Lest you think that the recent sex scandals involving former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, and North Carolina Senator John Edwards are anything new under the sun, be assured that things were just as down and dirty in the early days of our great republic. Many of the worst accusations centered around the political rivalry of Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson—and a scandal-mongering, muckraking journalist named James Callender.
A Scotsman by birth, James Callender cut his teeth as a pamphleteer in England, publishing satirical attacks on writer Samuel Johnson and pointed commentary on King George III’s policies. Charged with treason, Callender fled to America in 1793. There he set his poison pen to work and made a name for himself as a journalist for the pro-Republican, anti-British press. In 1797, Callender published a series of tracts, History of the United States for the Year 1796, which were complimentary of Thomas Jefferson and Democratic-Republican principles in general. No one paid much attention to the first four tracts, but when issues five and six came out, the whole nation was paying attention. For Callender used his modest pamphlets to expose the scandal concerning Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton and one Mrs. Maria Reynolds.
Mrs. Reynolds, was, in all likelihood, a con woman. Her abusive husband made a living by swindling veterans out of their claims to government land and paying them a fraction of their value. Mrs. Reynolds, age 23, sought out Alexander Hamilton in a moment of distress. He wrote later: “With a seeming air of affliction she informed me … that her husband, who had for a long time treated her very cruelly, had lately left her, to live with another woman, and in so destitute a condition … she had taken the liberty to apply to my humanity for assistance.” Mrs. Reynolds got more than Hamilton’s assistance; she became his mistress. Mrs. Reynold’s husband quickly came back into the picture, and Hamilton found himself the target of a blackmail scheme.
Callender’s tracts revealed the whole shocking story: how Hamilton had paid Reynolds $1000 to crawl back under a rock and allow Hamilton to continue seeing his wife in peace. Eventually, however, Reynolds upped the ante. When Hamilton refused to help him get out of jail on a petty forgery charge, Reynolds tipped off Hamilton’s enemies in Congress to the burgeoning adultery scandal. He provided Hamilton’s enemies with copies of love letters between Hamilton and his wife, and claimed that Hamilton was providing him with inside tips about government securities.
Hamilton had managed to keep the lid on the scandal for years, but now James Callender had a hold of it. Enraged, Hamilton accused James Monroe and Thomas Jefferson of leaking the scandalous letters. And he threatened to go public with a bombshell of his own, an old chestnut known as the “Betsey Walker story.”
John Walker had been a good friend and neighbor of Thomas Jefferson’s. During the summer of 1768, Walker left home for four months to help conclude an Indian treaty, asking Jefferson—then a young, single planter and lawyer—to look after his wife Betsey and their infant daughter. Twenty years passed before Betsey Walker cracked and made some kind of confession to her husband. Clearly he didn’t take it seriously, because ten more years passed before Walker wrote a farcical, “Tales of Ribaldry”-style account of what Betsey said happened between her and Thomas Jefferson.
Hamilton did not go public with the Betsey Walker story, probably because he simply did not have solid evidence that anything improper had happened. Instead, he decided to go the “I have sinned” route in an attempt to save his public virtue at the expense of his private reputation. In a letter published in the Gazette of the United States, Hamilton confessed to adultery and denied participating in any Treasury speculations. “The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for the purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife…This confession is not made without a blush.”
The misery this must have caused Mrs. Hamilton—then in the late stages of pregnancy—can well be imagined, but even more damaging was the fact that no one believed Hamilton’s claim that he did not participate in any illegal activities. Nor did anyone believe Jefferson’s claims that he had not been the one to give the incriminating love letters to James Callender (though in fact, he did not). In any case, the scandal permanently soiled Alexander Hamilton’s reputation, and may have cost him a chance at the presidency.
Jefferson himself maintained his usual judicious silence. No doubt remembering Hamilton’s embarrassing confession, when the “Betsey Walker story” finally broke into the open in 1805, Jefferson said nothing publicly to refute it. The closest he came to an admission of guilt came in a letter to a member of his cabinet: “You will perceive that I plead guilty to one of their charges, that when young and single I offered love to a handsome lady. I acknolege its incorrectness.” By that time, Callender had turned on Jefferson, and the “Dusky Sally” scandal had eclipsed both Maria Reynolds and Mrs. Walker in the public’s prurient mind.
Further reading: Tall Tom and Dusky Sally