Eliza Hamilton was in her seventies, and staying with her daughter at the latter’s home in Washington DC. She was in the backyard with her nephew, when the maid brought out to her a calling-card. It was James Monroe, the now retired, twice-President of the United States of America. He had come to visit the widow of Alexander Hamilton. Whereas most people would have been impressed and flattered by such a caller, Eliza Hamilton, replied stiffly: “I will see him”. When she walked into the parlor, there indeed was Monroe waiting. Going completely against all decorum of the time, Eliza Hamilton did not offer Monroe a seat. Monroe bowed to the widow Hamilton. As Ron Chernow, recounts in his biography, Alexander Hamilton: “Monroe began what sounded like a well-rehearsed speech, stating “that it was many years since they had met, that the lapse of time brought its softening influences, that they were both nearing the grave, when past differences could be forgiven and forgotten.’” (Chernow, 2004, pp. 727-728). To his greeting Eliza Hamilton replied: “‘Mr. Monroe … if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentation and the slanders and the stories you circulated against my dear husband, if you have come to say this, I understand it. But otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.’” (Chernow, 2004, p. 728). Monroe, politely took his leave, and the two were never to meet again. Contrary to Monroe’s assessment, Eliza Hamilton would go on to live until 1854, outliving Monroe by twenty three years. At her death, nearing the eve of the United States Civil War, Eliza Hamilton, would in her nineties be the last of living connections to the Founding Fathers of 1776, to which group, her husband, rightly has his place. But why the frozen stand-off between Monroe and Hamilton’s widow? What was the lie to which Eliza Hamilton alluded?
- Dr. Kania: On Lies. Part I (cf. Proverbs 30: 8 & cf. 1 Samuel 16: 7)
- Church and Life: Ambivalent Hypocrisy (cf. Mark 2: 27)
- A Question of Honour (cf. Isaiah 53)
Alexander Hamilton was born on the island of Nevis, in the British West Indies, in 1755. Although there is some debate as to who his father was, Hamilton, as well as most historians, accept that James Hamilton, the fourth son of a Scottish Lord, fathered Hamilton, out of wedlock. Hamilton’s illegitimacy was, all his life, to be a rod for his back, and a spur for his ambition for self-improvement. Leaving the West Indies in his late teens Hamilton’s rise through the social rungs of New York society was meteoric. During the Revolutionary War, Hamilton’s sharp intellect and thirst for hard-work brought him quickly under the fatherly eye of George Washington, the commander of the forces against the British. Still in his early-twenties, Hamilton became Lieutenant-Colonel, and Aide de Camp to Washington. Hamilton’s foreign birth, and his leap-frogging over others who believed themselves more worthy of promotion, began the clamour of ire that was to follow Hamilton throughout his political career. Despite this, Hamilton and Washington would be friends for life.
Hamilton’s illegitimacy was, all his life, to be a rod for his back, and a spur for his ambition for self-improvement.
When Hamilton married Eliza Schuyler on December the 14th, 1780, he not only brought to his side, an intelligent and utterly devoted wife, but he married into one of New York’s most prominent society families. Thus a man who had been orphaned as a boy, and who never met his father again after leaving the West Indies, was to become immersed in family. Eliza would give birth to eight children, and after her husband’s death would spend the remaining fifty years of her life as a widow, devotedly doing everything in her power to enhance the legacy of her husband.
Although Hamilton wished to be remembered for his military exploits, which were far excelled by his peers; it is because of his exceptional brilliance as a political philosopher, and in public finance, that he holds a hallowed position in the history of the United States. The driving force behind, The Federalist Papers, as well as the undeniable chief architect of the Banking system of the United States, Hamilton believed in strong government, and for this reason, as well as his influence on Washington, he attracted the vehement opposition of the so-called, then Republicans, led by Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson it is fair to say, hated Hamilton; whether Hamilton felt as strongly against Jefferson, is probably also correct. The two men would hold senior posts in Washington’s first cabinet; Hamilton as, Secretary of the Treasury – Jefferson as the Secretary of State. The bitterness that was only thinly veiled between the two men at the beginning of their tenure in these roles, brought George Washington to sheer frustration, as more and more it became evident that soon the United States would develop into a two party system. But none of this was at the base of Eliza Hamilton’s rancour.
It was while Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury, and while he was away from Eliza, that this otherwise ardent and loving husband, began a liaison, with a young and attractive woman who had come to him ‘in need’.
It was while Hamilton was Secretary of the Treasury, and while he was away from Eliza, that this otherwise ardent and loving husband, began a liaison, with a young and attractive woman who had come to him ‘in need’. Her name was Maria Reynolds, the young wife of James Reynolds. Although a man of the world in so many other ways, Hamilton was duped into believing the charade that both Maria and James spun for him. It was a case of entrapment. Soon it became evident that Maria ‘needed the consolation’ of Hamilton, so that ‘she would not do something drastic’; and James Reynolds, was only too willing for Hamilton to remain the elixir of Maria’s welfare, as long as he received a stream of cash in order to maintain his ‘discrete silence’. Hamilton was extremely anxious that Eliza would find out. As Hamilton would later write, Eliza was the near perfect wife. He had not reciprocated her faithfulness. He had indeed been living a lie. Hamilton decided to end the Reynold’s relationship – and that is when James Reynolds quite predictably then threatened to go public. In the ensuing drama, Hamilton was visited by three friends of Thomas Jefferson, one of whom was James Monroe. On the hearsay of another of Jefferson’s confidants, who could not conceive that great Hamilton would have been so naive as to find himself the victim of a scandal with the likes of Maria and James Reynolds, the assumption that was echoed to Jefferson was that Hamilton as Treasurer had been taking money from the government coffers in order to prop up illicit business dealings with Reynolds and his cohorts. When Monroe and his companions arrived to speak with Hamilton in order to quiz him on financial impropriety, what they discovered was not a financial charlatan, but a man, ashamed of his infidelity, who confessed all, openly and honestly. As ‘gentlemen’, they promised to keep the Reynolds’ Affair completely confidential. However, and without doubt, it was Monroe, who made an account of the evening’s events, and who later passed these details through to a second person, then from that person to a third, and onward. Believing that there had to be more to the story than the highly improbable dalliance between Maria Reynolds and Alexander Hamilton, the Jefferson camp, publically declaimed Hamilton through Republican newspapers as a financial charlatan and thief. Hamilton to his credit, published a ninety five page rebuttal, that would spell the complete end of his quite strong Presidential aspirations. In this document, Hamilton was open and detailed about his relationship with Maria Reynolds. Eliza’s response to Hamilton’s confession is unknown; but her continued undying love and support for her husband would indicate where she stood. Hamilton’s career would decline, while Jefferson would go on to be twice President, as with later, Monroe. The great irony of this situation, was that Hamilton who fully admitted his lie, would lose out to two men, Jefferson, who knew only too well how to create a lie about a lie, and Monroe, who broke a promise in order to destroy a man’s political, and quite nearly, if it had not been for Eliza, personal life. For his honesty, Hamilton perhaps won back, if he had ever lost it, the ardent love of his wife. For her part, Eliza’s enmity for James Monroe, would be undying.
The great irony of this situation, was that Hamilton who fully admitted his lie, would lose out to two men, Jefferson, who knew only too well how to create a lie about a lie, and Monroe, who broke a promise in order to destroy a man’s political, and quite nearly, if it had not been for Eliza, personal life
As for Jefferson, having spat venom about Hamilton being a fraudster while the latter was Secretary of Treasury, when Jefferson became President, he expectantly rubbed hands with glee in the hope of exposing the many financial indiscretions of Hamilton. Chernow writes: “The new president relished the chance to rifle through Treasury files and corroborate his suspicions of Hamilton. He asked Gallatin to browse through the archives and uncover “the blunders and frauds of Hamilton.” Having tangled with Hamilton over the years, Gallatin undertook the task “with a very good appetite,” he admitted, but he failed to excavate the findings Jefferson wanted. Years later, he related the president’s crestfallen reaction: “‘Well Gallatin, what have you found?’ [Jefferson asked], I answered: ‘I have found the most perfect system ever formed. Any change that should be made in it would injure it. Hamilton made no blunders, committed no frauds. He did nothing wrong.’ I think Mr. Jefferson was disappointed.” (Chernow, 2004, pp. 646 – 647).
So what can we say about the nature of lying? The great Swedish poet Gustaf Fröding was famously a patient in a mental hospital in the city of Uppsala. Treated for suffering from continual bouts of delusions, Fröding’s treatment was stepped up on the day when he announced to staff ignorant of his literary identity, that he was feeling much better, and that he was in fact a great Swedish poet. In the case of Alexander Hamilton, among men who deal frequently in lies and lying, when faced with Hamilton telling the truth about his dalliance with Maria Reynolds, none of his opponents believed he was being honest – for to tell the truth, was in fact political suicide. Dark hearts, find the light too blinding to fully comprehend; so alternative explanations are invented. Too often cynicism is the child of innocence lost. Cynicism denies that which is eternal; and there is nothing more eternal, than the power and sacredness of Truth. If we believe that every man is as bad as we ourselves, than there can be no humility, no redemption, there can be no Saints, there can be no Salvation, there can be no Truth, and there can be no Christ. All around us we perceive to be a lie. Christ did not only ask us to be as cunning as a serpent, for by so doing we would live by means of Natural Selection; but He added that we have the innocence of a dove – in order to be open to love and Truth: forgiveness, compassion and mercy. (cf. Matthew 10: 16).
Dr. Andrew Thomas Kania
This article was published in The Church and Life Newspaper, June 2018