- Historic Sites
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
At 18 Sally married George William Fairfax, son of William Fairfax, the proprietor of Belvoir, a grand mansion on the Potomac not far from Mount Vernon. The union meant that one day she might become not merely the mistress of this estate but a peeress to boot. George William stood a better than even chance of becoming the next Lord Fairfax, entitling him to sit in the House of Lords and preside over vast English holdings. Even more important, as Lord Fairfax he would own 5 million acres in northern Virginia that King Charles II had given Thomas Lord Culpeper, a maternal ancestor of Lord Fairfax, in 1673.
This potentially glorious future probably best explains the match of a vivacious young woman to a rather timid young man with a dour, down- turned mouth surmounted by a strong, hooked nose and shrewd, close-set eyes. At six, George William had traveled to England to be educated by the Fairfaxes, who described him as a “poor West India boy.” He was the product of a marriage between his amply endowed father and the obscure widow of a British artillery major in the Bahamas. Worse, someone in the family had floated the rumor that the woman had black blood. For 15 years, George William had endured the unlovely experience of his English relatives eyeing his complexion and debating almost openly, and certainly humiliatingly, whether he was a mulatto.
An amateurish portrait of Sally around this time reveals a slim, dark- haired young woman most people would call handsome rather than beautiful. But the narrow face is nonetheless striking; the deep-set dark eyes suggest a subtly mocking intelligence; the nose is strong, the mouth firm and confident. Her waist is narrow and her bosom ample. It is not hard to imagine her leading some lively revels.
Sally came to Belvoir as a bride in 1748 and soon met 16-year-old George Washington. He was a frequent guest of his half-brother at nearby Mount Vernon. Lawrence, happily married to George William’s older sister, Anne, was doing his utmost to rescue George—already a towering six feet—from the clutches of his widowed mother, Mary Ball Washington, who was trying to convert her oldest son into a surrogate husband and father figure for her four younger children.
George’s father, Augustine Washington, had died when George was eleven. For most of those early years, Augustine had been an absentee father, traveling between his scattered farms and an ironworks that required a great deal of attention. He was a good businessman, expanding his holdings from 1,740 acres at the time of his first marriage to almost 11,000 at his death.
Compared to the Carys, Byrds, Lees, Randolphs, and the other first families of Virginia, the Washingtons remained “middling gentry.” Their house on 250-acre Ferry Farm, across the Rappahannock from Fredericksburg, where George grew up, was an eight-room frame structure, not even faintly comparable to such stately brick mansions as Robert Carter’s Nomini Hall or William Byrd’s Westover. One writer recounts young George Washington’s awe when he first visited the parlor at Belvoir with its elegant, English-made couches, chairs, and tables. At Ferry Farm, the parlor contained three beds. Mary Ball had been Augustine Washington’s second wife. She was a physically imposing ‘woman, large and vigorous, with an explosive temper. One commentator described her as “majestic.” A boyhood playmate said that he was “ten times more afraid of her” than he was of his own parents. On one occasion, she rose in her carriage on Fredericksburg’s main street to berate and lash a slave for mishandling the horse. As her oldest son, George was exposed at an early age to her many tantrums.
Were it not for Lawrence’s intervention, George might have become a dismayingly different man. Fourteen years older than George, Lawrence had inherited his father’s Potomac property, which he named Mount Vernon after a British admiral under whom he had served on a campaign against the Spanish in the Caribbean. Lawrence’s marriage to Anne Fairfax had catapulted him from middling gentry to the heady stratosphere of Virginia’s aristocracy. William Fairfax was the land agent for his cousin the sixth Lord Fairfax, who owned those five million acres between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers. Virginians had done everything
in their power to invalidate Charles II’s generosity, but the courts had upheld the grant, thereby making Fairfax the most influential name in Virginia. In swift succession after his marriage, Lawrence became adjutant of the Virginia militia and a member of the House of Burgesses. Add the polish of his English education and his love of martial glory, and it is easy to see how he became a compelling figure in young George’s awakening imagination.
Thanks to Lawrence, George became a close friend of the seven¬ years -older George William Fairfax, who accepted the towering adolescent as a companion at Belvoir fox- hunts and on surveying trips to the Shenandoah Valley, where more Fair¬ fax holdings were being laid out for sale. Under his suave influence, Washington was soon spending the money he earned as a surveyor on stylish clothes and feeling more at ease in the elegant atmosphere of Belvoir. To Mary Ball’s mounting exasperation, George spent more and more of his time on the banks of the Potomac.
Then came tragedy. Lawrence Washington was stricken with consumption and slowly died before George’s eyes. As generous to his younger brother in death as he had been in life, Lawrence bequeathed him Mount Vernon, should Anne Fairfax Washington take another husband. Soon the Virginia custom of rapid remarriage made him Mount Vernon’s owner.
She definitely noticed the tall, muscular George Washington