Monday, October 08, 2007

As long as he did not violate the public trust by misusing his office, he could continue to insist he was an honest man

Wherein since Hamilton is dead, this will have to do

In the midst of a stirring essay concerning journalistic morals and historical perspective, Callimachus writes to clarify: ...and that private morality was therefore separate from public ethics (it wasn't: just ask Hamilton about Mrs. Reynolds).

Before last week I wouldn't have known who Mrs. Reynolds was. Luckily, I've been reading Fallen Founder by Nancy Isenberg:
It is rather ironic that Hamilton vilified Burr as "unprincipled" in the fall if 1792. For in December of that year, he was forced to defend his own reputation against charges emanating from his private behavior -- charges that would certainly drive any modern politician from office.

Gathering intelligence on behalf of the Republican interest, John Beckley brought the sordid details of the "Reynolds Affair" to light. Beckley had heard rumors, which he conveyed to Senator James Monroe, that Treasury Secretary Hamilton had used priviliged information in a possible speculation scheme that involved one James Reynolds as his agent. In prison at the time for suborning perjury in another case related the Treasury Department, Reynolds released the story about Hamilton in the hope that the secretary would drop the charges against him.

To strengthen Reynolds's hand, and prove Hamilton's wrongdoing, Reynolds's wife, Maria, provided letters indicating that money had changed hands between Hamilton and her husband. Monroe, along with Congressmen Frederick Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania and Abraham Venable of Virginia, investigated the charges. On December 15, 1972, they presented the evidence to the treasury secretary. That evening, when Hamilton met with the Republicans, he confessed -- but not to any financial impropriety. He had been having an affair with Maria Reynolds, he said, and paying her husband hush money. The Republican delegation agreed to keep the matter confidential. Hamilton's secret would not be publicly revealed until 1797, well after he had left the Treasury Department.

So in 1792, Hamilton was hardly in a position to censure Burr's moral chaacter. It was Hamilton who was engaged in a low inrigue, maling desperate, clandestine payments to protect his reputation. But as Hamilton saw the situation, extramarital sex could be separated easily from financial impropriety. As long as he did not violate the public trust by misusing his office, he could continue to insist he was an honest man. He did not extend the same courtesy to Burr, exaggerating the significance of his being financially overextended while ignoring the fact that so many of their colleagues were routinely on the verge of debt. Hamilton's political maneuverings and political motives reveal a man whose objectivity could not be trusted -- especially with regard to Burr's personal character. To be perfectly clear, outside of Hamilton and his cronies, no one was criticizing Burr's character in 1792.

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In August 1797, Hamilton published a ortured explanation for amorous adventure with Maria Reynolds back in 1792. [James] Monroe begged [James] Madison to carefully examine Hamilton's 95-page "defense pamphlet" and make sure there was nothing insulting about him in it.

...Admitting to his adulterous relationship with maria Reynolds in an effort to defend himself against what he felt was the more serious charge of public (finanical) misconduct, Hamilton misjudged his audience...

Slight of hand was a poor tactic. In believing he could verbally outmanuever his critics, and by treating his adultery as a lesser crime than an illegal speculation scheme, Hamilton failed to portray himself as an innocent man. Instead, he appeared arrogant and unrepentant.

...Republican journalists chastised Hamilton for assuming that his private indiscreation had no bearing on his public character....One member of Hamilton's New York crowd did not hold back when he said, almost with a leer, that the pamphleteer was aiming "to creep under Mrs. R's petticoats. A pretty hiding place for a national leader!" Even Hamilton's most devoted admirer, Robert Troup, acknowledge that the "ill-judged pamphlet has done him incomparable injury."

4 Comments:

Blogger Callimachus said...

Thanks for the link! I rather like Hamilton (my review of Chernow's bio is here). And I actually think, contra your author, that he was sincere in the Reynolds affair (the psychological key is the sad life of Hamilton's own mother, which had striking similarities to Maria Reynolds'). It certainly was an early example of something we've seen a great deal of lately: A politician caught doing something society loathes who seems to have no clue how his behavior looks to others.

P.S., I hope that "1972" is a typo, or else I don't think much of the Burr book, lol

10/09/2007 04:50:00 PM  
Blogger bill said...

typo is mine. In her effort to rehabilitate Burr she does seem to go after Hamilton a bit more than is needed. I have a couple of other Chernow biographies and will probably get the Hamilton book for another perspective.

10/09/2007 05:04:00 PM  
Blogger Callimachus said...

Well, everyone deserves a sympathetic biographer, but I doubt God Himself could redeem Burr in my eyes. The trouble is, Burr is the archetype of the modern American politician.

10/09/2007 05:31:00 PM  
Blogger bill said...

Interesting, because that's what I was thinking about Hamilton.

10/09/2007 08:02:00 PM  

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