Clinton v. Jefferson v. Hamilton

With election day less than 24 hours away, Chatterbox is going to venture a prediction: Thomas Jefferson will not win another term in the White House. Chatterbox bases this on the confirmation of his extramarital affair [Correction filed 11/3/98: Jefferson’s wife was deceased; so it was an “out of wedlock affair” ] with Sally Hemings, which was the Big Political Story this past weekend: page-one articles in the New York Times and Washington Post; two op-eds today in the Times; the cover of U.S. News and World Report, whose reporter Barbra Murray first revealed the then-pending DNA test last December; and a big story in Nature, where the scientific data were published. Alexander Hamilton, who lately has been enjoying a resurgence among historians and some journalists (James Fallows, Richard Brookhiser, Michael Lind), has only a slightly better chance of keeping his job at Treasury–a less high-profile job–now that Harper’s, the Wall Street Journal, the Weekly Standard, and Clinton’s lawyers have publicized, much more sympathetically, Hamilton’s extramarital fling with Maria Reynolds.

Readers can be forgiven, what with all those Flytrap documents to read, for not having mastered the historical parallels between Clinton and Jefferson and Hamilton. Herewith, a scorecard:

What kind of sex? 1.) Bill Clinton claims he only received oral sex from Monica Lewinsky. Lewinsky, according to the Starr report, says he gave some, too. Apparently there was no penetration. 2.) Thomas Jefferson had intercourse with his daughter’s servant and slave Sally Hemings. 3.) Alexander Hamilton had intercourse with Maria Reynolds, a seemingly destitute woman who came to him seeking financial assistance, but who, when he came to her house to give her money, made it “quickly apparent that other than pecuniary consolation would be acceptable,” according to Hamilton.

How sure are we? 1.) We aren’t–it’s Clinton’s word against Lewinsky’s–but nobody particularly believes Clinton. DNA tests have put the odds that the semen found on Lewinsky’s dress came from Clinton at 7.87 trillion to one, which is probably what prompted Clinton’s elaborately hedged confession. 2.) Pretty sure. Claims through the years of a link to Jefferson by Hemings’s black descendants have now been affirmed, at least in the case of one, by DNA testing. The scientists put the odds that Jefferson didn’t produce offspring through Sally Hemings at less than 0.1 percent. 3.) Pretty sure. Hamilton confessed to his “intercourse with Mrs. Reynolds” in a 1797 pamphlet. It’s possible he’s not using this term in the contemporary sense, but the pamphlet is presented as a confession of a sexual dalliance, and in 1797, Chatterbox is reliably informed, oral sex had not yet been invented. Hamilton published the pamphlet to combat an accusation that he’d engaged in improper financial speculation while secretary of the Treasury, which is how some accusers characterized his payment of $1,000 to Maria Reynolds’s con-man husband. In fact, Hamilton said, he was paying the guy blackmail. According to Harper’s (which reprints much of Hamilton’s pamphlet in its November issue), “Hamilton’s fiercest opponents insisted that he had entirely fabricated the romance and the supporting letters to avoid a greater shame,” but that seems a stretch.

Workplace exploitation? 1.) Pretty much. Clinton was president. Monica Lewinsky was an intern and recent college graduate. But probably not illegal, because the sex was consensual and Lewinsky was not a minor. Lewinsky reversed the exploitation somewhat by pressing Clinton for a transfer from the Pentagon to the White House and, later, by enlisting Clinton friend Vernon Jordan in her job search. 2.) Oh yeah. As a slave, Sally Hemings was quite literally Jefferson’s property. She was also his daughter’s servant, which makes the seduction even tackier. 3.) Absolutely not. In fact, Hamilton was the exploited one. Maria Reynolds did not work at the Treasury department. Her husband, who appears to have been playing pimp, tried to extort a government job out of Hamilton, but Hamilton refused.

Lying ‘n perjury? 1.) Yup. Clinton admits to lying, but not to lying under oath. Chatterbox is pretty sure Clinton perjured himself both in his deposition to Paula Jones’ lawyers and in his grand jury testimony. 2.) Nope. Jefferson refused to answer the accusations surfaced by James Thomson Callender, the Matt Drudge of his day (who also publicized the charges against Hamilton). There was no official inquiry. 3.) Nope. Hamilton, when confronted with the charges of financial impropriety by three congressmen, invited them to his house, told them about his affair, and secured a “gentleman’s agreement” that they’d keep quiet about it. Again, Chatterbox is assuming Hamilton’s sexual confession is accurate.

Victim of government leaks? 1.) Yup. Starr admitted to Brill’s Content that his investigators have been leaking. 2.) Not really. Obviously, somebody blabbed to Callender, but there’s no reason to believe it was a government official whose job it was to collect such information. 3.) Apparently so. Hamilton was pretty sure the leaker was James Monroe, a political enemy who was one of the three congressmen he’d briefed about the affair.

Hypocrisy? 1.) Moderate. Clinton does go on about “family values,” but he kinda-sorta admitted prior to his 1992 race that he’d been unfaithful to his wife. On the other hand, he let Air Force pilot Kelly Flynn get cashiered for having an affair and lying about it. 2.) Major. Jefferson wrote that “Amalgamation produces a degradation to which no one … can innocently consent.” That his actions betrayed his odious (though of course common-for-his-times) notions of white supremacy may hearten us today, when “miscegenation” is no longer considered a sin, except by a few racist wackos. But it’s still hypocrisy. 3.) None, except to his wife, to whom he presumably pretended to be faithful until circumstances forced his confession.

By these measures, Chatterbox ranks Jefferson highest in private sins, followed by Clinton and then Hamilton. Jefferson and Hamilton rank lowest on public sins, which appear to be nonexistent–remember, Sally Hemings wasn’t a government employee–while Clinton ranks highest, at least in this sample.

Timothy Noah