It’s 1796. Alexander Hamilton has resigned from his post of Treasury Secretary to return to practicing law in New York City. He is still involved in public life, still writing long essays against Jefferson under pseudonyms, including one where he hinted very broadly about Jefferson and Sally Hemings.
Then in 1797, he comes across a pamphlet called A History of the United States for the Year 1796.
In this, James T. Callender, trashy pamphleteer extraordinaire, repeated the allegations that Hamilton was speculating, that Reynolds was an agent of his and that’s why Reynolds was paid off, by using the documents from the night in December 1792 when Hamilton was confronted by Monroe, Muhlenberg, and Venable. Yeah. Callender printed some of the letters Hamilton handed over.
Hamilton was furious. Hamilton first wrote to these men to ascertain that they didn’t give this information to Callender. Muhlenberg and Venable replied quickly, saying no, they kept the information confidential.
|James Monroe, 5th President of the U.S.|
At first, Monroe denied that he gave the letters to anyone. Hamilton called him a liar. Monroe called Hamilton a scoundrel. They continued exchanging a lengthy round of angry letters that nearly resulted in a duel. In fact, there were several challenges to duels in this back-and-forth.
Who quelled this angry exchange, preventing our first Treasury Secretary and our fifth president from shooting each other? Aaron Burr.
Of course, a few years later, Burr shot Hamilton in a duel. Men. Anyway.
Hamilton felt that the only way to clear his name was to give his own account of his actions. Also, he could never let an argument lapse. He thought that any impugnment of his honor as treasury secretary would damage not only his Federalist party, but the financial systems he’d put into place.
He published a 95-page pamphlet called Observations on Certain Documents Contained 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 refuted. Written by Himself.
We call it the Reynolds Pamphlet.
Oh, and as an epilogue to this whole drama: years and years later, Eliza Hamilton–Alexander’s wife–who outlived him by fifty years–was living with her daughter in Washington, D.C. One day in the 1820s, James Monroe visited. Eliza received his calling card and asked, “Why has that man come to see me for?”
She went into the parlor, didn’t invite Monroe to sit down. Monroe said something to the effect of time softening influences, they were nearing the grave, they should forgive past differences…
To which Eliza answered: “Mr. Monroe, if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations 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.”