Was America's third vice president a certifiable psychopath?
“Absolutely not,” a commenter recently replied to the question on Quora. “He was brilliant, charming, and erudite. He was also one of this country’s very first feminists. He was brave in battle, fearless in politics, and quite the ladies man. He was also quite funny. I don’t recall the exact quote but one of his friends asked him why he didn’t contradict a woman who had falsely accused him of fathering her baby. Burr responded that if a woman chose to pay him the ultimate compliment that he would be ungenerous to contradict her. In short, if you were going to be trapped in a stalled elevator for several hours with any one of our Founding Fathers, then Burr’s your man!”
If the irony of this answer is lost on you, allow me explain: Charm, fearlessness, glibness, and sexual promiscuity are all symptoms of psychopathy.
“Psychopaths employ a mixture of charm, manipulation, intimidation, and occasionally violence to control others, in order to satisfy their own selfish needs,” according to a report on Serial Murder released in 2005 by the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit.
Other characteristics exhibited by psychopaths include a grandiose sense of self-worth, sexual promiscuity and deviance, the incapacity to form deep and lasting intimate relationships, and a complete lack of empathy, remorse, or guilt. We see all of these physiognomies operating throughout Burr’s life.
“According to contemporary observers, Burr’s features were dominated by great, expressive hazel eyes and an air of earnest urbanity,” wrote John Ferling in Adams vs. Jefferson: The Tumultuous Election of 1800. “Many were struck, too, by his gentlemanly bearing — some thought it an aristocratic manner — as well as by his self-assurance and, above all, an unconcealed pride in his superior intellect. Some thought him graceful, most found him to be friendly and agreeable, and all regarded him as a delightful conversationalist. Burr brought to public life better-than-average oratorical skills, a talent honed in countless courtrooms where he gradually jettisoned the pistonlike delivery and overbearing habits of his youth, substituting instead a ‘slow, circumspect manner’ that convinced listeners that careful deliberation and reasoned reflection underlay his every word. Yet for all his compelling qualities, aspects of his demeanor caused him harm. For instance, when Burr came to Virginia in 1796 to court support, some who met him not only discerned an active and scheming mind but concluded that he was not passionately committed to any political principle. Winning laurels and holding power, they suspected, were his only real objectives. They were not alone in this judgment. Throughout his career, many detected in him a frenetic ambition, an insatiable, indomitable craving for more wealth, material possessions, power, and acclaim — more of everything, a gluttonous avidity that they assumed drove him relentlessly.”
Rumors abounded of Burr’s sexual exploits and embrace of taboos. It was said he seduced married women and genteel young ladies, consorted openly with prostitutes, molested his adopted children (and perhaps his natural one as well), was cruel and controlling in bed, engaged in bestiality, and was a fixture at the scandalous balls where white men “hooked up” with black women. The truth, unfortunately, will never be known thanks to Matthew Davies, the friend and biographer who burned all Burr’s letters relating to his sexual conquests.
“It is a matter of perfect notoriety,” Davis wrote in the preface to Aaron Burr’s Memoirs, “that among the papers left in my possession by the late Colonel Burr, there was a mass of letters and copies of letters written or received by him, from time to time, during a long life, indicating no very strict morality in some of his female correspondents. These letters contained matter that would have wounded the feelings of families more extensively than could be imagined. Their publication would have had a most injurious tendency, and created heartburnings that nothing but time could have cured. As soon as they came under my control I mentioned the subject to Colonel Burr; but he prohibited the destruction of any part of them during his lifetime. I separated them, however, from other letters in my possession, and placed them in a situation that made their publication next to impossible, whatever might have been my own fate. As soon as Colonel Burr’s decease was known, with my own hands I committed to the fire all such correspondence, and not a vestige of it now remains.”
The above confession, when viewed alongside his subject’s psychological profile, suggest the rumors of Burr’s debaucheries might have only been the tip of the iceberg.
Hamilton frequently described Burr as “profligate” and “a voluptuary in the extreme,” suggesting it might have been more than Burr’s plentiful affairs to which his critic objected. Doing so, after all, would have made Hamilton a hypocrite, given his own established and rumored transgressions.
Hamilton also denounced Burr as corrupt, dangerously ambitious, and utterly unprincipled, as did Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, and other men who knew him. In one spasm of anti-Burr rhetoric, Hamilton wrote that Burr was “bankrupt beyond redemption, except by plunder of his country. His public principles have no other spring or aim than his own aggrandizement ... [H]e will certainly disturb our institutions to secure to himself permanent power.”
Burr also fathered numerous illegitimate children, including two by his East Indian servant Mary Emmons (a.k.a. Eugénie Bearhani). While practicing law in New York from 1813 to 1835, he raised two young men in his home (Aaron Burr Columbus and Charles Burdett) who are presumed to be his bastard sons by former lovers.
Further evidence of psychopathy can be found in the following letter to his son-in-law the day after Burr shot Alexander Hamilton. “GENERAL HAMILTON died yesterday. The malignant federalists or tories, and the imbittered Clintonians, unite in endeavouring to excite public sympathy in his favour and indignation against his antagonist. Thousands of absurd falsehoods are circulated with industry. The most illiberal means are practised in order to produce excitement, and, for the moment, with effect.”
Here, we see his lack of empathy in action. Rather than expressing even the slightest guilt or remorse over the life he’s just taken, he paints himself as the victim, blaming others for what he perceives to be unjust persecution of him and undeserved admiration for Hamilton. His sentiments are bitter, resentful, and completely self-centered. He believes the Federalists and New York Republicans were venerating Hamilton not because he deserved their accolades, but as part of a plot to dishonor the lame-duck vice president.
Like the majority of psychopaths, Burr displayed anti-social tendencies early in life. His own mother described him in his toddler years as a “sly and mischievous” boy who required “a good governor to bring him to terms.” He found that governor in the guardians who took him in after he lost both his parents early in life. The first of these was Dr. Shippen, the father of the future Mrs. Benedict Arnold. At the tender age of four, Burr ran away over a clash with his tutor and “contrived to elude the search for three or four days.”
Later, his care was entrusted to his uncle, Timothy Edwards, a stern Puritan minister who regularly beat his young charge “like a sack.” At the age of ten, Burr ran away a second time. This time, he went to New York and signed on as a cabin boy aboard a ship preparing to launch. When his uncle came to take him home, his unruly nephew sprang into the rigging and climbed to the masthead. The boy was ordered to come down, but stubbornly refused to do so. Eventually, Burr yielded, but only after extracting Uncle Timothy’s promise not to beat him when they returned to Elizabethtown.
Biographers cite these stories of Burr’s boyhood misadventures as evidence of his innate daring and rebelliousness without realizing that parental abandonment, caretaker abuse, and running away are all childhood experiences common to psychopaths.
And then there is the matter of Burr’s motive for killing Hamilton. At the time he challenged the former secretary of state to the now-infamous duel, Burr was ruined, financially as well as politically. As a self-serving psychopath, he stood nothing to gain on either front by killing Hamilton, especially on such flimsy grounds.
Unless he was promised favors by someone who would benefit directly from Hamilton’s death. Someone who knew Burr was amoral enough to commit murder in exchange for money, power, and political favors. Someone in a position to offer such incentives. Someone who looked a lot like Thomas Jefferson.
Though scholarly interpretations of the Reynolds Affair vary, they tend to fall into one of two categories. The first, the version preferred by Hamiltonians, is that Hamilton told the truth about his relationship with the Reynoldses. The second, supported by Jeffersonians, is that the treasury secretary invented the affair to cover up his nefarious dealings with James Reynolds.
To the second category belong the assertions Hamilton falsified the letters published in his pamphlet. That they might be fakes was first put forward by James T. Callender in his 1798 pamphlet, Sketches of the History of America: “These letters from Mrs. Reynolds,” he wrote, “are badly spelt and pointed. Capitals, also, occur even in the midst of words. But waving such excrescences, the stile is pathetic and even elegant. It does not bear the marks of an illiterate writer. The construction of the periods disagrees with this apparent incapacity of spelling. The officer who can marshall a regiment, must know how to level a musquet. A few gross blunders are interspersed, and these could readily be devised; but, when stript of such a veil, the body of the composition is pure and correct. In the literary world, fabrications of this nature have been frequent. Our ex-secretary admits that he has been in the habit of writing to this family in a feigned character. The transition was easy to the writing in a feigned stile.” Callender then addressed himself directly to Hamilton: “You speak as if it was impossible to invent a few letters.”
Revisiting Callender’s suspicions in the 1970s, Princeton historian Julian P. Boyd analyzed the letters in Hamilton’s pamphlet himself, concluding, as the journalist did, they were, “the palpably contrived documents of a brilliant and daring man who, writing under much stress in the two or three days available to him in 1792, tried to imitate what he conceived to be the style of less literate persons. The result was inexpert to the point of naiveté, but its character is beyond doubt. The purported letters of James and Maria Reynolds as published in Hamilton’s Observations cannot be accepted as genuine.”
Perhaps the billets-doux and blackmail demands sent to Hamilton by the Reynoldses were written by hands other than theirs. But must it necessarily follow that someone was Hamilton?
What Boyd and those who support his conclusions fail to consider is that Maria Reynolds, being poor, uneducated, and female, was probably illiterate. While one source claims she “grew up literate though largely uneducated,” the belief she could read and write seems to be predicated entirely on the assumption she actually penned the letters presumed to be hers.
This presumption could be false, given that fifty-five percent of the female population in post-colonial America couldn’t read or write. Only educated women could, and Maria’s family—illiterate themselves—lacked the resources to send her to school.
She would, therefore, like others of her limited skillset, require a literate person to write her letters and, in turn, read their replies. And, given the nature of her correspondence with Hamilton, her scribe would have had to be someone both intimate with her and in on the deception. And James Reynolds, being borderline illiterate himself, does not fit Boyd’s profile of an educated person feigning the style of someone unschooled.
But Jacob Clingman, their intimate friend and accomplice, suits the role perfectly. As a former bookkeeper and clerk, he would have been an accomplished scribe; and, as a professional con-man and forger, he would have been able to alter his prose and penmanship to mimic those of less-literate persons.
The existence of such an arrangement between the Reynoldses and Clingman would certainly support Callender and Boyd’s charges that the letters were forged. Furthermore, Clingman’s forgery skills would have enabled him to produce the scraps of evidence that escaped the alleged destruction of all the letters in Hamilton’s handwriting.
That Maria burned these letters, of course, is suspect in and of itself. If they proved her former lover’s guilt—and restored the virtue Clingman claimed she was so desperate to retrieve—why would she torch them? Thus, it seems far more plausible that Clingman threw the letters on the fire, thereby eliminating any proof that 1) Hamilton’s explanation of his relationship with the Reynoldses was true (and, conversely, that Clingman’s wasn’t); 2) Clingman, not Hamilton, forged the letters; and 3) Clingman played a more central role in the scheme to frame Hamilton than anyone supposed.
And perhaps it was also Clingman, and not Beckley, who gave the documents to Callender. It would certainly explain why Callender emphatically denied that Beckley was his source, and also the reason Monroe swore to his dying day he was not the source of the leak. This might also explain why Monroe turned his back on Clingman when he was jailed in England with “passport troubles.”
Clingman, too, might have dropped hints to Callender that the letters were forgeries. If he wrote them, he would have known they were fakes—and also that Hamilton believed them genuine. Thus, when Callender published his accusations, Hamilton would be caught once again with his breeches down.
Furthermore, Clingman being the author of the letters would explain why Hamilton opted to use the testimony of a former landlady to verify Maria’s handwriting instead of the samples offered him by Richard Folwell. In all likelihood, Folwell’s were copied out for Maria by someone other than Clingman—or by Clingman employing a different style and hand to suit the letter’s purpose.
Just imagine how distraught Hamilton must have been when, under the gun to authenticate Maria’s handwriting, he discovered the “samples” didn’t match those sent to him by his former paramour. It was probably then that he realized the plot against him involved more conspirators than Clingman and Reynolds.
Consider the facts I’ve recently uncovered: Clingman repeatedly forged documents with intent to defraud. He also had the means, motive, and opportunity to frame Hamilton, as well as ties to the Jefferson Cartel. Thus, if the Reynolds’s letters were indeed produced to deceive, isn’t it more reasonable to conclude the con-man, rather than the mark, was the forger? For historians to continue blaming Hamilton, given what we now know about Clingman, would be closer to witch-hunting than scholarship.
Habitual deceivers know the best way to sell a lie is to stitch it with threads of the truth. And the incongruities between the stories told of James Reynolds’s arrest by Jacob Clingman and Henry Seckel, the merchant whose accounts Clingman once kept, are a perfect example of how our lead witness in the Reynolds Affair intertwined fact and falsehood to weave a noose for Hamilton.
In Clingman’s version, Reynolds applied to Hamilton for bail and was told “to keep out of the way, a few days, and the matter would be settled.” Clingman also said Seckel then came to Reynolds “and offered to be his bail if he would go with him to Mr. Baker’s office, where he had left the officer, who had the warrant in writing.”
After Reynolds was arrested, Clingman said, “Seckel refused to become his bail, unless he would deposit, in his possession, a property to the value of four hundred pounds, upon which, Reynolds wrote to Col. Hamilton, and Mr. Seckel carried the note; after two or three times going, he saw Col. Hamilton; Col. Hamilton said, he knew Reynolds and his father; that his father was a good Whig in the late war; that was all he could say: That it was not in his power to assist him; in consequence of which, Seckel refused to be his bail, and Reynolds was imprisoned.”
When deposed on this part of Clingman’s testimony, Seckel told a different story—one in which Clingman came to him to post bail, which, knowing Clingman’s character, he refused to do without a substantial security deposit. Clingman promised to raise the money and was released. When later he “failed to make the said deposit, according to his promise,” Seckel obtained from Alderman Baker a warrant for Clingman’s arrest.
After being detained, Clingman again urged Seckel to become his bail—a request the merchant declined. Clingman then asked Seckel “to go and bring to him one James Reynolds” from whom Seckel “understood the said Clingman expected to obtain assistance towards his release from Custody.” Seckel brought Reynolds to Alderman Baker’s house and he, too, was arrested, whereupon Reynolds asked Seckel “to carry a letter for him to Alexander Hamilton.”
Here Clingman weaves more truth into his tapestry of lies. When Seckel delivered the note, Hamilton did mention knowing Reynolds’s father in the war (undoubtedly to explain why Reynolds had applied to him for bail) “and would be willing to serve the said James, if he could with propriety, but that it was not consistent with the duty of his office to do what Reynolds now requested; and also mentioned to this Deponent that Reynolds and Clingman had been doing something very bad and advised this Deponent to have nothing to do with them lest he might bring himself into trouble. And this Deponent further saith [sic] that he never had any conversation or communication whatever with the said Alexander Hamilton respecting the said Reynolds or Clingman till the time of carrying the said letter.”
Four years later, after the affair was made public, Hamilton wrote, “This alone is sufficient to discredit the whole story—shewing the disregard of truth and malice against me by which the parties were actuated. It is evident also from this transaction that I manifested the reverse of a disposition to skreen them from prosecution. Instead of encouraging Mr. Seckel to become their bail I advised him to have nothing to do with them as being bad and dangerous men.”
Hamilton’s statement agrees with Seckel’s, while Clingman assigns part of his own experience with Seckel to Reynolds. He then adds the unverifiable story of Reynolds sending a note “via a girl” to Hamilton to add to the appearance of his mark’s guilt.
But Clingman wasn’t the only one to perjure himself. Remember that Monroe, Muhlenberg, and Venable corroborated his story through their alleged interviews with the Reynoldses. That they all were in collusion would explain why neither of the Reynoldses was ever deposed in the case—and why the Reynoldses absconded as soon as James was released from jail. We have only James Monroe’s word that Reynolds missed their appointment the morning of Dec. 13. It seems far more likely Reynolds was there, waiting to collect the hush money promised by Monroe and Venable during their jailhouse visit.
Reynolds was, after all, a notorious braggart who, with a word in the wrong ear, could ruin the scheme they’d so painstakingly orchestrated just as they were springing the trap.
It also seems a little too convenient that Clingman and Monroe gave their sworn statements only after James and Maria were out of the way.
“As to the disappearance of the parties,” wrote Hamilton, “how am I responsible for it? Is it probable that the instance discovered was the only offence of the kind of which these persons were guilty? [We now know it wasn’t.] Is it not on the contrary very probable that Reynolds fled to avoid detection and punishment in other cases? But exclusive of this, it is [a] matter of notoriety, and Mr. Mughlenberg [sic] himself may be appealed to for the fact that Reynolds was very much involved in debt. What more natural for him after having been exposed by confinement for a crime, to get out of the way of his creditors as fast as possible?”
Hamilton’s assertion about Reynolds’s problems with debt is substantiated by this notice appearing in the Poughkeepsie Journal on Oct. 3, 1787:
By order of the Hon. Elibu Marvin, Esq, one of the judges of the court of common Pleas, in the County of Orange, and State of New York, Notice is hereby given to the creditors of James Reynolds, an insolvent debtor, to show cause to the said Judge if any they have, at James Reynolds’s at New-Cornwall, on Thursday the 11th day of October next, at one o’clock in the afternoon, why an assignment of the said debtors’ estate should be made, and the said debtor discharged according to the form of an act of the legislature of the State of New York, entitled, “an act for the relief of insolvent debtors, passed 13th April 1786.
How or if Reynolds escaped imprisonment for his debts in 1786 isn’t known, but we do know the court order dropping the fraud charges against him and Clingman included the directive that Reynolds be remanded to debtor’s prison upon his release.
So, now that we know Jacob Clingman benefited from his testimony, changed his story over time, lied under oath, and had personal and political reasons “to hang Hamilton,” do we still believe him? Or that he was an innocent bystander in the scheme against Hamilton? If he was merely a witness to these events, why did he assume the role of spokesman after he and Reynolds were arrested?
There can only be one answer: Clingman, working for the Jefferson Cartel, used the Reynoldses to lure Hamilton into a trap to frame him for official wrongdoing. How else to explain why Monroe, Muhlenberg, and Venable backed up his lies?--Or how Maria Reynolds just happened to appear on Hamilton’s doorstep less than a month after his enemies met to plot his demise?
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.