Perils of Posterity: Alexander Hamilton and a Sex Scandal: Doug Ambrose at TEDxBeaconStreet (Transcript)

We are in an Alexander Hamilton moment. Not only do we have the musical that you all – I hope, have heard of. That little showdown in New York. But to show that we are really in that moment, he has a bobblehead. And I didn’t even bring this, this was hanging out in the green room, so he is everywhere. But I want to talk about an episode from Hamilton’s life that is at the center of the musical. And one that many of you have heard about, which is this first great sex scandal in American history, – the Reynolds affair.

And what I am fascinated by, about the Reynolds affair, is the way in which it sort of works on two levels that we as historians or students of history, or people who want to think historically work with. First, is the universal transhistorical way in which, just basic human emotions and actions, allow us to sort of meet people from the past in a very intimate, familiar way. This doesn’t need any historical context. This is Maria Reynolds on the left, and that’s Alexander Hamilton — Lin Manuel Miranda portraying Alexander Hamilton. Here it is.

This is the lust, the betrayal, the heartbreak of Eliza. And if you know the musical, she sings this beautiful song called “Burn”, where she talks about he broke her heart, he broke her heart. And again, this is something where we just empathize without even thinking. There’s the person done wrong, there’s the man who broke his vows. There’s the spouse who strayed.

That doesn’t require us to think historically. It allows, it requires us to think as human beings. Right? That we empathize with this tragic thing. This, which is the Reynolds Pamphlet. It’s not called the Reynolds Pamphlet, but Observation of Certain Documents. This requires to exercise our historical imagination.

And there’s nothing, someways, more difficult to do because one thing is that when we encounter people from the past, even from the recent past, since this is only a couple hundred years ago, they baffled us. Had they behaved in ways that don’t seem logical to us. They proceed upon assumptions, and pre-perception, and world view, and beliefs, and fears, that are foreign to us. And it’s what we need to do, students of history, is imagine a different world that is operating on different principles. And that’s what this is about, because this bizarre thing, this pamphlet.

Just to show you, I brought one of the originals with me from the Hamilton’s special collection. This is from 1797. This is given to Hamilton college by one of the direct descendants of Alexander Hamilton. Please don’t spill your coffee on it. When I was given it to by the special collections guy, he said, this is your job on the line. This is, this is the pamphlet.

But look, it’s a long pamphlet. He wrote the seventy-two page pamphlet to refute these charges. That he was. The charge of speculation. Again, it’s Alexander Hamilton when he was secretary of treasury. Now one of these things bizarre about this is this was 1797. He’s no longer secretary of treasury, he’s not seeking political office. He’s a private individual in New York, and these were old charges that back when he was secretary of treasury, he had colluded with this guy called James Reynolds, and he had used his position as secretary of treasury to sort of enrich himself. Alright? These charges had been investigated.

In other words, most of his friends said, “just leave it alone, leave it alone”, and instead he writes a seventy-page pamphlet in which he publicly humiliates his wife, in which he basically informs his wife that he had conducted this wrong affair with this woman, Maria Reynolds, while she was actually pregnant with one of their children, and he sent her back up to Albany. It’s a incredibly tragic story, and we have to ask ourselves, why did he do this? The answer, at least I think one of the main answers, because God knows there could have been a lot, one of them is that Hamilton and Eliza, this is what’s interesting is that, she shared with him this – what she calls, Eliza calls it in the song “obsession with his legacy.” That he was concerned with how posterity, not his contemporaries so much, but how posterity, us, future generations were going to remember him. And what he couldn’t abide by, what he couldn’t live with was the notion that anybody in this room would think that he had used his public office for his own personal enrichment.

That he would have taken that public trust and violated it in this vulgar way to enrich himself. So what he do instead, “All I did was have an affair, and got blackmailed for it, right? That’s what I did. But I didn’t abuse the public trust. I have to do this because I have to make sure that future generations know what I was about, and this is something that again, is a historically specific kind of idea. Hamilton once said. Look at this, he lives in an age in which the belief in a heavenly reward, that one lives one’s life to achieve a heavenly reward. It’s losing its hold on a lot of people Hamilton being one of them. Right? He was not a very serious religious man until later in his life, especially after the death of his son, Philip.

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