a villain. The person or thing that ruins someone’s story and causes them pain and strife. One is light, one is dark. Women especially have been cast as either a Jezebel or a saint. When Hamilton: An American Musical came out one of the villains of the story is one Maria Reynolds, the woman said to cause a stain on Hamilton’s political future and ruined his chances of ever becoming president. In one song in this music we are to see Reynolds as the opposite of Eliza Schuyler Hamilton. Eliza is seen in light colors, innocent and heart broken and Maria Reynolds is in red, the color of passion, desire and lust and is dark in all ways compared to Eliza. This is not the only portrayal of Maria Reynolds as dark and promiscuous. She is seen as the cause of affair, the cause of Hamilton’s betrayal, the object of much scrutiny. Maria Reynolds is seen as the downfall of a great man. Maria Reynolds is notorious for ruining a man’s career because his aspirations were destroyed because of his actions. But why should Maria Reynolds be considered the harlot and the Jezebel when she did not have the options that Hamilton was afforded due to his status and gender? Why should she be at fault for this affair when Hamilton had just as much right and wit to be able to refuse is that was truly his desire? She is labeled as a homewrecker, a harlot and a scandal and that is all she seemingly is to be known for.

Born Maria Lewis in New York City in 1768, Reynolds’ family appeared to be working class. Her father was a laborer of some kind and was unable to write his own name. Reynolds managed to learn to read and write, though her education beyond this was likely very limited. Reynolds married James Reynolds when she was 15 years old in 1783. James Reynolds had served in the commissary department during the Revolutionary War and afterward, tried to claim damages from Washington’s government on multiple occasions. The couple moved from New York to Philadelphia after they were married and had one daughter, Susan Reynolds, in 1785. It is believed that Reynolds’ affair with Hamilton began several years later during the summer of 1791. Reynolds approached a then-34-year-old Alexander Hamilton at his home in Philly asking for help. She told him that her abusive husband had abandoned her and that she needed money to return to her family in New York. In unpublished papers, Hamilton admitted that Reynolds was a “Beauty in despair.” His friends described her as innocent and emotional. Shortly after, Hamilton visited Reynolds at the boarding house where she was staying with the money she had requested. Hamilton’s wife, Eliza Hamilton, was away for the summer, opening the door for the summer affair. According to his own account, Hamilton followed Reynolds to her bedroom where “some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.” Over the summer, Reynolds reconciled with her husband but was still game for the affair. And so was her husband. It wasn’t uncommon for 18th-century men to settle their differences in a pistol fight. But James Reynolds didn’t want to fight — he wanted compensation. So he concocted a plan to have his wife continue seeing Hamilton in order to periodically receive blackmail money from him to the tune of $1,000-$1,300 (around $25,000-35,000 in some approximations today).

Later the affair is revealed in the press and Hamilton’s life is forever changed and Maria and James Reynolds fade into obscurity. There are some theories that the affair was entirely created by Hamilton to cover some financial scandal based around how the letters between the Reynolds and Hamilton look and are written. Whether the affair is true or not I truly believe the “blame” or the cause of this rests at the feet of the men in Maria’s life, and not truly her own.

The purpose of marriage in the 18th century (and well for most of time until contraceptives came around) was for the production of children to either aid in the family business and/or grow the family name. The husband had complete control over his wife through the laws of coverture. “By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performers everything. …” A married woman took their husbands’ family names; Married women could not sue or be sued, hold public office, or vote; Husbands had legal control over wives’ property, their children, and their bodies; When a woman was brought before the court for an offense, her husband was held responsible. When James Reynolds left with his daughter Maria had no where and no one to go to. In a moment of desperation she went to a high ranking political man asking for money, for aid because Hamilton was known for his charity work for widows and orphans so in her mind Hamilton would be a safe place to go. “some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable.” This comes from Hamilton’s writings and how I come to understand them is that he wanted more than just a thank you, he wanted true compensation for his “Christian” or “good” deed and Maria had nothing to offer Hamilton other than herself.

Maria had been married at 15 years old, which is young for the 18th century. Not much is known about James Reynolds, her husband. There are reports that James Reynolds is abusive towards his wife and mistreats her which is really nothing that Maria could do. What we do know is that he and some other friends or conspirators of the like would try to claim military veteran pensions and make off with the money. This informs me that he does not make a lot of money and what he does have has to be minimal. Given that he refused to demand a duel informs me that he is a con artist and an opportunist and turned to pimping or really selling his wife for money as he had none. And when Hamilton refused to give him more he and Reynolds’ partners turned to destroy the reputation of the man who did not give him what he wanted. Maria Reynolds was sold and under the law, had to obey her husband. From the tone of her letters she says, “Oh my God I feel more for you than myself and wish I had never been born to give you so mutch unhappisness” It shows that she has a good heart and does not wish harm towards Hamilton even when her husband finds out.

Maria Reynolds is notorious because the men in her life used her to advance their lives, privately and professionally and personally. Maria never had any say in what happened to her in her life and because of that she is forever intertwined in the life of Alexander Hamilton as a villain who tempted him into betraying his marriage vows and becoming a less honorable gentleman. What we know now is that women had no control over their lives. There is one bright spot in Maria’s life, in 1793, Maria was able to get a divorce from James Reynolds and remarried in 1806 to a Dr. Matthews who she had been working for as a housekeeper. She died just days away from her 60th birthday which was a rather long life for the time. She found a way to leave her past behind her and enjoy a seemingly good life.

To no one’s surprise it is not shouted high out to the world that the adulteress was able to find happiness but I for one am glad for it. It is not a common thing to find but for this notorious woman the end was a happy one.


Sources

Alberts, Robert C. “The Notorious Affair Of Mrs. Reynolds.” AMERICAN HERITAGE, February 1973. https://www.americanheritage.com/notorious-affair-mrs-reynolds.

“Founders Online: Home.” National Archives and Records Administration. National Archives and Records Administration. Accessed August 18, 2020. https://founders.archives.gov/?q=Author%3A%22Reynolds%2C+Maria%22.

Isenberg, Nancy. Fallen Founder: the Life of Aaron Burr. London: Penguin, 2008.

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