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Eliza Hamilton & the Reynolds Affair: A Bold Theory in a New Biography

I never thought l'd have an opportunity to connect Hamilton and The Royal Tenenbaums, but thanks to the new biography of Eliza Hamilton by Tilar J. Mazzeo, I do.

To paraphrase Eli Cash: Well, everyone knows Alexander Hamilton had a torrid affair with Maria Reynolds (since he wrote it down RIGHT THERE!). What this book presupposes is… maybe he didn't?

Seriously. Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton—the first full-length non-historical fiction biography dedicated to her—makes a bold statement on the Reynolds affair and the fallout from the scandal.

What Mazzeo proposes is that Alexander was actually guilty of the financial impropriety of which he was accused, and to cover his tracks, he and Eliza agreed upon the story of his infidelity with Maria Reynolds.

Thus, one of the reasons Eliza burned so many letters is to destroy any written evidence of this cover-up. 

Mazzeo finds it hard to square all the previously established characteristics of Eliza's personality—"strong-minded, pragmatic, and independent"—with the behavior she exhibits after the Reynolds Pamphlet is published. If Eliza is such a strong woman, Mazzeo posits, why would she show such spectacular naivete and denial in defending Alexander's honor until her dying day?

As Mazzeo writes, "What if the piece of history that doesn't fit the puzzle of this life story is not Eliza but the publicly accepted story of Alexander's affair with Maria Reynolds?"

It's a compelling theory, which Mazzeo backs up with a number of ideas, including the fact that Maria always denied the affair and was prepared to do so under oath; that the veracity of the correspondence between Alexander and Maria was questioned in their lifetime; and that contemporary scholars see strong similarities in the Reynolds letters' syntax and spelling to those between the Hamiltons.

Likewise, some people swear up and down that there's evidence of an affair between Alexander and Angelica, pieces of information that have been suppressed or dismissed by other academics who don't see it as fitting their narrative.

And that's the kicker, and the thing that keeps us wondering and guessing after all these years. Will we ever know the true story of what happened? The competing narratives continue to swirl around our collective heads like the winds of a hurricane.

"First Burn" is a barn-burner of a song, and the idea of Hamilton's affairs—with Maria, Angelica, whoever—create excellent plot twists both in the musical and in the overall story of Hamilton's bigger-than-life life.

But with no one who was there left alive to confirm or refute the events—and would they even tell the truth anyway?—we're left to interpret the story as we see fit. They have no control, and honestly, how much do we have even with our hindsight?

Mazzeo finds a particularly relevant quote from the editors of the Hamilton Papers at the National Archives:

"In this respect historians, both past and present, are little better than Hamilton's contemporaries, for what they have been wont to call conclusions are in reality little more than acts of faith."

As for my personal opinion, I'm happy to leave it as an open-ended question. Maybe the affairs happened, maybe they didn't. Either way, it makes a hell of a story.

(Oh, and as for the biography as a whole, I recommend it as an easy, pleasurable read. At times it feels like it's verging on historical fiction, but as a counterpoint to the man-centric narratives of Chernow et al., it's nice to fill in some of those blanks from a female perspective.)