"How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a
Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten
Spot in the Caribbean by Providence, impoverished, in squalor
Grow up to be a hero and a scholar?
The ten-dollar Founding Father without a father
Got a lot farther by workin' a lot harder
By bein' a lot smarter
By bein' a self-starter."
It’s been a bad season for sexual predators. Harvey Weinstein. Kevin Spacey. Roy Moore. Roy Price. Charlie Rose. Michael Oreskes. Matt Zimmerman. John Besh. Glenn Thrush. Al Franken. Louis C.K. Oliver Stone. Mark Halperin. Glenn Thrush. Matthew Zimmerman. John Lasseter. Andrew Kriesberg. Steven Seagal. Lockhart Steele. Brett Ratner. Hamilton Fish. Leon Wieseltier. Chris Savino. Michael Oreskes. James Toback. Bob Filmer. John Conyers. I can’t remember the others.
The bar of intolerance has never been tripped over so often. But it’s been tripped over for a long time. Centuries before Bill Clinton asked a 22-year-old intern to try his cigar in the Oval Office, and generations before Jack Kennedy initiated a 19-year-old intern in Jackie Kennedy’s bedroom, Alexander Hamilton admitted to an affair with the 23-year-old wife of a pimp. As Eliza, his unflaggingly loyal wife, carried their fifth child at her parents’ house in upstate New York, Alexander bedded the practically illiterate Maria Reynolds on Fourth Street in Philly. Cash was extorted, disclosures were threatened. And in the end, the Secretary of the Treasury confessed. “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.”
Hamilton, like plenty of his contemporaries, had Old World connections. His father, James Hamilton, was the younger son of a Scottish laird; his wife’s sister, Angelica Church, was married to a fabulously wealthy British MP; the clients in his New York law practice included a long list of British loyalists; and a persistent rumor had him plan to make a son of George III the first American king. It was never a secret that Hamilton had plenty of Old World ambitions. He fought to establish a strong federal government (“Let the executive be for life!” he once blurted out), federal taxes, a federal army (“Whenever the government appears in arms, it ought to appear like a Hercules and inspire respect,” he wrote), and a strong federal bank.
Hamilton’s Old World affinities were well known. Thomas Jefferson, his lifelong nemesis, once quoted his conversation with George Washington: “The Constitution was a shilly-shally thing of mere milk and water, which could not last and was only good as a step to something better.” And James Madison quoted this unabashed message to the Constitutional Convention. “In his private opinion he had no scruple in declaring, supported as he was by the opinions of so many of the wise & good, that the British Govt was the best in the world: and that he doubted much whether any thing short of it would do in America.”
But a few of his Old World infidelities got in Hamilton’s way. Over the course of his short but spectacular 49-year life, the Secretary of the Treasury was blasted for his “liquorish flirtations” with married women; he was branded as an “insatiable libertine” by unfriendly factions; John Adams, who hated him, referred to his indelicate pleasures and debauched morals: “His ambition, his restlessness and all his grandiose schemes come, I’m convinced, from a superabundance of secretions which he could not find whores enough to draw off;” and James Callender, who hated everybody, was convinced that the Maria Reynolds affair was a drop in the bucket. “The accusation of an illicit amour, though sounded in notes louder than the last trumpet, could not have defamed the conjugal fidelity of Mr Hamilton. It would only have been holding a farthing candle to the sun. On that point, the world had previously fixed its opinion.”
The bar of intolerance had never been set so low. Roughly a hundred years before Alexander Hamilton, Charles II, the Scottish king of England, had affairs with whole bunches of his courtiers, and unapologetically covered the British countryside with bastards. And roughly a millennium and a half before Charles II, when the Romans invaded Scotland, Flavian emperors swam with the vulgarest of prostitutes, solicited the wives of their subjects, and committed incest—and nobody seemed to care.
The good news is: The bar is even lower now. 250 years into the American experiment, we are rightly disgusted when a public figure gropes us in public. We've come a long way since Bill Clinton, Jack Kennedy and Alexander Hamilton.
“Well he’s never gon’ be President now.”
Chernow, Ron. 2004. Alexander Hamilton. Penguin.
Madison, James. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Norton.