Summary and book reviews of Scandalmonger by William Safire

Scandalmonger

A Novel

by William Safire

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

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Book Summary

A presidential hopeful has taken a mistress. The time is the eighteenth century and the politicians involved are Hamilton and Jefferson. This is dramatized history at its best and presidential politics at its most fascinating.

A presidential hopeful has taken a beautiful, vulnerable woman as his mistress, though both are married to others. His rival for the presidency of the United States has even more sensational secrets to guard about his own past. An ambitious journalist unearths the stories of the private lives of both, and he hefts in his hand what he calls "the hammer of truth."

The time is the end of the eighteenth century. The political figures whose intimate lives are about to be revealed are Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson. The journalist out to shape the course of the young nation's history is "that scurrilous scoundrel Callender," the fugitive from Scottish sedition law who pioneered the public exposure of men in power. The women he makes famous are the mysterious Maria Reynolds and the slave Sally Hemings.

The novelist and Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist William Safire brings these real characters in our history to life. He recounts the dramatic clash of the Founders and the first journalists -- drawn from actual events of the nation's beginnings -- that has special relevance for our time. Scandalmonger is dramatized history at its best and presidential politics at its most fascinating.

For those who think that Washington sex scandals and lurid journalism are recent developments, this novel will be a revelation, for Safire shows vividly how media intrusiveness into private lives -- and politicians' cool manipulation of the press -- are as old as the Constitution.

The "scandalmonger" of the title is James Thomson Callender, a writer with a poisonous quill pen who is secretly on the payroll of Vice President Jefferson. When Callender publishes documents leaked to him about a secret Congressional investigation into Treasury Secretary Hamilton's financial dealings, Hamilton counters with a confession of an affair with the blackmailing Mrs. Reynolds -- admitting to a sin but not a crime.

Callender's scathing newspaper attacks on Hamilton and on President John Adams as a "hoary-headed incendiary" so incensed the Federalists in power that they enacted the Sedition Act to crush freedom of speech. The scandalmonger was convicted and jailed, but his widely reported martyrdom after an unfair trial angered many voters and helped to sweep the Jeffersonians into power.

The new President pardoned his partisan publicist but refused to reward him -- indeed, cut him off in favor of less divisive supporters. Broke and betrayed, Callender set out to wreak vengeance on his former hero by breaking the story of Jefferson's fathering of children with his slave Sally Hemings -- an account that would be scornfully disbelieved until largely authenticated by DNA evidence almost two centuries later.

Central to the story of Scandalmonger is the enigmatic allure of Maria Reynolds, a haunting adventuress who in real life bedazzled both Hamilton and his arch-enemy, Aaron Burr, and, in this novel, attracted the reviled scandalmonger as well.

Much of the dialogue of Presidents Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe is drawn from their letters. The accounts of libel and sedition trials to suppress the opinions of Callender and his bombastic newspaper antagonist, "Peter Porcupine," are accurate. Hamilton's passionate and ironic defense of freedom of the press is true (although the notes of his speech were fleshed out by Safire, a former White House speechwriter). In a unique "Underbook," the author scrupulously sets forth his scholarly sources, separating fiction from dramatized history -- and in so leveling with the reader, truly re-creates the passionate controversies of an era that presages our times.

Prologue: 1792

December 17, 1792
Philadelphia

"The man now in jail who got me into all this trouble says he has enough on the Treasury Secretary to hang him."

The note from his former clerk startled Frederick Augustus Muhlenberg. Squinting at the familiar, crabbed handwriting, the member of Congress from Pennsylvania -- about to begin his second term as Speaker of the House of Representatives -- read on: "Reynolds claims to have proof showing that Hamilton secretly engaged in speculation in government securities."

Alexander Hamilton corrupt? Muhlenberg's well-ordered Germanic mind refused to entertain the scandalous thought. President Washington's Secretary of the Treasury had been General Washington's courageous aide-de-camp in the War for Independence. He gave unity to the Union by having the Federal government assume the debts of the States. Everyone knew that Hamilton was the Cabinet officer that the great man would rely on most heavily in the second term soon ...

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Reviews

Media Reviews

Salon.com - Katharine Whittemore

[S]undry vocabulary builders do not make up for the patchwork feel of Scandalmonger. Safire is no Patrick O'Brian -- this is not a seamless immersion into a bygone era. It's more a sort of subpar George Bernard Shaw play, in which the characters exist mostly to advance the era's ideologies and debates. That's not a bad thing; the book compels, but less as a polished work and more as really fine scaffolding.

Author Blurb Gerald W Gawalt, Curator, Early American History, Library of Congress
Scandalmonger is one of the few works of fiction or non-fiction that I have encountered that is willing to confront the seamy and sleazy underbelly of the political life of America's founders. Scandalmonger is a story of real political hardball by America's founders in a period when the survival of the American Republic was at stake. Scandalmonger is a must read for anyone who wants to really understand the politics of America's founders.

Author Blurb David M Kennedy
Scandalmonger is a rattling good read, and excellent history, too. It paints an unforgettable portrait of the reptilian, turncoat Scandalmonger James Callender, one of American journalism's all-time rebarbative personalities. With scrupulous fidelity to the historical record, Safire also re-creates the astonishingly venomous political atmosphere of the early American republic--and deftly probes some still-urgent questions about freedom of the press.

Author Blurb William C Davis, Historian
Like all of Safire's novels, Scandalmonger has a surefooted timeliness about it, finding in one of the first great political scandals of our national life, a telling premonition of the turmoils of our own time. Americans of today have but to read it to be reminded that however much times may change, the verities of men, women, sex, and politics, are eternal. In this stately narrative, rooted firmly in solid historical research, and informed by an integrity that never conceals from the reader what is fact and what is fiction, Safire lays open the rivalries and intrigues that came close to shattering a new republic still in its infancy.

Author Blurb Michael Beschloss
William Safire has fully mobilized his monumental talents as novelist, columnist and scholar of history to bring us this breathtaking and instructive tale of how a tangled series of seductions and betrayals, involving some of the greatest names in our pantheon, changed American history. So sure is Safire's mastery of historical fiction that as you race through these pages, you will have a hard time believing that he was not really there in the center of the drama when (almost) all of this happened.

Author Blurb Jim Lehrer
Maybe it takes one to know one. Whatever, who else but William Safire could tell the story of a Scandalmonger (that's one word, please)? It's a gripping tale of scandal and sex and skullduggery, starring some of our history's best-loved Founding Fathers and Mothers. Safire is a superb novelist and it shows ever so clearly and entertainingly in this book.

Author Blurb Arnold A Rogow
Readers addicted to historical fiction should walk briskly to their nearest bookstore for a copy of William Safire's Scandalmonger. His novel, supported by extensive research, recounts the scandals of 200 years ago, notably those involving Alexander Hamilton's self-confessed affair with Maria Reynolds, and Thomas Jefferson's alleged sexual relationship with the slave Sally Hemings.

Author Blurb David McCullough
There's nothing like a vivid historical novel to bring to life the human reality of other times, and that's certainly what happens in Scandalmonger. William Safire not only knows whereof he speaks, concerning politicians and the press, he's done the necessary reading, he's caught the temper, the vocabulary, of the vanished era of the Founders in a way equivalent to perfect pitch. His portrait of the little-known, much-scorned James Callender is one few readers will forget.

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