Cops have a saying: If someone’s story doesn’t make sense, it probably isn’t true. Keep that in mind while reading this archivist’s note on the controversial affair between Alexander Hamilton and Maria Reynolds in the National Archives: Despite the most rigorous scholarship and the best intentions, historians have been forced to leave the ‘Reynolds Affair’ in essentially the same enigmatic state in which they have found it.
Scholars find it difficult to make sense of the Reynolds Affair because they approach it like academics. If they studied the evidence like detectives or journalists, they’d know not to trust the key witness’s story before running him through the vetting process.
When determining if a potential witness’s statements will hold up in court, investigators run a background check to help them answer these three questions: 1) Does this person stand to benefit from his testimony? 2) Has the witness’s story remained consistent over time? 3) Does the person have a reason to either deceive investigators, frame the person they’re testifying against, or any other conflict of interest that might undermine their credibility?
In the case of Jacob Clingman, the key witness in the investigation into the affair led by James Monroe, the answer to the first question is “yes.” Clingman volunteered testimony that would “hang Hamilton” to escape prosecution for fraud and suborning perjury (it was not, incidentally, his first offense). Clingman, therefore, fails the first test in the vetting process.
Now, for the second test: Did Clingman’s story change over time? The answer again is “yes.” At first, he named William Duer as his source inside the Treasury Department, but gave up a different name in the end. That person is now believed to be Simeon Reynolds, who worked from 1791 to 1792 in the office of the register of the Treasury.
But if Simeon Reynolds, a clerk in the Treasury Department in 1791 and 1792, really was the leak, how did Clingman come by the intelligence he used to perpetrate his frauds against veterans in New York in 1793? And from whom did Reynolds get the list of government arrears and warrants before the Treasury Department moved to Philadelphia in 1791?
The most probable candidate is Andrew G. Fraunces, who worked for the Treasury Department from 1789 to 1793 and was friendly with both Clingman and Reynolds.
So, benefitted from his testimony and changed his story. Did he also have a motive to make Hamilton look guilty of speculating? He had two, actually, as his background check revealed.
The first was his connection to John Beckley, a fellow clerk in the speaker’s office. Beckley was the chief underground operative in the plot against Hamilton hatched at a secret meeting between Jefferson, Madison, Burr, and Robert R. Livingston in early summer, 1791. Clingman and Beckley were known to socialize together, frequently with James T. Callender, one of the muckrakers on Jefferson’s payroll.
But Clingman also had personal reasons to want Hamilton destroyed, as we see in the following excerpt from Profiles of Patriots: A Biographical Reference of American Revolutionary War Patriots and Their Descendants, Vol. II, which was published in 2016 by DAR’s Williamsburg Chapter:
For years, John Michael Clingman engaged in merchant-banking in Philadelphia. In a bitter political fight with Alexander Hamilton, John Michael Clingman and other bankers were defeated. Being prosecuted and proscribed against by Hamilton, Clingman left his family in Northumberland County and fled alone to the Ohio Wilderness.
John Michael Clingman was Jacob’s father, who, judging by the above, belonged to William Duer’s secret circle of bankers and speculators known as the Six Percent Club. All of them were ruined when Hamilton cracked down on “knaves and gamblers” in the securities market in 1792.
So Jacob Clingman did have reasons to frame Hamilton, making him zero for three on the credibility scale. Clingman is, therefore, a patently unreliable witness no detective, defense attorney, or journalist would believe for a second.
And yet, scholars continue to base their studies and descriptions of the Reynolds Affair on his claims. Let us hope that, after learning the truth about Clingman, they see his testimony for what it was: a contrived deception in the larger Jeffersonian plot to rid the world of Alexander Hamilton.
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.