Daily Archives: March 30, 2006

Item of the Day: James Callender’s History of the United States for 1796 (1797)

Full Title: History of the United States for 1796 ; Including a Variety of Interesting Particulars Relative to the Federal Government Previous to that Period. Philadelphia: From the Press of Snowden & McCorkle, 1797.

[Scottish nationalist James Callender is best known as the pioneering muckraker journalist who first broke the story of the Thomas Jefferson/Sally Hemings affair in 1802. During the 1790s, however, Callender enjoyed the confidence of Jefferson and other leading Democratic-Republicans who shared with Callender their distrust of the Federalists, especially John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. As a radical democrat, egalitarian, and Calvinist, any politician who fell short of Callender’s rigorous moral standards risked being skewered by Callender’s favorite weapon, an accusation of sexual impropriety. In 1797 Callender published a compilation of his political pamphlets entitled The History of the United States. The book included a secret transcript dating from 1792 revealing a scandalous affair between Alexander Hamilton and a married woman, Maria Reynolds. Congress had become aware of payments made between then Treasury Secretary Alexander Hamilton to Reynolds’ husband, James. Seeking to clear himself of any hint of financial mismanagement, Hamilton confessed to his marital indiscretion and revealed that James Reynolds had been blackmailing him. Callender, however, looked askance at Hamilton’s admission and suggested that the payments to Reynolds had more to do with covering shady financial dealings than any misguided love interest. Hamilton vehemently denied Callender’s charges but the public exposure of the liaison had its deleterious effect. Historians have noted that following Callender’s accusations, Hamilton’s political authority steadily waned.]
The unfounded reproaches heaped on Mr. Munroe, form the immediate motive to the publication of these papers. They are here printed from an attested copy, exactly conformable to that, which, at his own desire, was delivered to Mr. Hamilton himself. Not a word has been added or altered, and the period of four years may, surely, have been enough to furnish the ex-secretary with materials for his defence. In the letters of Camillus, the most sublime principles of action are every where inculcated. But we shall presently see this great matter of morality, though himself the father of a family, confessing that he had an illicit correspondence with another man’s wife. If anything can be yet less reputable, it is, that the gentlemen to whom he made that acknowledgement held it as an imposition, and found various reasons for believing that Mrs. Reynolds was, in reality, guiltless. An attentive critic will be led to enquire what has become of her husband, and why the indignant innocence of Mr. Hamilton, did not promote the completion of public justice against a person, who had treated his name with such gross dissrespect? What a scandalous imputation was it for this culprit to cast upon our secretary, that he had gained thirty thousand dollars by the purchase of army certificates, that this fellow could bring him to capital punishment &c. &c.? It is to be wished that Reynolds may still be found, and that, to borrow the words of his friend, Dr. William Smith, The Secretary may come out of this matter, “as fair as the purest angel in heaven!”

. . .

In his letter last copied, Mr. Hamilton speaks of an explanation. He gave nothing meriting that name. The short way to exculpate himself was, by confronting Reynolds and his wife, who accused him of fraud, with the gentlemen who undertook the enquiry. Instead of that, he sent Reynolds and his wife out of the way, to prevent any such personal exculpation. That he packed them off, there can be little doubt, since the suddenness of the disappearance of Reynolds can be accounted for upon no other ground. The letter from Reynolds to Clingman mentions a promise of that kind, and Mrs. Reynolds had previously declared, that this was a scheme in contemplation. Reynolds could not fly from fear. The prosecution against him was closed, and his chief resource for subsistence had been by applying to Mr. Hamilton. That he he was removed, to keep him from a meeting with Mr. Monroe and his friends, bears the strongest marks of probability. It may be said, the the infamous character of Reynolds, made him unworthy of credit. Taken by itself, his testimony was, indeed, worth little; but, when supported by various circumstances, it might merit more attention. The profligate manners of the accuser afforded an additional reason why Mr. Hamilton, if innocent, should have brought him forward, since it would have been proportionally a more easy talk to convince Mr. Monroe of his falsehood. But the secretary sealed the importance of the accuser’s testimony, by forbearing to produce him to the gentlemen enquiring after him. When persons of so much weight and respectability had entered upon this business, every principle of common sense called for the clearest explanation. In place of that the chief evidence was concealed, and sent off, while the mass of his correspondence with Mr. Hamilton was, by desire of the latter, abruptly committed to the flames. You will determine whether these fugitive measures look most like innocence, or like something else. . . In place of smothering testimony, he should have courted it. In place of burning letters, he should have printed them. Publicity was the only basis by which he could maintain the ground that he was in danger of losing. Yet this was the very mode of defence which he chose to avoid.


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Filed under 1790's, Journal, Posted by Rebecca Dresser