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.
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.