Excerpt from Scandalmonger by William Safire, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Novel

by William Safire

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  • First Published:
    Feb 2000, 496 pages
    Jun 2001, 496 pages

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But the letter from young Clingman required urgent action. "Reynolds's threats have borne fruit," his former assistant wrote. "Hamilton's Comptroller, Wolcott, has signed the order for Reynolds's release tomorrow morning. He will take his wife Maria and their child and sail for England. I have some letters you must see today."

That forced Muhlenberg to move quickly. A financial scandal, if such there were, would not vanish with the disappearance of one of its agents. The new pamphleteers, often working for the publications of what Washington himself disparaged as "self-created societies," were sowing disunity. They would see to it that every suspicious whisper and outright calumny would be repeated in print, breathing fire into the growing spirit of faction. Reynolds had to be interrogated before he got out of jail tomorrow morning, and his charge against Hamilton corroborated or put to rest.

The portly Speaker pushed himself out of his chair and buttoned his waistcoat. His political sense told him that one man alone could not conduct the investigation. He would need a companion to give at least the appearance of factional and geographical impartiality. Because Muhlenberg's own background was in the Lutheran clergy and the mercantile trade, he would need a colleague versed in the law.

John Adams, the Vice President? He had been known to call Hamilton "the bastard son of a Scotch pedlar." While that ancestral slur was true enough, it was unfair to hold Hamilton's low birth in the West Indies against him, and Adams's angry remark indicated he would have a personal prejudice.

Aaron Burr? Muhlenberg considered his friend Burr, Senator from New York, to be the sort of shrewd lawyer ordinarily perfect for such a mission. A good friend of Jemmy and Dolley Madison, too; indeed, Burr had introduced the longtime bachelor to the sunny widow. But a month before, when the Speaker had prevailed on the republican Burr to take him to see the Federalist Hamilton, the Senator's fellow New Yorker, to recommend leniency for the young clerk, Muhlenberg sensed a tension between the two. They were not only of opposing political factions but seemed to dislike each other in a personal way.

What about Jonathan Trumbull, who had replaced him as Speaker in the past term? No; "Brother Jonathan" was too close to President Washington, too ardent a Federalist, and was from Connecticut, which was too far north. Needed for balance in confronting Hamilton was a man of the Senate; a Southerner or Westerner, preferably a Virginian; a lawyer but not a sitting judge; someone trusted by Jefferson and the other anti-Federalists gathering around him.

James Monroe. The perfect choice. Muhlenberg knew the youthful Virginian had been Jefferson's law student, his political acolyte and the man Jefferson was even now urging Washington to appoint as his Minister to France. "Cool and collected," as Jefferson liked to say, prudent and correct, Monroe was not personally amiable, but had a reputation of being both high-minded and hardheaded.

The Pennsylvanian snatched up the troubling note and set out across the chambers for the Virginia Senator's office.

Monroe, the accusation from Reynolds's confederate in hand, was hardly able to hide his delight at what Muhlenberg, in his rich German accent, was telling him. Jefferson's break with Hamilton was absolute; the Secretary of State saw the Treasury Secretary as twisting the Constitution into a device for snatching power from the States and individuals in the name of "empire." For months, in general terms, Jefferson had been warning President Washington that Hamilton was guilty of dealing out Treasury secrets among his financier friends. The Treasury Secretary had countered that Jefferson was an incendiary promoting national disunion and public disorder. Now here was a specific case supporting Jefferson's suspicions of Hamilton's character to lay before the Chief Magistrate.

Copyright William Safire February 2000. All rights reserved. Reproduced with the permission of the publisher, Simon & Schuster

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