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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
At nearby Belvoir, George had already met some of the most sophisticated young women in Virginia. Sally Cary Fairfax’s sisters and many friends were frequent visitors. Sally seems to have been a coquette who tantalized and teased the men around her. She definitely noticed George; the contrast between the tall, muscular Washington and her short, precise, courtier husband, whose greatest talent was assiduous flattery of his superiors, could not have been more complete. As she and George performed together in amateur theatricals, danced minuets in Belvoir’s ballroom, and ex changed gossip about their friends’ amorous intrigues, Washington fell violently in love.
One of their favorite plays was Cato, written by the celebrated essayist and poet Joseph Addison in 1713. Not merely was it the most popular drama of the century, it offered two parts made to order for lovers and would-be lovers: Marcia was Cato’s fiercely loyal daughter; Juba was an African warrior who rallied to Cato’s side in the death struggle to preserve the aristocratic Roman Republic against Julius Caesar. Marcia confessed her love for Juba, but Cato refused his approval because he was a mere colonial. Juba never- the less remained devoted to the untouchable beauty.
By the time George realized what was happening to him emotionally, he was on his way to becoming Virginia’s best-known soldier. Fairfax connections had won him a major’s commission at the age of 20. He had fought against French encroachment on the western frontier with uneven success, actions which proved to be opening shots of the first global conflict, the Seven Years’ War, of which the French and Indian War was the American wing. Next he became a favorite aide of the British general William Braddock and miraculously survived the rout of the latter’s regulars in western Pennsylvania. Ignoring four bullets through his coat and the two horses killed under him, Washington was among the few who distinguished himself on that chaotic battlefield.
He came back to Mount Vernon a weary though still young man. A letter from William Fairfax reveals how closely the residents of Belvoir had followed their neighbor’s career: “Your safe return gives an uncommon joy to us and will no doubt be sympathized by all lovers of heroick [sic] virtue.” He thanked Washington for inviting them to visit and hoped that a Saturday night’s rest would refresh him enough to enable him to come to Belvoir in the morning.
Sally added a saucy note, discreetly cosigned by two visiting friends, accusing the hero of “great unkindness in not visiting us this night. I assure you that nothing but being satisfied that our company would be disagreeable would prevent us from trying if our legs would not carry us to Mount Vernon this night; but if you will not come to us, tomorrow morning, very early, we shall be at Mount Vernon.” This was a letter from a lady who knew she had a certain gentleman virtually at her beck and call.
Soon Washington was colonel of a regiment of Virginia regulars that struggled to hold the 700-mile frontier against French and Indian incursions. George William Fairfax wrote him admiring letters, vowing that he would be honored to serve under his command. But he never got around to volunteering, even when his younger brother Bryan joined the seemingly endless and extremely dangerous wilderness war and another brother was commissioned in the British regular army.
Washington’s relationship to Sally Fairfax during these years was curiously uneven. He wrote her letters from the frontier, hoping she would reply. But when his messages became too emotional, she abruptly ordered him to stop writing to her. At another point she banished him from Belvoir, treatment that he accepted with remarkable patience.
Late in 1757 Colonel Washington suffered a physical collapse and returned to Mount Vernon, seriously ill with dysentery, a nameless fever (probably malaria), and a cough that reminded him alarmingly of Lawrence’s passing. He took to his bed and asked Sally to obtain various medicines that a local doctor had recommended. George William Fairfax had sailed for England to deal with his difficult relatives. His father had recently died, reviving the nasty suspicions among his metropolitan kinfolk that George William was a mulatto and not entitled to inherit or manage anything belonging to their august line. Sally brought Washington his medicines—special wines, jellies, and other concoctions beyond the ability of Mount Vernon’s kitchen.
Was it during these months that some or all of “the thousand tender passages” occurred that Washington struggled to put aside in the letter he wrote a year later? It’s simply not known. The other letters George and Sally exchanged have all been destroyed, except for one or two fragments. It is known that during these months the young colonel was gravely ill. He complained to the doctor who ‘had treated him on the frontier, James Craik, that he was not getting better. Craik replied that he was not surprised; the malady had “corrupted the whole mass of blood,” and he ordered him to stay in bed and avoid any and all exertion. “The fate of your friends and country [he meant Virginia] are in a manner dependent on your recovery”—flattering stuff, but not the sort of message to inspire a depressed, anxious invalid to become an impassioned Lothario.
Washington’s relationship to the Fairfax family as a whole was a significant factor at this point. Almost as much a substitute father as Lawrence had been, William Fairfax treated George as something close to blood kin after his half-brother’s death, advancing the young man’s military career whenever possible. When William died, Washington had left his regiment and journeyed over the mountains to his funeral, ignoring the dysentery that was already making his life difficult.