The vivacious Sally Fairfax stole the young man’s heart long before he met Martha
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.
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
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.
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.”
This is a forgery. As John C. Fitzpatrick notes tersely, “The location of the original is not known.” The statement about marching to the Ohio is wrong. Much to Washington’s exasperation, on July 20 the British army was still sitting on the edge of the wilderness, debating which route to take. He was not even sure his force would be included. The word “courier” was never used by Washington during these years; he preferred “express.” Other words in the letter strike similar false notes. The style is much too emotional for a man who had spent comparatively little time with Mrs. Custis, even if she was his fiancée.
The letter first appeared in 1886, in a sentimental dual biography entitled Mary and Martha, Mother and Wife of George Washington. The author claimed he had seen the original, but no one else has ever found it. It seems likely that the letter was forged by someone trying to cast doubt about the authenticity of the letter to Sally. It may have been written by some kinsman of Washington or some other well-meaning person, such as the mystery man who bought the letter to Sally in 1877. Now that it’s known that the love letter to Sally is authentic, the forgery makes Washington look like a complete hypocrite.
That leaves us with Colonel Washington grumbling and cursing in Fort Cumberland, Maryland, while his English superiors ignored his advice on the best way to march on Fort Duquesne. Meanwhile, the evidence of his plans for the future was unfolding at Mount Vernon, which he
had decided to expand and rebuild with all possible speed. George William Fairfax, back from Europe, was asked to help with advice and supervision. This inevitably led to Washington telling him about his engagement to Martha Custis. Fairfax naturally told his wife about this interesting development. Into an envelope with a letter from George William about the renovation of Mount Vernon, Sally slipped a letter of her own, teasing him about his complaints that the campaign was moving too slowly.
Was he impatient because he had become a “votary of love”? She was of course referring to his engagement to Martha Custis. But the lonely warrior, facing an Indian-rife wilderness from which the proverbial bullet with his name on it might rip at any time, read quite a different meaning into Sally’s question. For him it was dipped in acid sarcasm, and she received in return nothing less than an explosion—a jumbled cry of anguish from a man who could bury his feelings no longer.
As usual, Sally was discreet. Her answer was apparently indirect; some historians think she pretended that the colonel was joking. Her letter is lost. Only Washington’s reply exists: “Do we still misunderstand the true meaning of each other’s letters? I think it must appear so tho I would fain hope the contrary as I cannot speak plainer without—But I’ll say no more and leave you to guess the rest.”
He gloomily added that he was almost certain the expedition to the Ohio would end in disaster. Then he added words that had deep meaning for both of them: “I should think my time more agreeably spent, believe me, in playing a part in Cato with the company you mention and myself doubly happy in being the Juba to such a Marcia as you must make.”
He closed with some offhand speculation on the marital plans of several friends, but made no mention of his own. Then came a last burst of emotion: “One thing more and I have done. You ask if I am not tired at the length of your letter? No, Madam, I am not, nor never can be while the lines are an inch asunder to bring you in haste to the end of the paper. You may be tired of mine by this. Adieu, dear Madam, you possibly will hear something of me or from me before we shall meet. Believe me that I am most unalterably, your most obedient and obliged . . .
In his surviving letters to Sally, Washington never before wrote “most unalterably.” Once more he was telling her the secret that they would share for the rest of their lives. They were lovers that destiny had tragically separated, as history had forever parted Marcia and Juba.
Four months after he had bared this passionate longing, George Washington married Martha Custis. If romance was not uppermost in his mind, there is evidence that Martha felt a few tremors. Her first husband, Daniel Parke Custis, had been 15 years older than she—and he was by most accounts a rather pathetic (though extremely handsome) man, browbeaten all his life by a miserly father. The towering Colonel Washington was not only Virginia’s foremost soldier; he must have been a breathtaking sight in his English wedding suit of superfine blue cotton velvet. To the end of her life, Martha saved a piece of her wedding dress—white brocaded satin threaded with silver— and the white gloves her husband had worn to the ceremony.
A YEAR LATER, Washington wrote to Richard Washing ton, the English merchant with whom he usually did business in Lon don. “I am now I believe fix’d at this seat [Mount Vernon] with an agree able consort for life, and hope to find more happiness in retirement than I ever experienced in a wide and bustling world.” These are the words of a contented husband. To a man who had grown up in a household whose mistress had specialized in being disagreeable, Martha Dandridge Custis’s sunny disposition was something to treasure. He had begun to realize that marrying her was one of the best decisions of his life.
Fifteen years later, George Washington was attending the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia. On June 23, 1775, he wrote an even more important letter to Martha.
“I am now set down to write you on a subject which fills me with inexpressible concern— and this concern is greatly aggravated and increased when I reflect on the uneasiness I know it will give you—It has been determined in Congress that the whole army raised for the defence of the American cause shall be put under my care and that it is necessary for me to proceed immediately to Boston to take upon me the command of it. You may believe, my dear Patcy, when I assure you, in the most solemn manner, that, so far from seeking this appointment I have used every endeavour in my power to avoid it, not only from my unwillingness to part with you and the family, but from a consciousness of its being a trust too great for my capacity, and that I should enjoy more real happiness and felicity in one month with you, at home, than I have my most distant prospect of reaping abroad, if my stay was to be seven times seven years.”
Those words reveal how the intervening years had transformed Martha Washington from an agreeable contort to a woman who had become the central person in her husband’s life.
Sally Fairfax and her husband had remained friends and neighbors of George and Martha until 1773, when they went to England to prosecute a lawsuit to establish George William’s right to a large estate left him by a relative but challenged in the courts by another relation. His right to inherit the Fairfax peerage was also at stake. They never returned to America. George William lost the lawsuit and died in 1787 a disappointed man.
In 1797, after Washington came home to Mount Vernon from two exhausting presidential terms, he learned that Bryan Fairfax, Sally’s brother-in-law, was going to England to inherit the title. George gave him a letter for Sally. It reported, perhaps unnecessarily, that “Many important events have occurred and changes in men and things have taken place” too complicated to discuss in a letter.
What he wanted to say to her was simpler and more important: none of those events, “nor all of them together have been able to eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments, the happiest in my life, that I have enjoyed in your company.”
In the same packet, he enclosed a letter from Martha.
Adapted by the author of The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers.