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Commentary | PERSPECTIVES ON WHITE HOUSE SCANDAL

Founding Fathers Didn't Flinch

Alexander Hamilton's misstep was deemed a private matter that didn't affect his service to the nation.

September 18, 1998|RICHARD N. ROSENFELD | Richard N. Rosenfeld is the author of "American Aurora: A Democratic-Republican Returns: The Suppressed History of Our Nation's Beginnings and the Heroic Newspaper That Tried to Report It" (St. Martin's Press, 1997)

America's Founding Fathers made it clear that a high federal officer's illicit, even criminal, sexual activities as well as bribery, conspiracy and lying to hide them from public view were neither impeachable offenses under the U.S. Constitution nor even a disqualification from appointment to high government office.

During the winter of 1792-93, the U.S. Congress was investigating alleged financial misdealings of Alexander Hamilton, the most prominent member of George Washington's Cabinet and the first secretary of the Treasury of the United States. Three members of Congress, including House Speaker F.A.C. Muhlenberg and future U.S. President James Monroe, interviewed Hamilton concerning secret payments that Hamilton had made to James Reynolds, a convicted securities swindler whose release from prison Hamilton's Treasury department had allowed.

In his interview with members of Congress, Hamilton was forced to admit the payments to Reynolds but characterized them as bribes to prevent public disclosure of adultery Hamilton had committed with Reynolds' wife, Maria. That adultery included libidinous encounters not only in the Reynolds marital bed while James was away but also in Hamilton's own marital bed while his wife Betsy and their children were visiting Hamilton's father-in-law.

Paying for Reynolds' silence was only part of the cover-up; Hamilton had Mrs. Reynolds burn incriminating correspondence and promised to pay for the Reynolds' travel costs if only the Reynolds would get out of town.

When Muhlenberg and Monroe (as well as the other members of Congress) heard Hamilton's confession, they decided the matter was private, not public, and that no impeachable offense had occurred. They agreed (conspired) with Hamilton and among themselves to keep the sexual relations, the hush money and all the rest a secret. Although President Washington, Vice President John Adams, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, House Minority Leader James Madison and other leaders all became aware of Hamilton's confession, his misconduct remained undisclosed until he was well out of office.

In 1797, Hamilton's secret finally became public knowledge after John Beckley, a disgruntled former clerk of the House of Representatives, leaked the story to James Thomson Callender, a muckraking journalist. The whole nation then learned of Hamilton's misdeeds in office. So what was the denouement?

On July 18, 1798, the very next year, then-President Adams and former President Washington nominated Hamilton to be inspector general of the new U.S. Army, second in command only to Washington himself. With Monroe, Jefferson, Madison and other Founding Fathers still maintaining their respectful silence, the U.S. Senate quickly confirmed this confessed adulterer and briber to occupy, for a second time, one of the highest positions in the new federal government of the United States.

In overlooking Hamilton's private sexual misconduct as well as his efforts to cover it up, the Founders were practicing what they preached at the Constitutional Convention when, on Sept. 8, 1787, members unanimously declared that, for purposes of impeachment, they intended "high crimes and misdemeanors" to be actions "against the United States."

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