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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
In a letter to his younger brother Jack (John Augustine), he remarked, “To that family I am under many obligations, particularly to the old gentleman,” but surely to George William Fairfax also, who had befriended the teenage bumpkin and remained close for the previous decade. There is no hint in any of Washington’s letters of a change in opinion or attitude, even when he emerged as Virginia’s most notable military leader.
In fact, it can be argued with some force that this eminence only made the possibility of George’s realizing his desire for Sally Fairfax more remote. In a sense he had become the man Lawrence might have been—and that only intensified his sense of obligation to the family at Belvoir. Honor had been the brightest word in Lawrence Washington’s vocabulary, a beacon that both guarded and guided his conduct. The horrifying prospect of being tempted into something that Lawrence would have judged grossly dishonorable may well explain why George’s desire remained chained in the deepest recesses of his heart. It was another lesson in the harsh school of self-control in which destiny seemed to be matriculating him.
This does not mean that Washington was inhibited by puritanical views of sexual conduct. Puritanism was almost as foreign to 18th-century Virginia as Islam. But there is strong evidence that suggests Washington struggled to put Sally out of his mind and future. He pursued several other women, notably the strong-willed Mary Philipse, heiress to a swath of the Hudson River Valley. But his efforts were halfhearted—evidence, it might seem, of his longing for Sally, or of Mary’s temperamental resemblance to Mary Ball Washington.
This was how things stood in March 1758 when the ailing bachelor, still convinced that he was in his final days, mounted his horse and rode slowly to Williamsburg to consult John Anson, the finest physician in Virginia. Before he departed, George told his British superior on the frontier, Col. John Stanwix, that he had “ruined my constitution” and was thinking of “quitting my command.” He was convinced that he had tuberculosis and foresaw little but “approaching decay.”
Strong evidence suggests that Washington struggled to put Sally out of his mind and future
To Washington’s amazement and delight, Dr. Anson assured him that he was recovering nicely and had prospects of living to a ripe old age. The reinvigorated patient strode into the spring sunshine and began thinking about what to do with the rest of his life. One of his first thoughts was marriage. During the long winter of his illness, had he and Sally acknowledged—or at least hinted at—the hopelessness of their love? A perhaps more likely scenario is that Washington alone reached this glum but unavoidable conclusion during his convalescence.
Realistically, in 1758 Virginia there was no way that Sally Fairfax could have left her husband and married Washington. It would have triggered an immense scandal that would have made them both social outcasts. A clandestine affair could easily have led to the same result. Either way, Washington would have ex¬ posed himself to a ruinous lawsuit from her outraged husband. Lurking in the background of both their minds must have been the memory of an earlier cause célare: Lawrence Washington had prosecuted a neighbor for allegedly raping Anne Fairfax before her marriage, a lawsuit reported in salacious detail in newspapers throughout Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. Before it was over, everyone wished Lawrence had never brought the whole foul business to light, no matter how much it may have haunted his wife.
With marriage on his mind, one of the first things Colonel Washington did was ride to the nearby estate known as the White House, on the Pamunkey River, to visit Martha Dandridge Custis. They undoubtedly knew each other already. The elite society of eastern Virginia was fairly small, and Martha and the late Daniel Custis had participated in its lively social world with enthusiasm. As the richest widow on the horizon, Martha was much courted. George was more than pleased with her warm, affable manner and was even more so when she asked him to stay overnight. He played cheerfully with her two children, four-year-old John and two-year-old Patsy. As he departed, he tipped her servants extravagantly, a sure sign that he wanted their conversation about him to be favorable.
A week later he returned; something seems to have been arranged there and then. On May 4 the colonel ordered a ring from Philadelphia and a suit of “superfine” broadcloth from London to fit a “tall man.” By this time he was back on the frontier with his regiment, soon part of another army expedition against the French at Fort Duquesne.
Here the aftershock of the turmoil stirred by the New York Herald letter intrudes on the story. In the first two editions of Washington’s collected papers, there is a letter to Martha, dated July 20, 1758: “We have begun our march for the Ohio. A courier is starting for Williamsburg and I embrace the opportunity to send a few words to one whose life is now inseparable from mine. Since that happy hour when we made our pledge to each other, my thoughts have been continually going to you as to another Self. That an all-powerful Providence may keep us both in safety is the prayer of your ever faithful and affectionate friend.”