New York Times

October 4, 1998


Clinton Uses Founding Father's Travails
to Build Case


WASHINGTON -- President Clinton's lawyers reached back
this weekend to the travails of an American Founding Father to
argue that sexual misconduct is not an impeachable offense, citing
Alexander Hamilton in a memorandum released ahead of Monday's
House vote on whether to begin a formal impeachment inquiry.

Hamilton was secretary of the Treasury when three members of
Congress investigated him on charges of financial corruption in 1792-93.

The congressmen, including the first speaker of the House, Frederick
Muhlenberg of Pennsylvania, confronted Hamilton in his Treasury office
to ask about his dealings with a convicted swindler named James
Reynolds. Reynolds said Hamilton had given him Treasury money to
play the stock market.

Hamilton admitted giving money to Reynolds, but said the money was
his own and had been given for a different purpose. Hamilton said he
had committed adultery with Reynolds' wife, Maria, and had paid
Reynolds to hush up the affair.

Hamilton, one of the framers of the Constitution, "confessed to a tawdry
extramarital love affair to exculpate himself from the charge of colluding
with speculators," said Jeffrey Pasley, a historian at Florida State
University in Tallahassee.

The case shows the Founding Fathers' concern with public honor. For,
as Gail Collins writes in "Scorpion Tongues," a history of political gossip
(William Morrow, 1998), "Hamilton tried to acquit himself of charges of
corruption by proving that he was an adulterer."

"Hamilton," she wrote, "told his story privately to a delegation of
congressmen, going into far more detail than the startled legislators said
they required."

In a memorandum released on Friday, President Clinton's lawyers
asserted, "The members of Congress who heard Hamilton's confession
concluded that the matter was private, not public; that as a result no
impeachable offense had occurred, and that the entire matter should
remain secret."

Washington, Jefferson and Madison learned of the affair, but kept silent.
Thus, Clinton's lawyers say, "It is apparent from the Hamilton case that
the framers did not regard private sexual misconduct as creating an
impeachable offense."

But the affair came back to haunt Hamilton, just as Monica Lewinsky
haunts Clinton. In 1797, a journalistic purveyor of political dirt, James T.
Callender, published a pamphlet repeating the charge that Hamilton had
skimmed money from the Treasury to engage in speculative ventures
with Reynolds.

Hamilton published a lengthy rebuttal, describing his "irregular and
indelicate amour" in lurid detail.

"The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for
purposes of improper pecuniary speculation," Hamilton wrote. "My real
crime is an amorous connection with his wife."

An examination of Hamilton's case suggests several differences from the
impeachment debate surrounding Clinton.

First, Clinton's public apologies for an affair with Ms. Lewinsky and his
defense against possible impeachment proceedings do not completely
echo Hamilton's admission that he was a philanderer, not a crook.

Second, in an interview, Pasley said that the lawmakers who
investigated Hamilton "did not consider his case as setting a standard or
precedent for impeachment."

Third, Hamilton readily confessed his sexual misconduct to members of
Congress and then revealed it to the world in a lengthy pamphlet, while
Clinton's account has been slowly extracted by federal investigators
relentlessly pursuing evidence of his indiscretions.

In 1797, as in 1998, juicy accusations against a public official were often
leaked to the press. Hamilton was a leader of the Federalist Party.
Callender apparently got his information from John Beckley, the first
clerk of the House of Representatives, who had been dismissed from his
position after Federalists won control of the House in 1796.

Copyright 1998 The New York Times Company

Click here for the section of my article, "'A Journeyman, Either in Law or Politics': John Beckley and the Social Origins of Political Campaigning," that led to this interview.