An American Sex Scandal: Hamilton and Clinton

Two scandals 201 years apart. Two scandals that impacted America and her government in ways we still feel. This is the story of Alexander Hamilton and Bill Clinton, two men whose affairs threw them in very different directions. One saw his political career and hopes for the Presidency dashed. The other left the Presidency on a high and remains, questionably, somewhat of a feminist icon.

The Players

Alexander Hamilton: The illegitimate son of a minor Scottish noble and a woman in the Caribbean, Hamilton had arrived in America at a young age. After fighting in the Revolution, he became close to George Washington and soon became his Treasury Secretary. A controversial proponent of a central banking system, Hamilton is one of the most influential people to never be President. He was close to Washington, but was an enemy to many, including John Adams and Thomas Jefferson.

Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler in 1780. Eliza, as she was often known, was the daughter of the hugely wealthy and influential Philip Schuyler of New York. This marriage allowed Hamilton entry into a society that would usually eschew him. At the time of the scandal’s unearthing, the pair had six children and would later have two more.

Bill Clinton: Born into a working class home in Arkansas as William Blythe, Clinton lost his father before he was even born. He took his step-father’s surname. After attending Georgetown, Oxford and Yale, Clinton entered politics. He served as Governor of Arkansas in several non-consecutive terms. After years in the political wilderness for the Democrats, Clinton beat incumbent George H. W. Bush in the 1992 election.

Clinton married Hillary Rodham in 1975. The pair had met at Yale Law School. Hillary was even more political than her husband, and was seen as his key backer. They had one child, Chelsea, born in 1980.

Maria Reynolds: Pronounced “Mariah”, she was born Maria Lewis to a moderately well-off family. Like nearly all women of the time, she was a wife and mother with no outside career. She’d married at 15 to a man, James Reynolds, who was much older than herself. The marriage was unhappy, as Reynolds was possessive of his beautiful young wife and treated her poorly.

Monica Lewinsky: The daughter of a doctor and writer couple, Lewinsky was relatively affluent. She secured an unpaid White House internship in June 1995, before becoming a paid worker in December of that year.

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton: A daughter in a hugely influential New York family, Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton was known as a rambunctious tomboy who was also uncommonly kind and strong-willed. Eliza met Alexander Hamilton in New Jersey while staying with an aunt. They married in 1780, the same year that they met. Eliza was not political like her vivacious older sister Angelica Schuyler Church, but was a great supporter of her husband. She had six children, later eight, though she did sadly miscarry one child. 

Hillary Rodham Clinton: The daughter of a middle-class, Republican family from Illinois, Hillary was outspoken and academic even at a young age. After graduating from Wellesley College, she attended Yale Law, where she met future husband Bill Clinton. Hillary worked as a lawyer whilst being First Lady of Arkansas, though her choice to retain her maiden name helped her husband lose re-election. As First Lady, Hillary was rather powerful and the pair were seen as a two-for-one combo. In a famous 1995 speech, she declared that ‘human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.’

The Affairs and their Beginnings

Hamilton & Reynolds: At the time of the affair, Alexander Hamilton was serving as the first-ever Treasury Secretary under George Washington. A finance wonk, Hamilton was a workaholic who often stayed home when his family went on vacation. When staying in Philadelphia, he was met by young wife Maria Reynolds. She begged for help, as her husband had basically abandoned her and their child. Hamilton visited the boarding house to give Reynolds money, but the two had intercourse. For several more months, Maria and Hamilton continued an affair.

Maria’s husband James was not unaware of the affair and even encouraged it in order to get power, though Hamilton refused him a treasury job. Instead of duelling Hamilton, Reynolds decided to extort him for large sums of money. Maria continued to seduce Hamilton, though she did warn him of her husband’s wrath. The affair ended when Reynolds told Hamilton’s enemies of the truth and Maria divorced him.

Clinton & Lewinsky: Monica Lewinsky was working at the White House in 1995 when she first started a liaison with Bill Clinton. The pair had sex nine times, including oral in the Oval Office. Like Hamilton, Clinton was a known womaniser and had already been accused of harassment and adultery before. Even after Lewinsky was transferred to the Pentagon, she and Clinton continued contact. Her superiors had transferred her as they worried she was too close to the President. 

Exposure

Hamilton & Reynolds: In 1795, Hamilton’s political enemies, including James Monroe, were tipped off by Reynolds. They confronted him over financial improprieties out of the belief that he was guilty of embezzlement. In order to prove his innocence, Hamilton told them of the affair. 

All seemed well until 1797, when the affair became public following a journalist’s pamphlet. Hamilton accused Monroe of the leak, unaware that he’d sent the letters to Thomas Jefferson. It is unknown who actually leaked it to the press, though Jefferson is the likeliest contender due to the animosity between them. In order to get over his side of events, Hamilton published a length ‘Reynolds Pamphlet,’ giving the full details.

Clinton & Lewinsky: At the Pentagon, Lewinsky befriended colleague Linda Tripp. She confided in Tripp about the affair, who then secretly recorded their conversations. After Lewinsky submitted an affidavit in the Paula Jones case (Jones accused Clinton of sexual harassment in 1991), Tripp brought the tapes to Kenneth Starr. Starr was already investigating the Whitewater controversy surrounding Clinton’s business holdings, and added this to his evidence. Lewinsky also saved the gifts that she’d received, as well as the infamous blue dress with the semen sample. 

Clinton denied the affair under oath. Unfortunately for him, the Drudge Report broke the story in early 1998. The story spread to mainstream news outlets and led to Bill Clinton’s famous denial. Eventually, Clinton admitted to both his wife and the nation that he’d had an affair with Lewinsky.

The Fallout

Hamilton & Reynolds: Hamilton’s ambitions of running for President were completely dashed. While affairs were commonplace at the time, it was believed that being open about it was disrespectful to one’s wife. Many thought of him as a scoundrel and a liar, as his political opponents danced around the room.

His wife Eliza, who’d just given birth to another son, was at the centre of it all too. An extremely well-regarded woman, many were horrified for her. Unfortunately, her reaction is lost to the history books, as she burned all their letters. Divorce was not an easy option back then and Eliza still loved her husband, even if he cheated.

Clinton & Lewinsky: Hillary Clinton was furious at Bill, especially as he’d denied the affair to her until later on. That was the least of the President’s worries anyway. The Republican house, led by Newt Gingrich, used Clinton’s initial denial as proof of wrongdoing. Clinton was only the second president to have impeachment brought against him, the charges being perjury and obstruction of justice.

While the House voted mainly on party lines to impeach him, he was saved by the Senate and its two-thirds majority ruling. Clinton was fined and disbarred for several years though. We do not know what went on behind closed doors, but he and Hillary seemed to reconcile.

The Aftermath

Alexander Hamilton: Whilst Hamilton remained active in politics, he was no longer an active politician. A daughter named Eliza was born in 1799, and Eliza Schuyler Hamilton was pregnant once again two years later. Sadly, their first child and oldest son Philip Hamilton died in a duel in 1801. Their final child Philip was named for his deceased older brother. 

Hamilton was instrumental in the 1800 election, by encouraging delegates to side with Thomas Jefferson over old friend Aaron Burr. Whilst Hamilton despised Jefferson and his views, he did ultimately believe that he would be a better president. This spilled over to 1804, when Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. Hamilton had helped Burr’s rival win Governor of New York, about which the latter was furious.

The two met on the 11th July 1804 in New Jersey. It is widely believed that Hamilton was intending to throw away his shot, as he was concerned what would happen to his family. Burr believed that Hamilton was aiming to kill, as he’d worn his glasses. Whilst Hamilton’s shot missed Burr, Burr managed to hit Hamilton in the stomach. Hamilton was rushed across the river to his friend’s boarding house. The surgeon- who’d treated Philip Hamilton- could do nothing. Eliza and the children, along with other family members and friends, visited his bedside. On the afternoon of 12th July, Hamilton died.

Bill Clinton: Clinton survived the impeachment but did not run for another term due to the 22nd Amendment. He was still popular with the public and left office with a respectable 66% approval rating, higher than most of his predecessors. His Vice President Al Gore captured the Democratic nomination but decided to distance himself from Clinton until the end- some think that this was an unwise move that cost Gore 2000. Clinton has mainly been a behind the scenes player as his wife takes centre stage, but has been involved in many humanitarian projects. Recent changes in society have people questioning Clinton’s role in the Lewinsky scandal, as we’ll touch on later.

Had Hillary won 2016, Clinton would have been the inaugural First Gentleman. 

Maria Reynolds: Reynolds had remarried to a man named Jacob Clinghman when the affair came to light, though the divorce from this husband is lost to history. She had been forced to move abroad with Clingman after The Reynolds Pamphlet was released but returned without him. 

Reynolds finally received respectability when she married the doctor she’d been housekeeper for in Philadelphia. She joined the church and cared for her grandchildren before her death just close to her 60th birthday. 

Monica Lewinsky: Lewinsky became a punching bag in pop culture for many years and was disavowed by many feminists. One such example is the NYT op-Ed by Gloria Steinem, which was not kind to Lewinsky. Lewinsky undertook a range of ventures, including reality TV and a handbag range. Eventually, she left the spotlight for a time by heading to London to do a Masters. 

Lewinsky has since become an anti-bullying advocate and speaker. Since #MeToo, people have now come to understand that Lewinsky was a young woman taken advantage of by a powerful boss. She’s received apologies and regret from those who bullied her, including Steinem.

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton: The years following The Reynolds Pamphlet were hard for Eliza. She lost her younger sister Peggy to illness and her son Philip in a duel in 1801. In 1804, she lost her father to old age and her husband to a duel within days of one another. After Philip’s death, his sister Angelica suffered from a mental breakdown and was never mentally well again. 

Eliza spent the next fifty years of her life dedicated to preserving her husband’s legacy and rebuilding his reputation. When former President James Monroe, an enemy of Hamilton, and his security detail visited Eliza to make amends years later, she told them to leave. She was also active in philanthropy and helped found the first private orphanage in New York City. 

Hillary Clinton: Hillary probably had the most illustrious post-scandal career after the affair. In 2000, she was elected Senator, representing New York. After eight notable years in the chamber, Hillary ran for President. She was a clear favourite but eventually lost to the charismatic Illinois Senator Barack Obama. In his first term, she served as Secretary of State, not without controversy.

In 2012, Clinton left the role to enjoy private life for the first time in decades. Come 2015 and the inevitable happened- she ran for President. She was the clear leader in the Democratic primary, but still received a strong challenge from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. Upon winning the nomination, Hillary was expected to steamroll Republican nominee Donald Trump. While she won the popular vote, she lost the electoral college and thus Trump took the White House. Since then, she’s focused on writing and speaking tours. 

She said she wasn’t a Tammy Wynette, but she did stand by her man after all

The Effect on America: Hamilton and Clinton both proved that our politicians are indeed infallible. Since America was new in 1795, Hamilton provided the first major American sex and government scandal. As adultery was common for men back then, it did not raise the issue of women’s rights, even though many felt he’d wronged Eliza. She would have been perfectly within her rights to divorce him, but it would still have been fairly taboo for her. 

When Clinton cheated, things had changed. Adultery was no longer a scandal, but was less expected than it had been two hundred years prior. Clinton had shown himself as somewhat of a feminist president, despite the affairs he’d previously been accused of. Hillary still received sympathy, but not as much as Eliza due to her controversial nature.

The Lewinsky scandal was also a breaking point for feminism. Whilst America had moved on when the 90s arrived, it clearly hadn’t done enough. Lewinsky was vilified more than Clinton was- she may have been one half of the affair, but she was not the older, married one. Liberal and conservatives alike mocked her despite believing they had the higher ground. Feminists castigated her. Years later, these people are now seeing what they’ve said or done is wrong.

Sex scandals have happened both before and since both men. They won’t stop, but they also won’t be as groundbreaking.

Sarah Stook is a freelance writer with a great interest in US politics. Her area of interest is the Republican Party, presidential elections and how campaigns are conducted. You can follow her on Twitter at @sarah_stook.

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