The Reynolds Pamphlet, explained: Why Alexander Hamilton printed his sex scandal’s details

A statue of Alexander Hamilton. Stan Honda / AFP / Getty

Every Sunday, Javier Muñoz takes to Broadway to portray the titular character in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash-hit musical Hamilton. But there’s one burning question he still has about his character’s motivations.

«Dude,» he told Vulture in November, «WHY the Reynolds Pamphlet? What were you thinking? What were you thinking?»

Muñoz is referring, of course, to Alexander Hamilton’s mid-1797 decision to publish an excruciatingly detailed, rambling confession of his extramarital affair with the married Maria Reynolds — a confession that became known as the Reynolds pamphlet, and which may have been the first national sex scandal in U.S. politics.

It’s a key turning point in Miranda’s musical. In his telling, this is a disastrous mistake that humiliates Hamilton’s family and ends his political career. «Well, he’s never gon’ be president now,» Hamilton’s political rivals mockingly sing, as they throw copies of the pamphlet in his face. Furthermore, it’s a mistake that seems to be self-inflicted — no one forces him to publish it.

So why did he do it? Well, Hamilton’s decision to publish the pamphlet was indeed a bizarre move and probably a mistake. But there are several pieces of historical context left out of the musical that make his decision at least a bit less inexplicable. Here’s what they are (and here are the songs from Hamilton you can play to follow along)

The background: There’s nothing like summer in the city

In the summer of 1791, Alexander Hamilton — a little less than two years into his tenure as the United States’ first-ever Treasury Secretary — was approached by the 23-year old Maria Reynolds, who asked him for help. According to Hamilton’s later account, she said her husband was treating her «cruelly» and asked him for money. (This is all dramatized pretty faithfully in «Say No to This.»)

«There seems little question that she approached Hamilton as part of an extortion racket, delivering an adept performance as a despairing woman» at her husband’s behest, Ron Chernow concludes in his biography Alexander Hamilton. And, in what Chernow calls «one of history’s most mystifying cases of bad judgment,» Hamilton began an affair with her — one he’d continue for about a year. This included several months after Reynolds’s husband James «discovered» the affair and demanded payments from Hamilton for his silence.

By the closing months of 1792, Hamilton had finally ended the affair and stopped the payments — but then, James Reynolds was arrested for unrelated fraud charges. While trying to escape a prison sentence, Reynolds let it be known that he had some serious dirt on Hamilton, and hinted that they had secretly engaged in crooked financial speculation together (which seems to have been a lie). Word eventually got around to some of Hamilton’s political enemies, who met with Reynolds in prison, heard his accusations, and got their hands on some damaging-looking documents.

So in December 1792, three leading Republicans — a former Speaker of the House, a congressman, and then-senator and future president James Monroe — confronted Hamilton. The Treasury Secretary explained in what Chernow calls «agonizing detail» that, no, he hadn’t been crookedly speculating… he was just being blackmailed about the affair he’d had! (This confrontation is stylized in the musical’s song «We Know,» though Miranda replaces the real-life trio with the higher-profile figures of Jefferson, Madison, and Burr.) Believe it or not, it mostly seemed to work — they seemed to find Hamilton’s explanation and the documents he provided convincing, and agreed to keep things quiet.

But rumors only grew — until the details spilled into print

About five years later, in June 1797, John Adams was the new president and, for the time being, Hamilton was out of government. So it came as a bit of a surprise when a shady and unscrupulous Republican newspaperman, James Callender, suddenly announced that he’d write an expose of the «truth» about Hamilton’s tenure as Treasury Secretary — and revealed that he had somehow gotten his hands on the Reynolds documents. (Hamilton blamed future president James Monroe for letting the documents get out, in violation of his promise of secrecy, and would nearly fight a duel with him over the matter.) In print, Callender accused Hamilton of both financial corruption and sexual scandal.

This is some important context to Hamilton’s decision to go public that’s absent from the musical: the accusations were already out there. So his decision was not out of the blue but was instead about whether and how to respond to public attacks, which makes the Reynolds Pamphlet disaster seem somewhat less self-inflicted.

Furthermore, by being honest about the affair, Hamilton hoped to fend off those financial corruption charges — which do seem to have been completely made up by James Reynolds and which would have been far more damaging to Hamilton’s career if they were believed.

So, he decided — as he did five years ago — to try to set the record straight, and to try to «drown his accusers with words,» as Chernow writes. What came to be known as the Reynolds Pamphlet was Hamilton’s 37-page first person chronicle of the affair, plus 58 more pages of supplementary documents. In it, he admitted to sexual wrongdoing but vociferously argued that he hadn’t engaged in any financial corruption .Miranda quotes some lines directly from the real Reynolds Pamphlet in the musical, including «my real crime was an amorous connection with his wife,» and, «I had frequent meetings with her, most of them at my own house.»

And yet… the Reynolds Pamphlet actually didn’t end Hamilton’s career

The publication of the Reynolds Pamphlet would seem to be a humiliating, career-ending disaster — and Miranda portrays it that way. Yet, in Chernow’s telling, while the scandal was certainly embarrassing for Hamilton, it «diminished but scarcely destroyed his political stature.»

Indeed, Hamilton continued to basically run John Adams’s Cabinet (staffed by holdovers from the Washington administration) from afar without the president’s knowledge for several more years, and the very next year after the pamphlet’s publication he was named the number two general in the country’s new provisional army (serving under George Washington).

What really did ruin Hamilton’s career was an entirely different pamphlet — the Adams Pamphlet. By 1800 the long-simmering feud between Adams and Hamilton had boiled over, leading Adams to purge his Cabinet because he thought his secretaries were too beholden to Hamilton. Never one to take an attack lying down, Hamilton wrote a lengthy and personal attack on his own party’s sitting president, using inside information he gleaned from those Cabinet secretaries to make Adams look bad, and published it just before the election of 1800.

«Doubtless Hamilton thought that he could pick up the pieces of a shattered Federalist party,» Chernow writes. «What he overlooked was that in trying to wreck Adams’s career, he would wreck his own and that the Federalists would never be resurrected from the ashes.» Adams lost the election and the country entered a new era of Republican governance. Hamilton would die long before that era ended, and wouldn’t return to power in the remaining four years of his life.

USA. New York City. 1983. A dog in costume with a cigar at the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue.

USA. New York City. 1983. A dog in costume with a cigar at the Easter Parade on Fifth Avenue.