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Monday, November 19, 2012

Petraeus, Scandal, and History

The current scandal involving former CIA director David Petraeus and General John Allen is not exactly unprecedented. When he was serving as the first Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton had an affair with a married woman named Maria Reynolds.  Her husband was a con man who threatened Hamilton.  PBS picks up the story:
Hamilton eventually paid Reynolds more than $1,000 to continue the affair without interference. But then Mr. Reynolds began to tell others that Hamilton was providing him with inside tips about government securities. When a group of congressman accused Hamilton of corruption, he revealed the truth of the romantic affair by sharing his love letters with his accusers.
In 1797 Hamilton's letters were published in a pamphlet by newspaperman James Thomson Callender. In the pages of the pamphlet, he reiterated corruption charges against Hamilton. Hamilton responded with a pamphlet of his own, in which he asserted that no financial improprieties occurred. With candor seldom shown by politicians of his day, or of any other since, Hamilton confessed his affair with Maria Reynolds and apologized.

While some undoubtedly appreciated Hamilton's candor, the disclosure of his affair with Reynolds severely damaged his reputation. It may have even cost him the presidency, a prize Hamilton felt he deserved. Although Hamilton would rise again, his power would never be so great as it had been before the affair.
Here is an excerpt from Hamilton's pamphlet, titled "Observations on Certain Documents":
I owe perhaps to my friends an apology for condescending to give a public explanation. A just pride with reluctance stoops to a formal vindication against so despicable a contrivance, and is inclined rather to oppose to it the uniform evidence of an upright character. This would be my conduct on the present occasion, did not the tale seem to derive a sanction from the names of three men of some weight and consequence in the society; a circumstance which I trust will excuse me for paying attention to a slander that, without this prop, would defeat itself by intrinsic circumstances of absurdity and malice.
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 for a considerable time, with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.
This confession is not made without a blush. I cannot be the apologist of any vice because the ardor of passion may have made it mine. I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang which it may inflict in a bosom eminently entitled to all my gratitude, fidelity, and love. But that bosom will approve, that, even at so great an expense, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public, too, will, I trust, excuse the confession. The necessity of it to my defence against a more heinous charge could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum.