Revolutionary War Historical Article
George Washington's Affair with Sally
Fairfax - Truth or Fiction?
by Donald N. Moran
While performing a living history program I was again asked about the "Love Affair" between George Washington and Sally Fairfax. This "Scandal" is often referred to by those trying to justify the immoral behavior of contemporary politicians by pointing out that our founding leaders behaved similarly. Therefore it is an often asked question put to reenactors and a question that demands a historically correct response. To answer it your Editor relies on the secondary sources of the writings of James Flexner, Douglas Southall Freeman, Benson Loosing and Washington Irving. Although all discuss the subject, their collective brevity and general discounting of the affair suggests that revisiting the primary sources might shed additional light on the alleged affair.
As background, the reader should know that Sarah "Sally" Fairfax was the daughter of Wilson and Sarah (Pate) Cary, a wealthy Williamsburg family. She was born in 1730 and died in Bath, England in 1811. She married George William Fairfax on December 17th, 1748 and they moved into the Belvoir Plantation with his father, William Fairfax.
George Washington inherited the neighboring plantation when his brother Lawrence died. Having little formal education and being a bachelor, the Fairfax's apparently took him under their proverbial wings. Surviving letters and diaries show that Sally taught Washington the social graces and how to dance which became a lifelong passion for him. William no doubt assisted his young neighbor in developing his plantation. It would be surprising if the bond between Sally and Washington did not become more then neighborly, but more like older sister to younger brother, or teacher to student.
The "love affair" brought forth by those who desire to tarnish Washington's reputation, is based on a couple of letters written by George Washington to Sally. The first, written from Camp near Cumberland, on September 12th, 1758 is the primary source of this contention. John C. Fitzpatrick, Editor of the thirty-nine volume "The Writings of George Washington", 1931, seriously debated whether or not to include this letter. The provinces of the letter are questionable. The only authority for this letter that has so far appeared, is the text printed in the "New York Herald" (30 March 1877) and in Welle's "Pedigree and History of the Washington Family", 1879. The letter was sold by Bangs and Company, Auctioneers, in New York, and the Herald, after it was printed. It then again dropped from sight. Apparently all four of the authors mentioned earlier also considered the letter suspect. Without being able to see the original, studying the handwriting, the paper and the ink, one must certainly consider it at least controversial
The Library of Congress has placed online the collection of 65,000 documents in the George Washington papers. In addition to providing an index, one can survey the entire collection, by using the "find mode" of your computer. Your author noted several words in the subject letter that he could not readily recall as having been used by George Washington - - using said "find mode" entered the words "disrelished", "misconstrue"and "votary" and discovered that the first two words were never used in any other documents, and the third, "votary", only three times! The Library of Congress, unlike John Fitzpatrick, elected not to put the September 12th, 1758 letter online. Therefore, the only time Washington used two of those words was in this one letter? The third word only three times? The scholarly suspicion given this letter by the biographers mentioned earlier did not have the advantage of computers to verify the usage of individual words, as we do. We, as a result of these findings reaffirm the position taken by the biographers, and go a step further. We believe the letter is a forgery.
Reviewing the fact that the existing postal system was nothing like it is today. There was no expectation of confidentiality. Additionally, any correspondence would easily come under the scrutiny of the husband, making it difficult to believe that a man as intelligent as Washington has proved to be, would risk writing his most secret feelings, but would have used a more clandestine method of correspondence.
In February, 1785, with the war over, Washington wrote George Fairfax and invited him and Sally to return to Virginia and stay at Mount Vernon while Belvoir was rebuilt. Belvoir had burned down in their absence. Then comes the final "love letter" written in 1798. Washington had concluded eight years of the Presidency and was finally able to retire to his beloved Mount Vernon. He wrote Sally eleven years after the death of George Fairfax. This was an exceptionally warm letter. He had learned that she was ill and in reduced circumstances and had not directly communicated with her since she and her husband left Virginia for England before the outbreak of the Revolution.
Mount Vernon, May 16, 1798
My dear Madam:
Five and twenty years, nearly, have passed away since I have considered myself as the permanent resident at this place; or have been in a situation to indulge myself in a familiar intercourse with my friends, by letter or otherwise.
During this period, so many important events have occurred, and such changes in men and things have taken place, as the compass of a letter would give you but an inadequate idea of. None of which events, however, nor all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mind, the recollection of those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.
Worn out in a manner by the toils of my past labour, I am again seated under my Vine and Fig tree, and wish I could add that, there are none to make us afraid; but those whom we have been accustomed to call our good friends and Allies, are endeavouring, if not to make us afraid, yet to despoil us of our property; and are provoking us to Acts of self-defence, which may lead to War. What will be the result of such measures, time, that faithful expositor of all things, must disclose. My wish is, to spend the remainder of my days (which cannot be many) in rural amusements; free from those cares from which public responsibility is never exempt.
Before the War, and even while"it existed, altho' I was eight years from home at one stretch, (except the enpassant visits made to it on my March to and from the Siege of Yorktown) I made considerable additions to my dwelling house, and alterations in my Offices, and Gardens; but the dilapidation occasioned by time, and those neglects which are coextensive with the absence of Proprietors, have occupied as much of my time, within the last twelve months in repairing them, as at any former period in the same space and it is matter of sore regret, when I cast my eyes towards Belvoir, which I often do, to reflect that the former Inhabitants of it, with whom we lived in such harmony and friendship, no longer reside there; and that the ruins can only be viewed as the memento of former pleasures; and permit me to add, that I have wondered often, (your nearest relations being in this Country), that you should not prefer spending the evening of your life among them rather than close the sublunary Scene in a foreign Country, numerous as your acquaintances may be, and sincere, as the friendships you may have formed.
A Century hence, if this Country keeps united (and it is surely its policy and Interest to do so) will produce a City, though not as large as London, yet of a magnitude inferior to few others in Europe, on the Banks of the Potomack; where one is now establishing for the permanent Seat of the Government of the United States (between Alexandria and Georgetown, on the Maryland side of the River). A situation not excelled for commanding prospect, good water, salubrious air, and safe harbour by any in the world; and where elegant buildings are erecting and in forwardness, for the reception of Congress in the year 1800.
Alexandria, within the last seven years, (since the establishment of the General Government) has increased in buildings, in population, in the improvement of its Streets by well executed pavements, and in the extension of its Wharves, in a manner, of which you can have very little idea. This shew of prosperity, you will readily conceive, is owing to its commerce, the extension of that trade is occasioned in a great degree by opening of the Inland navigation of the Potomack River; now cleared to Fort Cumberland, upwards of 200 miles, and by a similar attempt to accomplish the like up the Shenandoah] 150 miles more. In a word, if this Country can steer clear of European politics, stand firm on its bottom, and be wise and temperate in its government, it bids air to be one of the greatest and happiest nations in the world.
Knowing that Mrs. Washington is about to give a you an account of the changes which have happened in a the neighborhood and in our own family I shall not trouble you with a repetition of them; . . . receive accurate information. . . from particular friends, from . . . and having only one. . . miles. . . I have not been as far as Occoquan these seven years; . . . from hoping it. Be that as it may,. . . and under all circumstances, I shall...be..."
The press copy was poorly made. Words indicated s by leaders [. . . ] are illegible. The draft of this letter from Martha Washington is in the "Writings of Washington"
and is dated May 17, 1798.
Most men, as they age, look back on their youth with nostalgia. Certainly Washington did - his life was relatively uncluttered then, and certainly with nothing comparable to the responsibilities of being the Commander-in-Chief of a revolutionary army, and later the founding President of a new republic. Yes, the happiest moments of his life probably did involve Belvoir Plantation.
Martha Washington certainly did not know about the September 1758 letters from her husband to Sally Fairfax, if said letters truly existed. She was very much aware of the 1798 letter to Sally. It was so non-clandestine that a copy was kept in Washington's letter book, and preserved among his papers. She wrote a long post script conveying to Sally all the local happenings, births, deaths, etc. She expressed her regret of not having Sally's company as her companion since they had come home and settled back in Mount Vernon.
If Martha had any questions about the place Sally had in her husband's heart, they had probably faded away during their forty years of marriage and sharing so many hardships brought about by the eight years of war and eight years of the presidency. Additionally, in 18th century correspondence men often expressed themselves in much more familiar terms than our present generation. Among those now archaic styles of writing, one often finds salutations such as "with great affection", "love", etc.
I have no doubt that Sally Fairfax held a special place in the heart of George Washington, she was his social mentor, wife of one of his closest friends, and his closest neighbor. Perhaps if she was not married, he may well have wanted to take her as his wife, but she was married to his, then, best friend.
There is no evidence of anything more serious then a very close neighborly connection between George Washington and Sally Fairfax, and the above letters should be completely discounted by those studying Washington.