“A Votary of Love”?
George Washington’s Relationship With
Sally Cary Fairfax
Presented at Gadsby’s Tavern
October 22, 2002
Copyrighted and not to be reproduced or copied without the written consent of the author
At the outset, in the interest of complete disclosure, I have to let you know my original title has been modified. Tonight’s talk will focus primarily on GW’s relationship with Sally Cary Fairfax and only tangentially on Martha. This is not because I believe that his relationship with Sally was more important. Indeed, I believe just the opposite. Perhaps the most important event in Washington’s rise to fame was his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis which gave him not only great financial wealth and the security and prestige which went with it [she was the wealthiest widow in Virginia], but also psychic security for Martha's love and support proved a balm for a man who had lost his father and had a troubled relation with his mother.
She is a pivotal figure in Washington’s life, and I am happy that Mount Vernon is devoting their annual symposium to Martha this year – which is the bicentennial of her death. I brought a brochure with me for those of you who wish more information [it will be Nov. 7-8] Indeed, I look forward to learning more about her and her relationship with her husband deserves an entire talk. [I will touch on it a bit more in next week’s talk on GW’s death] My reason for not spending more time on it tonight is that I simply found, as I worked to put my talk together, that to deal with the subject of Washington’s relationship with Sally Cary Fairfax adequately, I would not have time to do more than that. I apologize to those of you who came tonight expecting the focus to be on Martha. [Although I would guess that I would have to apologize even more profusely if I only focused on Martha and omitted the potentially somewhat racier topic of his relationship with Sally Fairfax. As a nation, we seem to have an especially strong curiosity about the sexual activities of famous people. But,on the whole, the inhabitants of the colonies and early republic were remarkably reticent about what went on in bedrooms – and elsewhere – so it is not likely that there will be much concrete evidence in the historical record.
As William Safire recently wrote, “Historians try mightily to get inside their subjects’ minds. They enliven the written record with intuitive judgment after subjecting it to rigorous professional discipline.” That is what I try to do, but I confess the evidence is often incomplete and subject to differing interpretations. I hope you will take the talks in the spirit in which they are presented – as food for thought about the life and character of America’s greatest son. You may agree with some conclusions and disagree with others, but if we all agreed on all the interpretations, historians would soon be out of business.
These words are particularly pertinent to tonight’s talk. Was George Washington in love with his best friend’s wife? Did he write her a love letter at a time when he was engaged to be married to Martha Custis? Was their relationship physical? What does the relationship reveal about Washington’s character? Many people, including many fine historians such as Richard Brookhiser and Don Higginbotham, would argue that the subject does not merit that type of attention. Some would go further and argue that the position I will put forth tonight verges on scandal mongering, attacks Washington’s character, and undermines his life as a role model for others to follow.
I would like to examine the story with you in some detail, outlining what we do and don’t know and engage in what I believe is “informed speculation” but admit it is nevertheless speculation about the best way to understand the evidence that has come down to us. You can decide if it is persuasive and if the story alters your perception of George Washington, and if so, in what way?
Perhaps the best place to begin is with one of the most fascinating and controversial letters George Washington ever wrote. Written on September 12, 1758 and addressed to “Dear Madam” the letter, although its syntax is convoluted, can only be properly called a love letter, a love letter in which George Washington declared himself "a Votary [devotee or enthusiastic supporter] of love."
Oxford dictionary: 4. One who is devoted to or passionately addicted to some partiuclar pursuit, occupation,, study or aim. 5. A devoted adherent or admirer of some person, institution, etc. [Definition in 18th c. Oxford Dictionary]
Let me quote the most pertinent parts of the letter [the entire letter is on line along with all of GW Papers published in the classic edition of the GW Papers edited by John C. Fitzpatrick – if any of you wish the web site, you may e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will send you the address and you can simply double click on it and go writing to the site. When you read the whole letter, parts of it are not easy to understand, because as GW get excited his syntax tends to get more complicated. Nevertheless these excerpts seem on the whole to be an explicit profession of love.
“'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 of her charms to deny the Power whose influence he feels and must ever submit to. I feel the force of her amiable beauties in the recollection of a thousand tender passages that I could wish to obliterate, till I am bid to revive them.
“You have drawn me, dear Madame, or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a simple Fact. Misconstrue not my meaning; doubt it not, nor expose it. The world has no business to know the object of my Love, declared in this manner to you, when I want to conceal it.”
Note, in this letter, GW admitted he was enthralled by "her charms," the power of which he "must ever submit." He recalled "a thousand tender passages" that he might try but was unable "to obliterate." He wanted his confession kept secret. " The World has no business to know the object of my Love, - declared in this manner to - you when I want to conceal it." The controversy of the letter is heightened by the fact that GW wrote it while he was engaged to marry Martha Dandridge Custis.
There is another puzzling aspect of the letter. It was first made public in a newspaper account almost 80 years after Washington’s death. It was immediately offered at an auction and disappeared from view. Considering that the letter seemed completely out of character [are these the words of a cold, aloof, passionless man?] and further, apparently showed Washington in an unflattering light, the letter was widely reported to be a forgery. In the words of a Washington scholar in the 1930’s, [Stephenson]
“If it still exists, its owner is keeping it carefully hidden. No writer on Washington has ever seen it – or, at least, will not say that he has. None of them has subjected it to the tests that any careful student insists on have made by experts in the matter of a doubtful manuscript – tests of paper, ink, handwriting. . . . The Romantics [those believing GW was in love with Sally Fairfax] are zealously holding in air an arch without a keystone.” Even today, there are websites who state that the letter is a forgery and lengthy tomes on GW, such as All Cloudless Glory by Harrison Clark, who ignore the letter – and Sally Fairfax - completely [perhaps the title of the book, All Cloudless Glory, hints at why he would not want to include this incident.]
As I emphasize to my students some disputes are strictly a matter of perspective [for example, was Washington America’s greatest President?] but other disputes are subject to rational resolution. The authenticity of the September 12th letter belongs in the second category. The letter is indisputably genuine – it is in the handwriting of GW and is now at the Harvard University Houghton Library, and has been examined and authenticated by Washington scholars. It is also clear, based on both internal evidence within the letter and also other strong circumstantial evidence, that the recipient of the missive was undoubtedly Sally Cary Fairfax. We may properly interpret the meaning of these facts differently, but if wish to strive for accuracy in our historical portrayal of Washington we have to deal with them.
Of course, the complexity of the story is compounded by who Sally Fairfax was. Born Sarah Cary in 1730, the eldest daughter of a very wealthy and influential family, the Carys of Ceely, Virginia, just north of Hampton, she grew up in the arms of wealth and sociability and was given many opportunities open to only the elite. Intellectually gifted, she wrote in French as well as English and quoted Juvenal and Locke[?]. Most importantly for our story, at the age of 18 she married George William Fairfax, six years her senior, and the son of William Fairfax of Belvoir. As you know, Belvoir was the plantation just north of Mount Vernon, where Lawrence Washington lived with his bride Anne, George William’s sister. William Fairfax, cousin and land agent of Thomas 6th Lord Fairfax, sole proprietor of the huge 5 million acre grant of land, the Northern Neck Proprietary, was a member of the Governor’s council, and perhaps the most important man in northern Virginia. Additionally, William Fairfax was George Washington’s most important patron and the man who more than any other opened doors for young George Washington. As Washington wrote to his brother, Jack, he was under many obligations to that family. Thus, if George Washington in fact was professing his love to Sally, he was doing it to the wife of a good friend and to a member of a family to whom he was deeply in debt.
Was Washington guilty of such ingratitude? Can one admit the geniuneness of the letter and that Sally was the recipient and reach any other conclusion? Several historians have tried. One of the less successful was the tack taken by John C. Fitzpatrick, the editor of the first serious edition of the Washington papers. In his book, George Washington Himself, Fitzpatrick argues that Washington is writing to Sally but is telling her that he is a votary of love to his fiancée, Martha.
Fitzpatrick is motivated in large part to this conclusion [which leads him to all sorts of strange twists and turns] because, in his words, to decide otherwise “requires an imagination unresponsive to the niceties of honor” and may portray Washington as a “worthless scoundrel” … “lacking in gentlemanly instincts.”
The best contemporary effort to exculpate Washington on this matter is in a soon to be published book, GW and Three Women, by my good friend and colleague, Don Higginbotham. Don is a first rate scholar in general and an expert on George Washington in particular. While we usually agree on our interpretation on various questions involving Washington, Don let me know he thought I was quote “hopelessly romantic” end quote on the Sally Cary Fairfax issue. He believes there is a better explanation that avoids having to face the implications of dealing with the fact that Washington confesses his love to his good friend’s wife at a time when he has pledged his troth to another woman. Basically, Don contends that the letters should be looked as “playful, quite possibly flirtatious” missives. He argues, Washington’s “flirtatious behavior hardly seems out of character for the age when men & women engaged in playful language replete with innuendo.” [Tranparency]. And of course he means sexual innuendo The letter, in short, is really not that big a deal. Others knew of their correspondence, and Washington’s amorous message to Sally was written on the same day he also wrote to her husband George William. It was not some secret epistle carried by a trusted messenger. Additionally, Don concludes, “The most compelling argument for playing down a strongly romantic version of the George and Sally relationship is simply their family interconnectedness.” A sex scandal would have been particularly painful to both families. There had been an earlier one involving Lawrence Washington’s wife, Ann Fairfax. [Which I spoke on here at Gadsby’s in a talk last year]. Another such scandal, involving yet another Fairfax woman, would be unthinkable.
While effectively presented, I do not find the argument persuasive. Certainly, many letters in the 18th century were written with sexual innuendos and should be taken with a grain of salt. The intellectual historian, Peter Gay, notes that writers “peppered their letters with exaggerations that seem cloying today, but were ritual formulas then.” George Washington clearly engaged in this type of sexual banter. Two examples, he wrote
To Annis Stockton, the woman to whom he jokingly wrote that she must come to dinner and dine with him and “go through the proper course of penitence, which shall be prescribed”, he also wrote: "Once the woman has tempted us and we have tasted the forbidden fruit, there is no such thing as checking our appetites, whatever the consequences may be."
When at Const. Conv he could not attend a play, School for Scandal with a female companion, Eliza Powel,[by the way another very important woman in GW’s later life] he wrote, [I] “can but regret that matter, after waiting so long to receive a lesson in the School for Scandal.” To Eliza Powell 30 July 1787
Note: Here is a better example not used in my earlier talk but could be added if I give it again – GW talking about Lafayette’s wife who said how much she cared for him. But at present must pray your patience a while longer, till I can make a tender of my most respectful compliments to the Marchioness. Tell her (if you have not made a mistake, and offered your own love instead of hers to me) that I have a heart susceptable of the tenderest passion, and that it is already so strongly impressed with the most favourable ideas of her, that she must be cautious of putting loves torch to it; as you must be in fanning the flame. But here again methinks I hear you say, I am not apprehensive of danger. My wife is young, you are growing old and the atlantic is between you. All this is
true, but know my good friend that no distance can keep anxious lovers long asunder, and that the Wonders of former ages may be revived in this. But alas! will you not remark that amidst all the wonders recorded in holy writ no instance can be produced where a young Woman from real inclination has prefered an old man. This is so much against me that I shall not be able I fear to contest the prize with you, yet, under the encouragement you have given me I shall enter the list for so inestimable a Jewell.
Unlike these types of letters, I would contend that a fair reading of Washington’s Sept 12th letter would not indicate that he is joking. This is not a “playful, flirtatious letter.” This is a deadly serious – if somewhat awkward – assertion of love, and he makes clear that the world has no business knowing anything about it. [Not the type of thing you would caution if you were in jest] The letter is remarkable among Washington’s writings, but it clearly conveys his emotions about Sally Fairfax– and I think it is important to remember that George Washington is essentially a very honest man. For example, if he does not feel great affection for his stepson, Jackie Custis, he is not going to write that he does. Right or wrong, admirable or not, George Washington is at this moment of his life in love with Sally Cary Fairfax. People sometimes fall in love with people they are not supposed to. This seems to be one of those cases.
Why he fell in love with her – and why he chose to write and confess his love for her in September of 1758– are impossible to answer with any kind of certainty, but there are a number of points, which taken together help us understand why such events occurred. From early in his life Washington was extremely ambitious win the position and fortune that would rank him with the great Virginia planters. Seeing his beautiful plantation, Mount Vernon, today, we forget that Washington was not born into the upper crust of Virginia society. Born into a second tier gentry family, the eldest son of his father’s second marriage, Washington’s formal education was cut short by the untimely death of his father when George was only 11. Washington needed and adroitly developed patrons to advance his ambition because, in the 18th century even more than today, one needed more than talent and drive to succeed. No patron proved more important than the powerful councilor, William Fairfax of Belvoir. Of course, Washington’s initial contact with the powerful Fairfax family was through his half-brother and mentor, Lawrence, who was a close friend of William and had married his daughter, Ann. Through visits to Lawrence, George was often at Belvoir, where he learned much of what it meant to be a true Virginia gentleman. "In all he did, young Washington shaped himself to the pattern prescribed by his culture. The Fairfax family, including the alluring Sally Cary Fairfax, was GW's finishing school.” [Longmore]
` Given the circumstances, it hard to imagine young George, an awkward sixteen or seventeen year old youth when he first met Sally, not being smitten with her. Here was a beautiful and cultured young woman, only two years older in age but many years older in terms of her knowledge of gentile society. Even Don admits their relationship was important in Washington’s development. In his words, “He undoubtedly learned a great deal about interacting with the fairer sex, including the social graces, from Sally Fairfax.”
And it should be noted that Washington learns to interact extremely well with the fairer sex. We know little about GW’s youth. It is clear he has some early unsuccessful encounters with women, but emphasis on this point can distort the fact that Washington over time became increasingly attractive to women.
Most Washington biographers tend to ignore that he was powerfully attracted to the female sex. One exception is John Alden who writes, quote “Washington was almost 27 by the time he married. He was a lusty young male, and one is tempted to infer that he had long been deeply interested in women, in legal or illegal unions with them. Moreover, despite his devotion to war, he had had time in which to pursue attractive ladies in the older settlements of Virginia and less sophisticated girls in the Valley. There were camp women who followed the soldiers in his campaigns. One may speculate that his unsuccessful courtship of Betsy Fauntleroy was accompanied by other less formal enterprises in which he did not fail to achieve success.” End quote.
Several surviving letters from his fellow officers imply that the Colonel had an eye for all “the fair Ones,” and that they were comfortable writing to him about such matters. In my view, they would not have written such letters to their superior unless they knew from their contact with him that he would not be offended. One wrote he thought that Bryan Fairfax, another son of William who joined the Virginia regiment at his father’s urging, was about to soften “his austerity in the arms of some fair nymph – could he reconcile the Toying, Trifling, Billing Sports of Love to the solemnity and gravity of his deportment – amusements and joys unbecoming of his philosophic Temper.” George Mercer, then a captain in the Virginia Regiment, had been sent to Charleston, South Carolina, from whence he wrote Washington a long letter describing the city and its inhabitants, subjects he thought his commander would find especially interesting. “A great Imperfection here,” he reported, “is the bad Shape of the Ladies, many of Them are crooked & have a very bad Air & not the enticing heaving throbbing alluring … exciting plump Breasts common with our Northern Belles.” Another letter from an officer who served under Washington during the French and Indian War clearly suggests that before his marriage Washington did more than admire women from afar: “I imagine you By this time, plung’d in the midst of delight heaven can af[f]ord: & enchanted By Charms even stranger to the Ciprian Dame.” A Cyprian dame was a sexually available or licentious woman, especially a prostitute. This particular one was called Nell.
However one judges this aspect of Washington’s sexual conduct [and admittedly, the evidence is scanty], one should recognize that the young George Washington of the French and Indian War is not nearly an attractive a figure as the George Washington of the American Revolution and beyond. In the words of one biographer, [transparency] “In his youth, insecure, aggressive, striving, goaded by a sense of the inferiority of his station, Washington was headstrong, uninhibited, and quite self-centered – in short not very lovable.” [We tend to forget a point I tried to make last week – namely that Washington was not born a hero with a perfect character but that he was capable of remarkable growth. The Washington we are focusing on tonight is still a young man, still trying to find his niche in the world]
If Washington was to quote Alden again “a lusty young male,” he was also an increasingly important and charismatic one. By age 26, thanks to war, Washington was one of the more important figures in Virginia. Among other examples, you can see this in his changing relationship with George William Fairfax – and undoubtedly with Sally as well. At age 16, George went on his first trip west as part of a surveying party that included George William. In his journal, Washington referred to him as Mr. Fairfax and clearly looked up to the older man [ then 24] as another mentor. By the time of the French and Indian War, however, the relationship had undergone a noticeable shift. Washington was now commander of the Virginia regiment. George William appeared eager to join the fray [although he never did] and wrote to Washington, “I beg that you’ll freely command me, being willing to serve under so experienced an officer and Commander as the brave Col. Washington.” Certainly, Washington biographer, James Flexner, exaggerates when he describes George William Fairfax “as a quivering white rabbit” in comparison to the dashing Virginia colonel, but Washington had a definite presence about him, and it is not going beyond the evidence to assert that Sally felt it as well as others.
When did Washington’s almost inevitable infatuation with Sally grow into something more powerful? Again, we can only engage in informed speculation. There are several known – and I think – important facts. 1. Near the end of 1757, Washington became extremely ill, took a leave of absence from the army, returned to Mount Vernon, and for a time feared that despite his efforts the “Grim King” [as he once referred to death] would win the struggle and he would succumb to his illness. 2. It is also known that Washington asked Sally’s help in procuring medicines for him. 3.It is also known that during Washington’s recovery period, George William Fairfax had left Virginia and was back in England trying to protect his claims to the Fairfax title. We don’t know how often George and Sally corresponded or how often Sally visited him at Mount Vernon. Unfortunately for us, Washington routinely and regularly destroyed all of Sally’s letters to him. [He followed his own advice that the “world has no business knowing” his thoughts in this matter]. The only fragment of a letter from her that survives does so because it was added as a postscript to a letter from her husband in 1755. Ironically, in that letter, Sally thanks heaven for his safe return [following Braddock’s debacle] and refers to GW’s “great unkindness” in refusing to stop at Belvoir and comments, “if you will not come to us tomorrow at morning very early we shall be at Mount Vernon.” There can be little doubt that Sally went to Mount Vernon and tried to nurse Washington back to health during her husband’s absence in Great Britain. What happened on those visits will never be known –although I think it is important to state there is no concrete or convincing evidence that they had a sexual relationship - although it is also true that Washington soon writes her that he feels “the force of her amiable beauties in the recollection of a thousand tender passages” [one wonders to what specifically he is referring to with the words ‘a thousand tender passages,’ but I am afraid we will simply have to wonder] At the very least, there was a window of opportunity for Washington, recovering from a near fatal illness, to become more deeply enmeshed with a woman for whom he had long felt a strong attachment and was now acting as a care giver. Later, in writing to his granddaughter, Washington makes comments that may have come from his own experience as well as from general observation on the human condition:
“A hint here; men and women feel the same inclinations to each other now that they always have done, and which they will continue to do until there is a new order of things, and you, as others have done, may find, perhaps, that the passions of your sex are easier raised than allayed.” Or again:
“In the composition of the human frame there is a great deal of inflammable matter…. When the torch is put to it, that which is within you must burst into a blaze.”
Perhaps the quote given earlier belongs here as well:
"Once the woman has tempted us and we have tasted the forbidden fruit, there is no such thing as checking our appetites, whatever the consequences may be."
Two factors may well have played a role in the timing of Washington’s decision to send this remarkable – and frankly very dangerous – letter to Sally. One is that he was about to embark upon the campaign to take Fort Duquesne, a very dangerous mission [Washington could not have foreseen that the French would abandon their stronghold without a fight]. Many of his men had recently been killed in action, and GW knew he own life would soon once again be put at risk. Isn’t it at least plausible to assume that facing death, he wanted Sally to know just how deeply he cared for her. And there was the matter of his recent engagement to Martha – who by the way, no matter how pleasant she was, Washington had spent remarkably little time with her [We must guard against reading back into their engagement those deep feelings Washington later came to have for “his dearly beloved wife.” At this time in their relationship there had not been enough time for Martha to perform “a thousand tender passages” for GW to remember] Again, is it not plausible to understand that Washington, knowing he was about to enter the permanent state of matrimony and end one chapter of his life, and knowing his relationship with Sally was doomed to be unfulfilled, still desperately wanted to know how she felt about him and whether she reciprocated his love for her. In the words of Douglas Southall Freeman, “George Washington was going to marry Martha but was hopelessly in love with Sally and wished above everything else to know whether she loved him.”
How did Sally feel? Again, the evidence is incomplete but tantalizing. First, and to me a point of major importance, SHE KEPT THE LETTER. The only reason we know anything about this story is that for over 50 years, Sally kept this letter in her possession. According to a relative, Constance Cary Harrison, [in Scribner's Monthly, July, 1876], “Upon her death, at the age of eighty-one, letters (still in possession of the Fairfax family) were found among her effects, showing that Washington had never forgotten the influence of his youthful disappointment." Does one keep a playful, flirtatious letter from a man not yet that famous for over 50 years? Certainly one does not keep such a letter if its purpose was to say how much the author cared for another woman! Or, rather, does one keep such a letter because it means a great deal to the person and one does not want to part with it [While a stretch, it brings to mind the story of a love that could not be so well recounted in the novel, The Bridges of Madison County.]
As far as the record is concerned, Sally never told anyone of Washington’s love letter to her [she was not part of the present kiss and tell generation – today the recipient would probably make the rounds of the various talk shows!], but it is indisputable that she kept the letter in her possession for her entire life. In my reading, I found one other hint of Sally’s feeling on the subject. After the war , Washington wrote George William Fairfax about the destruction by fire of Belvoir and commented, "When I viewed them [the rooms]--when I considered the happiest moments of my life had been spent there, when I could not trace a room in the house (now all rubbish) that did not bring to my mind the recollection of pleasing scenes; I was obliged to fly." George William commented in his response that Sally expressed no shock at hearing of the destruction of Belvoir, but hearing Washington describe the moments at Belvoir as the happiest of his life, "produced many tears & sighs from the former Mistress of it." It was not the destruction of Belvoir but hearing Washington describe his time at Belvoir as the “happiest of his life” that brought forth such a strong emotional response from Sally.
However she felt about Washington, and even if her actions had encouraged him to write the letter, such a profession of love as expressed in his September 12th letter presented her with a difficult dilemma. How should she respond? How could she respond without jeopardizing her marriage and her whole life style? This was a love affair that had no future – to pursue it would be disastrous to all involved.
Knowing this, Sally responded as if she did not clearly grasp what Washington was clearly trying to convey. Exactly what she said is lost to history because as was his habit Washington destroyed her letter, but in his reply of September 25th, another very interesting piece of evidence, Washington wrote in some frustration. “Dear Madam: Do we still misunderstand the true meaning of each other's Letters? I think it must appear so, tho' I would feign hope the contrary as I cannot speak plainer without, But I'll say no more, and leave you to guess the rest.” Of course the only way Washington could speak plainer was to explicitly say he loves her and he does not want to do that because she is his friend’s wife and he is engaged to Martha – but he wants her to know it nonetheless.
In Sally’s missing letter, she refers to a play that was performed – Cato: A Tragedy by Joseph Addison in which she played the part of Marcia. Cato, the story of a selfless Roman patriot, was Washington’s favorite play. He quoted from it often and later even had it performed for his troops at Valley Forge. In his response to Sally, Washington makes a veiled but revealing reference to the play:
“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.”
The play is full of Juba’s rhapsodies on the beauty and virtue of the object of his love, and the relationship between Juba and Marcia in the play has some connection to that between George and Sally in real life. Indeed, one Washington biographer [William Sterne Randall] suggests that Sally’s reference to her role as Marcia sent GW a coded message. Marcia was the daughter of Cato who sends away her secret lover, Juba, in the first act. Juba must keep hidden his forbidden love as he goes off to war against Caesar. In the second act, Marcia, believing Juba has been killed, proclaims her love for him while he is hiding nearby.
Juba then declares to Marcia:
Let Caesar have the world if Marcia’s mine.”
But their love cannot be. It is Marcia who says at the end,
“While Cato lives, his daughter has no right
To love or hate but as his choice directs.”
Sally’s husband is Cato and she his “daughter.” She was not available to Juba, whom Marcia declares is fated to make “any of womankind but Marcia happy.”
Is this putting greater freight on the words of their letters than can be properly put? Perhaps, but the connection is striking and worth considering.
Would Washington, like Juba, not have repined at his fate as long as he had Sally? Was he willing to throw away his future, give up his dreams of fame and glory, and publicly shame a friend to whom he was in debt for the joys of having Sally profess her love for him? Would he let passion reign and to hell with everything else? What if Sally had answered differently than she did?
We all know that George Washington will become the Father of our Country. We might think it was inevitable, but looking back, there were several turning points that would have made that impossible. What if his Mother had not prevented him from making a career in the British Navy? What if he had achieved his desperately sought goal of becoming a commissioned officer in the regular British army? What if one of the four bullets that pierced his clothes in the Battle of the Wilderness had been a few inches off in one direction or another? Our history would have been very different. The relationship with Sally Fairfax fits into this category. As one scholar noted, Washington’s love for SCF was as dangerous to his future as any bullet that ripped through his clothes. History would have been different if she had encouraged Washington to do something reckless. Fortunately, as historian John Alden notes, [Transparency] "In the end, however much Sally may have encouraged his addresses, she saved him from disgrace and preserved a great future for him."
A few other points need to be made to complete the story and to keep it in proper perspective. Despite his happy and satisfying marriage to Martha, Sally always held a special spot in GW's heart. I earlier quoted from GW’s letter about the happy times he spent at Belvoir. George William and Sally returned to Great Britain in 1773 and never came back to the United States. In time their possessions at Belvoir were auctioned off. The largest purchaser of items was George Washington. Undoubtedly, most if not all of the items purchased were for their utilitarian value. Those who enjoy psychohistory, however, might put special emphasis on the fact that Washington also purchased the pillows that had graced Sally’s bed. It might be noted that he also bought Sally’s clothes chest which he placed in his bedroom – leading one wag to note that Martha’s drawers were in Sally’s drawers. I agree with my friend, Don Higginbotham, that some people make much too much out of such purchases. As he notes, “It has been suggested that Washington received some sentimental, if not sensual, pleasure from having Sally’s bureau in his bedroom. The “romantics” have seemingly been unaware that another furniture item in the Washington bedchamber, a small bureau, came from Martha’s boudoir during her first marriage to Daniel Parke Custis. One hazards to guess whether there is meaning in their standing on opposite sides of the bedroom!” Yet the fact that some exaggerate the psychological impact of GW’s feelings for Sally on the other actions of his life, does not in my judgment negate the claim that it was a very important part of his life.
After not having seen her for 25 years, after experiencing the glory of winning the war for American independence and being the nation's first chief executive and national hero, Washington could still write Sally that none of the great events of his career [Transparency] quote"nor all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mind those happy moments, the happiest of my life, which I have spent in your company." The fact that he encloses a letter from Martha with this letter does not in my view detract from the fact that Washington looks back at his relationship with Sally as unique in his long and remarkable life.
Despite his love for Sally, although perhaps because of her reaction to it, it did not negatively impact on GW’s relationship with Martha or with George William. Washington remained good friends with George William [something that would not have happened if the later believed GW overstepped himself], and Martha became good friends with Sally although it is difficult to credit that she did not sense his affection for her. As the eminent scholar Douglas Southall Freeman has noted, "There survives not one echo of the gossip that would have been audible all along the Potomac had there been anything amiss in their relations." James Flexner continues this idea. “Surely it was no small and easy matter, in a situation so complicated and intimate, involving so many people they admired, and beset with such desperate quick sands, to find and traverse, year after year, a path that made trouble for none but themselves. Here surely was education for a man who was eventually to steer a new nation through history’s quick sands!”
I imagine some of you think I have been too critical of Washington for focusing on the story in the first place, and others of you may feel I should have stressed more the things that Washington said the world has no business knowing – namely the implications involving ingratitude and a failure of control on his part.
And yet, in another sense, isn’t it great to know that he was capable of such love in such a way. Personally, I tend to agree with the following assessment: [Rupert Hughes]
“His letter, however confusing to his idolaters, redeems him to humanity and, however pitiful as a confession, is magnificent as passion.” [Transparency]
However great he was, and on balance I have never studied a greater man, he was a man – and a man of passion. In the real world, people sometimes fall in love with people they are not supposed to. Happily, thanks in part to Washington’s character, and more to Sally’s restraint, the episode did not keep George Washington from the key role only he could play in the founding of our great republic. For very different reasons, I think we owe both of them a great debt.
Thank you very much.
Did not use:
“Experience will convince you that there is no truth more certain than that all our enjoyments fall short of our expectations, and to none does it apply with more force than the gratifications of the passions.”
GW was tolerant of human sexual failings [e.g. AH and GM]
Apparently BF criticize SCF – possibly for flirting with GW
GW was many things but one thing he was not – and would not want to be is a Puritan
GW’s Freudian slip – Says he will be disappointed in seeing her family. He meant “not” seeing them but really he did not want to see them, only Sally.
In the letter he makes clear he is very unhappy.
GWF’s letter re Sally sending seeds to GW “You know a flower was ever Mrs. Fairfax hobby.” Another thing linking them together.
Internal evidence that the subject of GW’s letter was in fact SCF:
GWF to GW 1 September 1758 writing in response to 2 missing GW letters “The first Mrs. Fairfax undertakes to answer as I don’t care to detain the bearer” whom he later describes as the “impatient man at my elbow”
In his letter of Sept 12, GW refers to receiving “the short, but very agreeable favor of the 1st and in the letter says, “I cannot easily forgive the unseasonable haste of my last Express [messenger] if he deprived me thereby of a single word you intended to add.”
GW received both GWF’s and SCF’s letters on the 11th and he answered both of them on the 12th.
Also: Stephenson, Ford, Robbins, Fitzpatrick, Longmore
A letter from Don
Pete, I read your GW-Sally piece with interest. Your certainly are
more careful and judicious than