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Maria Lewis Reynolds (born Mary Lewis, 1768–1832?) is best known as the mistress of Alexander Hamilton and wife of James Reynolds, and she played a central role in one of the first sex scandals in American political history.
At age 16, Maria Lewis married James Reynolds, a former Commissary officer during the American Revolution, and together they had a daughter, Susan. Throughout their marriage, James Reynolds was abusive to Maria and their children, but the two would nonetheless conspire in one of the first American scandals to use the media against a public figure.
In 1791, 23-year-old Maria Reynolds approached the married 34-year-old Alexander Hamilton in Philadelphia, requesting his help. Claiming that James Reynolds had abandoned her and her daughter, Maria asked him for enough money to transport them back to New York City, where her family lived. Hamilton consented, and delivered the money in person to Maria later that night. As Hamilton himself later confessed, "I took the bill out of my pocket and gave it to her – Some conversation ensued from which it was quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable." The two began an illicit affair that would last at least three years.
Over the course of 1791 and 1792 while the affair took place, James Reynolds was well aware of his wife's unfaithfulness. He continually supported the affair to regularly gain blackmail money from Hamilton. The common practice in the day was for the wronged husband to seek retribution in a pistol duel, but Reynolds, realizing how much Hamilton had to lose if his activity came into public view, again insisted on monetary compensation instead.
Hamilton eventually paid Reynolds more than $1,000 in blackmail over several years to continue sleeping with Maria without his interference. But when Reynolds, being a professional con man, became entangled in a separate scheme involving speculation on unpaid back wages intended for Revolutionary War veterans, he used his knowledge about Hamilton’s sex affair to bargain his way out of his own troubles. Reynolds knew Hamilton would have to choose between revealing his affair with Maria, or admitting complicity to the speculation charges. Congressional investigators James Monroe and Frederick Muhlenberg were the first men to hear of this incredible possible corruption within their new government system. Monroe and Muhlenberg had the option to go straight to President Washington with this news, but as gentlemen they felt compelled to bring it to Hamilton first. Hamilton chose the former course, admitting his sexual indiscretion to Monroe and Muhlenberg, and even turning over his love letters from Maria to them.
The letters proved Hamilton's innocence in the speculation scandal. In addition, because his confession was made in confidence, Hamilton's involvement with Maria Reynolds was not made public in the wake of the speculation investigation. Monroe and his colleagues assured Hamilton that the matter was settled. However, Monroe took the love letters and sent them to his close personal friend, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson and Hamilton were self-described nemeses, and five years after receiving the letters, Jefferson used the knowledge to start rampant rumors about Hamilton's private life. The final straw came in 1797, when pamphlet publisher James Callender obtained the secret letters and printed them in his newspaper. Callender also revived the corruption charges against Hamilton. Hamilton responded by printing his own 95 page pamphlet called Observations on Certain Documents in which he denied all charges of corruption. He did not, however, deny his relationship with Maria Reynolds; instead, he openly admitted it and apologized for it.
While his candor was admired, the affair severely damaged Hamilton's reputation and he never again held public office. Prior to this, Maria Reynolds had divorced James Reynolds; her attorney in the proceedings was none other than Aaron Burr, who would eventually kill Hamilton in their infamous 1804 duel.