In 2005, while touring Monticello, I happened to notice two marble busts positioned on either side of the doorway into the entry hall. One was of Thomas Jefferson (as you’d expect) and the other of Alexander Hamilton (as you would not). Knowing how much the two despised each other in life, I found it odd that Jefferson would give his political enemy’s likeness such a prominent place in his home.
After pointing this out to the tour guide, he told me that, when Jefferson’s grandson made the same observation, his grandfather gave this reply: “We will oppose in death as we opposed in life.”
The young man then asked a question of the group. “Does anyone know who Hamilton considered the greatest man who ever lived?”—to which I replied, “The answer you’re looking for is Julius Cesar, but Hamilton never said that. It was an invention by Jefferson to make Hamilton appear subversive to the goals of democracy.”
Though dubious, the young man let the subject drop and took us through to the library. Later, when I was exploring the grounds on my own, the guide sought me out. “I asked the curator if what you said about Hamilton’s Julius Cesar remark was true,” he told me. “He said it was…but how in the world did you know that?”
“I’m an admirer of Hamilton’s,” I explained with a smile. “And have read quite a bit about America’s founding period.”
I share this little story not only because it reveals that Jefferson still despised Hamilton until his dying day, but also because it confirms that the anti-Hamilton propaganda generated by Jefferson and his supporters more than two centuries ago still lives on in the American psyche.
My story demonstrates something else as well: My admiration for Hamilton preceded Hamilton: An American Musical by at least a decade.
So did the suspicions that inspired All-Out Warfare: The Jeffersonian Conspiracy to Destroy Alexander Hamilton.
Call it a hunch or a reporter’s instincts, but the more I read, the more I began to see the shadow of conspiracy overlaying the two most controversial events in Hamilton’s life: His sordid dealings with Maria and James Reynolds in the early 1790s and his fatal duel with Aaron Burr in 1804.
Certain aspects of both events still raise questions. Why did Hamilton risk his career, marriage, and reputation to become romantically involved with the wife of a known speculator? Or, as the key witness in the investigation alleged, did he invent the affair and forge the billets-doux from Mrs. Reynolds to cover up his shady dealings with her husband?
In the case of the duel, it is Burr’s behavior that mystifies. Why did he issue his challenge on such flimsy grounds? Why did he refuse to negotiate a resolution in advance of the duel? Why did he shoot to kill instead of aiming away as he’d done in previous duels? And, most puzzling of all, why did Burr destroy the very honor he sought to defend by murdering Hamilton in cold blood?
Scholarly speculations and analyses vary, but in the vast majority, Jacob Clingman, the key witness against Hamilton in the investigation into the Reynolds Affair, is believed to be an innocent bystander—an impressionable young man corrupted by an unsavory character. Likewise, Aaron Burr is presumed to have acted alone out of malice when he challenged Hamilton to settle their differences with pistols (the same pair, ironically, used in the duel that killed Hamilton’s eldest son a few years earlier).
Never mind that these assumptions create more confusion than clarity—or that they fail to take into account witness credibility, ulterior motives, character, conflicts of interest, uncanny coincidences, cause-and-effect, or outcomes.
Was it merely happenstance, for example, that Maria Reynolds knocked on Hamilton’s door shortly after his political enemies met to plot his downfall? Or that James Monroe, one of Jefferson’s top henchmen, put himself in charge of the investigation? Or that one of Jefferson’s “generals” in the conspiracy against Hamilton petitioned the governor of New Jersey to dismiss the murder charges against Burr?
William Branch Giles’s argument: Despite the laws against dueling, no one had ever been prosecuted for murder after killing his opponent on the field of honor. Did he make the same argument to Burr when recruiting him to assassinate Hamilton? It would not have been difficult to persuade such an unscrupulous and self-serving man to pick a fight with Hamilton and carry it through to a fatal end. Burr was on a downward spiral at the time, thanks in part to Hamilton’s behind-the-scenes campaign to keep him out of public office. Having nowhere to go but down, Burr would have sold his soul for the promise of a choice appointment, party backing, and/or escape from prosecution, all of which were within President Jefferson’s power to provide.
And yet, few if any have linked these affairs to the larger conspiracy against Hamilton, let alone connected the dots back to the sainted author of the Declaration of Independence (who was no saint, incidentally). This seems remarkable in light of the evidence. It is established historical fact, for example, that Jefferson, Madison, Burr, and Robert R. Livingston met in secret in Albany in May or June, 1791, to declare “all-out warfare” on Hamilton.
Irrefutable proof also exists that for years thereafter, various attacks on Hamilton were launched with varying degrees of success by Jefferson’s army, whose ranks included Madison, Monroe, John Beckley, Giles, Burr, and among many others.
It seems reasonable, therefore, to suspect that the Reynolds Affair and the duel with Burr were also components of that conspiracy. All-Out Warfare will seek to prove they were by presenting new evidence and ideas alongside existing scholarship, some of which will be challenged.
A case in point is Julian P. Boyd’s assertions that Hamilton forged the letters he published to disprove allegations he was speculating with James Reynolds. While Boyd argued convincingly that the letters were fakes, he failed to consider that someone other than Hamilton might have been the forger. Someone like Clingman, for instance, whose hearsay testimony about what occurred between Hamilton and the Reynoldses has been elevated by repetition to accepted truth.
And, much like Hamilton’s alleged admiration for Julius Cesar, that is far from the case.
Another such misnomer is the belief that Clingman and Maria Reynolds fled to England to escape the negative publicity when her affair with Hamilton came to light. This false factoid can be traced back to the biography of Beckley, Jefferson’s chief dirt-digger in the plot against Hamilton, published in 1973 by Edmund and Dorthy Smith Berkeley.
The truth, discovered in documents housed in the U.K. National Archive, is that Clingman and Maria (who married in 1795) went to Jamaica, not England, and returned within the year. In 1798, Clingman went to England alone…
But I get ahead of myself. All of this and more will be discussed in the book. Did Jefferson and his cronies arrange the assassination of Hamilton? I will leave it to you, the reader, to decide after considering the case I put before you.
Hi, I'm Nina Mason, an author, investigative journalist, history buff, and self-professed Hamilton fan (not the musical, the historical figure). Herein, I will share interesting tidbits related to my investigation into my belief that the Reynolds Affair and duel with Aaron Burr were part of a larger conspiracy against Hamilton directed by Thomas Jefferson.