In the study of history, a personal connection is often what draws us in to begin to explore a subject, place, or era. We might be interested in World War II after hearing grandpa’s war stories. We might begin to read about the Underground Railroad after discovering stations in our hometown.
Making a personal connection with the people we read about and study is a common impulse for history lovers. It helps make history come alive. This story isn’t about an ancestor, or a history connection to my home town, it’s about a woman with a more unique connection to me, one who shares my name.
I had decided to major in history long before I knew I had a historical namesake, but that detail was one of the first things I learned in college. During a meet and greet with the history department, I met a historian of antebellum America and introduced myself.
“Hello, Maria Reynolds, nice to meet you,” I offered.
He looked at me a little funny and said, “Maria Reynolds???”
“Yes?” I responded.
I wondered how I could have provided the wrong answer to the simplest of questions. Once he realized I wasn’t joking and I was entirely clueless, he explained: “Did you know Maria Reynolds was the name of Alexander Hamilton’s mistress?”
I did not, but I had discovered my historical namesake – my personal connection to history. Since I was named after the Julie Andrews character in The Sound of Music, I’m fairly certain my parents were not aware of the Maria Reynolds who preceded me, but I do not mind. If I had lived in the 1790s I might have minded. I mean, can you imagine coincidentally having the name Monica Lewinsky in 1990s?
I had not thought about Alexander Hamilton in some time, but I recently visited Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site in Albany where Philip Schuyler’s daughter Elizabeth married Alexander Hamilton in 1780. I felt empathetic toward Elizabeth Hamilton. Surely Maria Reynolds was at least partially responsible for severely damaging the reputation and political career of her husband.
I don’t’ think the story of Maria Reynolds and Alexander Hamilton is a story of star crossed lovers. In 1791, Hamilton met 23-year-old Maria Lewis Reynolds who told him that her husband had abandoned her and her daughter. He said he would bring her food and money later that evening. He did, and that’s when the affair began.
Reynolds had not been abandoned by her husband however, and some historians, in addition to Hamilton himself, have argued that the two conspired to blackmail Hamilton. James Reynolds threatened to go to the press unless Hamilton gave him money. The affair lasted two more years and Hamilton paid over $1,000 to James Reynolds to continue the affair without interference.
James Reynolds soon accused Hamilton of treasury misconduct which led to Hamilton admitting and apologizing for the affair (the lesser of the two evils) in a pamphlet he wrote and published. Hamilton proclaimed:
“The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination of the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.”
In what was one of the first political sex scandals in the United States, Hamilton admitted to the affair with surprising candor and published letters between himself and Maria in order to deny any treasury wrongdoing. He inexplicably provided many intimate details about the affair, which in the end greatly wounded his reputation. After the affair, Maria Reynolds receded into the annals of history, but we do know that she later divorced her then imprisoned husband and her divorce lawyer was none other than Aaron Burr, the man who would mortally wound Hamilton in a duel. Aaron Burr and Hamilton had been at odds for some time, but circumstances surrounding the 1804 New York gubernatorial race exacerbated the tensions.
Burr was running for governor and Hamilton actively campaigned against him and for his opponent, Morgan Lewis. Burr ended up losing the race to Lewis, the great-grandfather of Ruth Livingston Mills and original inhabitant of what is now the Staatburgh State Historic Site. Hamilton’s endorsement did not play a large role in the fact that Morgan Lewis won the race in a landslide, but it angered Burr nonetheless. After the race, the Albany Register published letters indicating Hamilton’s opposition to Burr and cited a dinner gathering where Hamilton had expressed a despicable opinion of Burr. Burr saw this as an attack on his honor and still stinging from his election loss, he challenged Hamilton to the duel that resulted in Hamilton’s death.
After the Reynolds affair, Hamilton never quite recovered his prior prominence and although Maria Reynolds became little more than a historical footnote, I still feel some connection to the woman due to our shared name and the way we both have a connection, albeit indirect, to Morgan Lewis. It is these fascinating connections that continue to draw me into learning more and more about history. At the very least, having the name Maria Reynolds allows me to pick out early American historians and Hamilton aficionados from the crowd because I can always spot their knowing look.
Photos from above: The 21st Century Maria Reynolds leads a tour at Staatsburgh; Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton; Alexander Hamilton; and an illustration of the Hamilton – Burr duel on July 11, 1804 in Weehawken, NJ along the Hudson.