Item of the Day: Alexander Hamilton’s Defense to Callender’s Charge of Speculation (1797)

Full Title: Observations on Certain Documents continued in No. V and VI of “The History of the United States for the Year 1796,” in which the Charge of Speculation against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, is Fully refused. Written by Himself. Published in Philadelphia for John Fenno by John Bioren, 1797.

[After the publication of James Callender’s accusation that he had been making payments to James Reynolds for the purpose of securities speculation, Alexander Hamilton felt compelled to reveal to the public his liaison with Reynolds’ wife, Maria. The admission had been made previously to a secret congressional committee investigating the matter. In his defense, Hamilton provided the committee with letters allegedly written by Reynolds to prove blackmail. The committee acquitted Hamilton. The incident was effectively hushed up until 1797 when James Callender published an account of it and accused Hamilton of forging the letters to conceal a far worse crime. Desperate to clear his name, Hamilton published this rebuttal only two months after Callender’s pamphlet appeared. In it he revealed details of his relationship with Maria and James Reynolds through his own account and by printing corroborating correspondence from Reynolds. Hamilton’s Republican enemies, however, seized upon Hamilton’s scandalous indiscretion. Hamilton himself later came to regret issuing the defense as Republicans cheerfully republished it whenever they sought to buttress their position as the true champions of virtue and character.]

Was it not to have been expected that these repeated demonstrations of the injustice of the accusations hazarded against me would have abashed the enterprise of my calumniators? However natural such an expectation may seem, it would betray an ignorance of the true character of the Jacobin system. It is a maxim deeply ingrafted into that dark system, that no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false. It is well understood by its disciples, that every calumny makes some proselites and even retains some; since justification seldom circulates as rapidly and as widely as slander. The number of those who from doubt proceed to suspicion and thence to belief of imputed guilt is continually augmenting; and the public mind fatigued at length with resistance to the calumnies which eternally assail it, is apt in the end to sit down with the opinion that a person so often accused cannot be be entirely innocent.

Relying upon this weakness of human nature, the Jacobin Scandal-Club though often defeated constantly return to the charge. Old calumnies are served up fresh and every pretext is seized to add to the catalogue — The person whom they seek to blacken, by dint of repeated strokes of their brush, becomes a demon in their own eyes, though he might be pure and bright as an angel but for the daubing of those wizard painters.

Of all the vile attempts which have been made to injure my character that which has been lately revived in No. V and Vi, of the history of the United States for 1796 is the most vile. This it will be impossible for any intelligent, I will not say candid, man to doubt, when he shall have accompanied me through the examination.

I owe perhaps to my friends an apology for condescending to give a public examination. A just ride with reluctance stoops to a formal vindication against so despicable a contrivance and is inclined rather to oppose to it the uniform evidence of an upright character. This would be my conduct on the present occasion, did not the tale seem to derive a sanction from the names of three men of some weight and consequence in the society: a circumstance, which I trust will excuse me for paying attention to a slander that without this prop, would defeat itself in intrinsic circumstances of absurdity and malice.

The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary is speculation. 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.

This confession is not made without a blush. I cannot be the apologist of an vice because the ardour of passion may have made it mine. I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang, which it may inflict in a bosom eminently intitled to all my gratitude, fidelity and love. But that bosom will approve, that even at so great an expence, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name, which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public too will I trust excuse the confession. The necessity of it to my defence against a more heinous charge could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum.

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

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