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.