"They All Do
Even the Founding Fathers?
By Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. This article is adapted from his column, distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.
Bill Clinton's defenders, tired of digging up skeletons in
Henry Hyde's closet, and Dan Burton's, and trying to get
something juicy on Kenneth Starr, and badmouthing every
Republican in sight, have now started in on Federalists, too.
Yep, not content to badmouth every American president they possibly can, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Dwight David Eisenhower, Clinton apologists have dug up the Reynolds affair -- a little-known scandal involving founding father and first Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. It's part of their now familiar They All Do It defense.
The president's legal team has formally informed the House Judiciary Committee that Col. Hamilton had his dalliance, too, and Congress found no impeachable offense involved. So why pick on Bill Clinton?
The president's lawyers felt no need to go into detail, but somebody should, if only out of respect for the long dead. Because this argument isn't so much a historical analogy as a historical desecration.
Here's a difference or two that needs to be pointed out when the president's legal team tries to equate Alexander Hamilton's case with Bill Clinton's:
Hamilton's relationship with a certain Mrs. Reynolds was fully explained at the time -- by Hamilton himself. He did not lie about it, let alone to the whole nation. He did not have others repeat his lies. He did not transform Cabinet officers, aides, secretaries and pretty much the entire top layer of an administration into a chorus of liars, witting or unwitting. When confronted, he admitted the affair and so never had to testify under oath. And there was certainly never any suspicion, let alone evidence, that he had perjured himself, obstructed justice, tampered with witnesses or played any other little games with the law or the trust of the American people.
But, yes, except for those minor details, the story of Col. Hamilton and Mrs. Reynolds does have some relevance to current events -- mainly as an example of how Mr. Clinton should have handled his latest indiscretion and didn't. A full, fair and detailed account of Alexander Hamilton's affair with the lady -- well, the woman -- appeared in the public prints in 1797, and it was written by Hamilton.
It seems that a few years earlier, a congressional committee had been told that the secretary of the Treasury had been speculating in government debts, and had paid one James Reynolds $1,100 as part of a scheme to manipulate their value in his favor.
Confronted with the accusation, Hamilton invited three of the congressmen, including one James Monroe of Virginia, to discuss the subject in the privacy of his home. They accepted, and arrived armed with what they had been told was incriminating evidence. (It had been supplied by two men who had been accused of embezzling from the Treasury -- and were looking for somebody else to blame.)
Taking the visitors into his confidence, Hamilton fell back on the surest defense: truth. Asked to explain his payments to this Reynolds, the Treasury secretary said he was being blackmailed by the scoundrel. It seems Hamilton had had an affair two years before with the alluring Mrs. Reynolds. The unfortunate and imprudent but always gallant Hamilton had been seduced by the wife and then blackmailed by the husband, doubtless working as a team. (Men never learn, do we?)
Oliver Wolcott, the comptroller of the Treasury, also had been invited that evening to verify that Hamilton had not compromised his official duties in any way. For Hamilton was surely the least affluent man ever to hold the office of secretary of the Treasury. At one point he was reduced to borrowing small sums from friends while administering multimillion-dollar transactions for the new government, always with great skill and scrupulous honesty.
Once his visitors had been told the truth, and realized that no public funds, let alone public officials and the public trust, had been involved in the secretary's purely personal folly, they dropped the matter.
Nothing further was said about the unfortunate affair with Mrs. Reynolds until an unscrupulous editor (but I repeat myself) publicized it years later for partisan purposes. Hamilton responded by publishing a forthright and public account of the entire affair. Accused by Mr. Reynolds of mishandling public funds, Hamilton confessed: "My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife." Hamilton never denied having "sexual relations with that woman," certainly not under oath. He would not lie, let alone involve others in his lies.
The truth was told, justice done, and even the Hamiltons' marriage preserved by the grace of a tender and forgiving wife. To quote one historian, "It was an amazing performance. Never in American history has a public man showed greater candor." Choosing to sacrifice his private life in order to vindicate his public one, Alexander Hamilton saved both.
If only William Jefferson Clinton had acted with the same candor and grace as Alexander Hamilton, but that's hard to imagine. Hamilton was a man of honor.
And now, in the 223rd year of the Republic he founded, fought for, and sacrificed so much for, it becomes necessary to defend the name of Alexander Hamilton. Because there is no one living or dead whose reputation this administration's legion of hacks will not muddy and whose record they will not distort if they think it advantageous. These people are shameless. But you already suspected that, didn't you?