Thomas, Baron Cameron, sixth Lord Fairfax, was George Washington's mentor, neighbor, employer, and friend. The relationship between the two stretched from Washington's teenage years until the end of the baron's life. The effect of this relationship on Washington's development was significant.
Fairfax was the man young Washington aspired to be; socially prominent, well-connected, and involved in important affairs. Ultimately, Washington's failure to achieve Fairfax's landed wealth and status, together with the Crown's refusal to grant Washington a royal officer's commission, hastened him into rebellion against Britain in the 1770s. However, even through the tensions of the revolutionary era, Washington remained respectful, even affectionate toward the aging aristocrat (the only English titled nobleman ever to reside permanently in the American colonies) until Fairfax's death in December 1781.
Thomas Fairfax was the eldest son and heir of the fifth Lord Fairfax and his wife Catherine, granddaughter of John Culpeper, Charles I's Chancellor of the Exchequer. Fairfax was born at Leeds Castle in Kent (in southeast England) on October 22, 1693. The Castle along with other lands in England, as well as a proprietary grant of land in Virginia between the headwaters of the Rappahannock and the Potomac (known as the “Northern Neck") were Fairfax's inheritance by 1719.
After a brief stint at Oriel College, Oxford, an officer's commission in the British army, and a youth spent largely partying in London and hunting in the countryside, Fairfax was brought to earth by his mother's insistence that he sell much of the Fairfax estates in England to liquidate his father’s debts. However, Fairfax refused to part with the Northern Neck. In 1664 and 1681 King Charles II had granted the Northern Neck to Fairfax's maternal grandfather, Lord Culpeper.
Fairfax first visited his Virginia lands in 1735, and was immediately attracted to the rustic beauty of the Blue Ridge. After a stint in Britain to establish legally where the "headwaters" of the Rappahannock and the Potomac were (the Privy Council in 1745 secured the northern Shenandoah Valley to Fairfax, as well as other lands that are now part of West Virginia), Fairfax returned permanently to Virginia in 1742, built an estate (known as Greenway Court) in what is now Clarke County, and in 1748 hired, among others, the sixteen-year old Washington to survey the Northern Neck.
The next decade (1748-58) was a formative time in Washington's life. He was a frequent visitor to Greenway Court, befriended George William Fairfax (the son of the Lord's cousin and agent, William Fairfax), and became familiar with the northern Shenandoah Valley, living in Winchester and receiving a commission in and command of the Virginia Regiment. Washington's friendship with and sponsorship by Lord Fairfax was instrumental in the young man's rise to political and social prominence. The two frequently went foxhunting at Belvoir on the Potomac. Fairfax supported Washington's successful bid for election to the House of Burgesses in 1758, writing that "I fear Coll. Washington will be very hard pushed," in the three-way race.1 The Lord also tried unsuccessfully to get Washington a seat on the Governor's Council in the early 1770s.
Lord Fairfax, a Loyalist at heart for personal, ideological and monetary reasons, managed to avoid expropriation of his lands by the Patriot Virginia government, possibly because of Washington’s protection. By the time the Americans achieved independence, the baron was in his eighties and was careful to express no open opposition to the Revolution or its leader. Washington kept tabs on the old man, writing from Valley Forge in March 1778 that "Lord Fairfax (as I have been told) after having bowed down to the grave, & in an manner shaken hands with death, is perfectly restored, & enjoys his usual good health, and as much vigour as falls to the lot of Ninety."
In December 1778, Washington wrote to Fairfax from camp in Middlebrook, New Jersey to complain of the encroachment onto his Fairfax County lands of a neighbor, Thomasin Ellzey. Washington explained, "I am perswaded that I need do nothing more than to bring your Lordship acquainted with these facts. . . . I neither hold, nor claim lands that have not been paid for . . . to your Lordship by quit rent. . . . I repose too much confidence in your known justice to harbor a moment's doubt" that Fairfax would stop Ellzey's claim. The matter was apparently resolved soon after.2
The bachelor baron of the Northern Neck died December 7, 1781 at Greenway Court, having lived to see the achievement of American independence made possible by his young protégé, George Washington.3
Curtis F. Morgan Jr., Ph.D.
Professor of History
Lord Fairfax Community College
1. "Thomas, Lord Fairfax to George William Fairfax, July 5, 1758," Edward D. Neill, The Fairfaxes of England and America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries: including letters from and to Hon. William Fairfax, president of Council of Virginia, and his sons Col. George William Fairfax and Rev. Bryan, eighth Lord Fairfax, the neighbors and friends of George Washington. (Albany, NY: Joel Munsell, 1868), 98.
2. "George Washington to George William Fairfax, 11 March 1778," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 11, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office); "George Washington to Lord Fairfax, 17 December 1778," The Writings of George Washington, Vol. 13.
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