George Washington to Sarah Cary Fairfax, Camp at Fort Cumberland, Sept. 12, 1758
I profess myself a votary to love — I acknowledge that a lady is in the case — and further I confess, that this lady is known to you. — Yes Madam, 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. — but experience alas! sadly reminds me how impossible this is. — and evinces an opinion which I have long entertained, that there is a destiny, which has the sovereign control of our actions — not to be resisted by the strongest efforts of human nature.
You have drawn me my dear Madam, or rather have I drawn myself, into an honest confession of a simple fact — misconstrue not my meaning — ’tis obvious — 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.
Readers of the New York Herald were no doubt surprised at the headline that ran on March 30, 1877. “A WASHINGTON ROMANCE: A Letter from General Washington Acknowledging the Power of Love,” it trumpeted.
George Washington developed a famously guarded public persona and went to great lengths to keep his feelings private. “He is in our textbooks and our wallets,” wrote his biographer Richard Brookhiser, “but not our hearts.”
But here was Washington proclaiming in his own words that he was a votary — a devotee — to love. The letter, written in 1758 just a few months before he married Martha Custis, a wealthy widow, had surfaced among some Fairfax family papers. What was most shocking — indeed appalling — was that Washington wrote the letter not to his soon-to-be bride but rather to Sally Fairfax, the wife of his good friend and neighbor.
Was there an innocent explanation for George’s professions of love? Might George merely have been informing his old friend Sally of his love for Martha?
Well, maybe. But George had been courting Martha for only a few months, and a few dances at a few balls in Williamsburg seem unlikely to have led to “a thousand tender passages.” In contrast, George had known Sally for a decade. Besides, if George was writing about his love for Martha, why not say so? Most biographers have concluded that he was writing of his love for Sally, not Martha.
Then why not come right out and tell Sally he loved her? George must have feared it would embarrass her or, if made public, enmesh them both in a scandal. He implies as much: “The world has no business to know the object of my love...when I want to conceal it.”
The letter was quickly sold at auction to an unnamed buyer and mysteriously disappeared, which understandably raised questions about its authenticity. It resurfaced in 1958 in a Harvard University library, and experts confirmed it was Washington’s handwriting. But well before then it had cracked open the cool and calm image Washington had cultivated and revealed a man of passion and, indeed, lust.
Still, there were many ways to interpret so coded a letter. George might have been reminiscing about a long-over fling. Or there may never have been a fling, just a flirtation. And even if George was deeply in love with Sally, as the language of his letter suggests, he may have been trying to find a way to tell her that despite his love he was marrying Martha.
We don’t know what Sally thought of all this. We know she responded to George, but her letter has been lost. She seems either to have not understood George’s meaning or, like him, to have been intentionally vague because he then responded: “Do we still misunderstand the true meaning of each other’s letters? I think it must appear so, though I would feign hope the contrary as I cannot speak plainer without—but I’ll say no more.”
Nor do we know what Martha thought of all this, though it’s perhaps revealing that Martha and George remained friendly with Sally and her husband, even after Sally and George Fairfax left Virginia for England in 1773.
There is no evidence that George was ever unfaithful to Martha; on the contrary, there is much to indicate that the Washingtons had a happy marriage, though details are frustratingly few since Martha ended up burning most of her letters from George. Whatever his feelings toward Sally, he put aside “the fine tales the poets and lovers of old have told us,” just as he advised his stepdaughter to do a few months before she married. “Love is a mighty pretty thing,” George wrote Elizabeth Parke Custis in 1794, “but like all other delicious things, it is cloying...love is too dainty a food to live upon alone.”
Yet George could never fully put aside his own passions. The year before he died, he wrote Sally. He looked back on the “important events” that had taken place over the past 25 years; these included, though he didn’t name them, his leading America to independence and his becoming the nation’s first president.
George added: “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 of my life — which I have enjoyed in your company.”