of blackmail—the act of demanding that a person pay money or do something in
order to avoid having damaging information about him or her exposed—has evolved
over time. The word’s origins are linked to the chieftains in the border region
between England and Scotland in the 16th century and part of the 17th century.
During that period, the chieftains ordered landholders to pay them in order to
avoid being pillaged. The “mail” in the word meant “tribute, rent” and was
derived from an old Scandinavian word, “mal,” meaning “agreement.” The “black”
in blackmail is thought to be a play on “white money,” the term for the silver
coins with which tenant farmers traditionally paid their legitimate rent.
America’s earliest political sex scandals involved blackmail. In 1791,
Alexander Hamilton, then America’s first treasury secretary as well as a
married man, became romantically involved with Maria Reynolds, a young woman
who claimed she needed money because her husband had abandoned her. When Reynold’s
husband, James, reappeared on the scene, he forced Hamilton to pay him in order
to keep quiet about the affair. After James Reynolds later got caught in a plot
to defraud the federal government, he attempted to implicate Hamilton in the
scheme. Confronted by James Monroe and several of his congressional colleagues,
Hamilton denied any involvement in the scheme but admitted to his liaison with
He gave the
congressmen letters from both of the Reynolds that indicated his involvement
with James had been about the affair not a financial scheme. Convinced that
Hamilton wasn’t involved in government corruption, the congressmen agreed to
drop the matter. However, partisan political writer James Callender
subsequently got his hands on the letters and in 1797 published the story of
Hamilton’s secret affair, while also charging that his payments to James
Reynolds were part of a plot to swindle the government.
Hamilton, in turn,
published a detailed response in which he admitted to marital infidelity but
denied the financial corruption charges. The former treasury secretary, who’d
left his post in 1795 to return to practicing law, survived the scandal (and
even made it onto the face of the $10 bill) but died in 1804 after being
mortally wounded by Aaron Burr in America’s most famous duel.
Clancy's comment: So, stay on the right side of me or else.