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George Washington In Love
The vivacious Sally Fairfax stole the young man’s heart long before he met Martha
Fall 2009 | Volume 59, Issue 3
ON MARCH 30, 1877, the New York Herald, one of the largest newspapers in America, printed a passionate love letter that had been written on September 12, 1758. Surely not hot news, you might ask? The Herald ’s editors knew what they were doing. Nothing they printed that day created a greater sensation.
The letter was from 26-year-old Col. George Washington to Sally Cary Fairfax, wife of his close friend and neighbor at Mount Vernon, George William Fairfax – four months after the colonel had become engaged to Martha Dandridge Custis, the richest widow in Virginia.
Here is the heart of the letter, exactly as it was printed:
“Tis true I profess myself a votary of love. I acknowledge that a lady is in the case and further I confess that this lady is known to you. Yes, Madame, as well as she is to one who is too sensible to her charms to deny the power whose influence he feels and must ever submit to. I feel the force of her amiable beauties and the recollection of a thousand tender passages that I could wish to obliterate till I am bid to revive them. But experience, alas, sadly reminds me how impossible this is. . . . You have drawn me, dear Madame, or rather have I drawn myself into an honest confession of a simple fact. Misconstrue not my meaning; doubt it not nor expose it. . . . One thing above all things in this world I wish to know, and only one person of your acquaintance can solve me that, or guess my meaning. But adieu to this till happier times, if I shall ever see them.”
Out of this welter of indirection and hints, was George Washington crying “I love you! Do you love me?” The Herald editors believed that he was, headlining the piece “A WASHINGTON ROMANCE: A Letter from General Washington Acknowledging The Power of Love.”
That afternoon, Bangs & Company would auction off this letter and others in “a collection of rare and autograph letters” found “among the effects” of Mrs. Fairfax when she had died at the age of 81 in Bath, England, 68 years before. The Herald quoted a Fairfax family member who had told Scribner’s Magazine that the young Washington “had a tenderness” for Sally Cary even before she married his friend. She had been the object of his “early and passionate love.” But the article’s author neglected to mention—or was unaware—that Washington’s desire for her remained strong long after she married.
The letter created consternation among Americans who regarded Washington as the virtual incarnation of divinity. Only three months had passed since the nation’s year-long celebration of the centenary of independence. No figure loomed larger in that festive time than the taciturn first president. Curiously, no bid was made for the remarkable document that Friday.
The next day Bangs announced that the billet had been sold for $13, an unbelievable price even considering that each 1877 dollar was worth about $20 in our depreciated currency. Rumors circulated that J. P. Morgan had bought it, but no surviving evidence supports this. Whoever he was, the buyer evidently felt a patriotic obligation to remove the letter from sight.
The letter failed to resurface until the late 1950s, when a determined Washington biographer found the original in the files of Harvard’s Houghton Library. That discovery has not stifled healthy debate over the letter’s meaning, some historians arguing that it was a good-natured squib, the sort of risqué banter that men and women often exchanged in the 18th century. John C. Fitzpatrick, who spent several decades on his monumental edition of Washington’s papers, maintained that the letter was a paean of praise to Martha Eustis.
Fitzpatrick took issue with those who believed that Washington was professing his passion for Mrs. Fairfax despite his engagement to Martha. If that were correct, he wrote, every decent person would be forced to conclude that George Washington was “a worthless scoundrel” undeserving of respect or veneration. Clearly, this was one of those moments when the private life of a founding father crossed an apparent moral line and threw a disturbing shadow over his accomplishments as patriot and creator of a nation.
SALLY CARY FAIRFAX was the daughter of one of the richest planters in Virginia, Wilson Cary, master of a splendid estate at Ceelys on the James overlooking Hampton Roads, not far from Newport News. Cary stocked his houses with the latest English books and magazines and took pleasure in teaching Sally and her three younger sisters French. As a leader of the colony’s legislature, the House of Burgesses, Cary brought his family each year to Williamsburg for an invigorating sea son of fancy balls, lavish dinners, and witty conversations while the House was in session. The Carys enjoyed the pursuit of happiness long before it became the object of a new nation’s aspirations.
A family anecdote attests to Sally’s ability to draw male attention at an early age. One day while returning to her Williamsburg home, she encountered one of the many sentries on guard against possible raiders during one of the colonial wars with France. The guard demanded the night’s password of Sally’s coachman, who fell dumbstruck. Sally stamped her foot: “But I am Miss Sally Gary!” The sentry gulped and said “Pass!”—the officer of the watch had made her name the password as a compliment to the young lady.