George and Martha Washington
"Your Entire George Washington"
Read George Washington's tender letter to his wife, Martha.
“Your Entire George Washington”
This is how General George Washington signed a letter to his wife Martha on June 23, 1775, an elegant phrase laced alluringly with surrender and vulnerability. However, records – and centuries of gossip– draw attention to a beautiful woman in Washington’s past. Her name is Sally Cary Fairfax.
In 1758, during the French and Indian War, 27 year-old Washington had just become engaged to Martha Custis. On September 12th he had written a letter to Sally Fairfax, the daughter-in-law of the wealthy and influential Colonel William Fairfax, whom young Washington had looked up to as a mentor and benefactor. Good neighbors and friends, young Washington had spent much time with the Fairfaxes and Sally at their Belvoir plantation.
In this letter, Washington calls himself a “votary” (or devotee) “to love” and acknowledges that “a Lady is in the Case.” He goes on to describe “the recollection of a thousand tender passages” he wishes he could forget, and speaks of a destiny that divides him from the object of his love. Historians have long speculated that Washington was referring to himself and Sally. However, as she was the wife of close friend George William Fairfax, and due to his own approaching marriage, love between them was impossible.
George William and Sally Fairfax’s childless marriage was likely a typical 18th-century union of convenience, arranged by class distinction and wealth rather than one’s heart. One could argue that the Washingtons’ marriage began similarly, as Washington is only known to have met the widowed Martha three times before proposing.
We are often left to perceive Washington as an old man wizened by war and the brushstrokes of nationalism; seldom as he was in youth – excitable, robust, athletic, and much charmed by women. Washington devotees rightfully want to keep the General unsullied and untainted by scandal and the impropriety of addressing such romantic insinuations to another man’s wife. To many, the idea of George Washington having feelings for a married woman is discomforting.
However, before we ascribe blame, here’s what the letter is not: an open declaration of love. It’s also devoid of any specifics that would mar his reputation, or Sally’s. It also did not ignore or denigrate his intended bride, Martha. In fact, Washington openly mentions his fiancée in the letter and even describes “possessing Mrs. Custis” as an “animating prospect”.
Despite the centuries of gossip and speculation, could it be possible that Washington bittersweetly and impulsively wrote to a woman he once loved, similar to declaring lasting affection to a high school sweetheart? Is it inconceivable that Washington (or any man or woman throughout history) could be attracted to a person he could not be with, and straining against the conventions of the time, was bursting to let that person know?
There is a difference between fantasy and reality, and Washington was aware of both. He very well might have felt an ardent love for Sally, but even as a young man he was practical. His honor mattered. This letter, although expressive, only obliquely references love. Washington knew anything else would prove injurious to his reputation.
Whether or not Sally had ever been his paramour we do not know. However, historians do agree that he found his “worthy partner” in his wife, Martha.
While the lovely Sally may have been placed upon the pedestals of idealization and nostalgia, Martha Washington took the form of beauty on the front lines. She offered him a sense of stability, traveling to be with her husband in wartime and bearing the horrors of camp life with grace and dignity. She was his confidante, his balm, his safe space.
Beautiful in her own right, a Polish nobleman described Martha Washington in later years, “she was at one time one of the most beautiful women in America and today there remains something extremely agreeable and attractive about her.” Others spoke of her character. A good friend of the Washingtons, Mercy Otis Warren, offered “the benevolence of her heart, and her affability, candor and gentleness qualify her to soften the hours of private life or sweeten the care of the Hero and smooth the rugged scenes of war.”
Washington ends his June 23, 1775 letter to Martha with another intimate stroke: “I retain an unalterable affection for you, which neither time nor distance can change.”
Here’s what we do know: Washington was capable of both great passion, and integrity.
Susan Dwight Bliss autograph collection, MS Fr 167 (57), Houghton Library, Harvard University.
Camp at Fort Cumberland 12th Septr 1758.
Yesterday I was honourd with your short, but very agreable favour of the first Instt.1 how joyfully I catch at the happy occasion of renewing a Corrispondance which I feard was disrelishd on your part, I leave to time, that never failing Expositor of All things.—and to a Monitor equally as faithful in my own Breast, to Testifie. In silence I now express my Joy.—Silence which in some cases—I wish the present—speaks more Intelligably than the sweetest Eloquence.
If you allow that any honour can be derivd from my opposition  to Our present System of management,2 you destroy the merit of it entirely in me by attributing my anxiety to the annimating prospect of possessing Mrs Custis.3 When—I—need not name it.—guess yourself.—Shoud not my own Honour, and Country’s welfare be the excitement? Tis true, 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 coud 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 entertaind, that there is a Destiny, which has the Sovereign controul 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 it4 not, nor expose it,—the World has no business to know the object of my Love, declard in this manner to—you when I want to conceal 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 ever shall see them.—the hours at present are melancholy dull.—neither the rugged Toils of War, nor the gentler conflict of A——B—s5 is in my choice.—I dare believe you are as happy as you say—I wish I was happy also—Mirth, good Humour, ease of Mind and.—what else? cannot fail to render you so; and consummate your Wishes.
If one agreable Lady coud almost wish herself a fine Gentleman for the sake of another; I apprehend, that many fine Gentlemen will wish themselves finer, e’er Mrs Spotswood is possest.—She has already become a reigning Toast in this Camp; and many there are in it, who intends—(fortune favouring)—to make honourable Scar’s speak the fulness of their Merit, and be a messenger of their Love to Her.6
I cannot easily forgive the unseasonable haste of my last Express, if he deprivd me thereby of a single word you intended to add.—the time of the present messenger is, as the last might  have been, entirely at your disposal.7—I cant expect to hear from my Friends more than this once, before the Fate of the Expedition will, some how or other be determind, I therefore beg to know when you set out for Hampton; & when you expect to Return to Belvoir again8—and I shoud be glad to hear also of your speedy departure, as I shall thereby hope for your return before I get down; the disappointment of seeing your Family woud give me much concern.—From any thing I can yet see ’tis hardly possible to say when we shall finish—I dont think there is a probability of it till the middle of November. Your Letter to Captn Gist I forwarded by a safe hand the moment it came to me.—his answer shall be carefully transmitted.
Colo. Mercer to whom I deliverd your message and Compliments,9 Joins me very heartily in wishing you and the Ladies of Belvoir the perfect enjoyment of every Happiness this World affords.—be assured that I am Dr Madam with the most unfeigned regard, Yr Most Obedient & Most Obligd Hble Servt
N.B. Many Accidents happening (to use a vulgar saying) between the Cup and the Lip, I choose to make the Exchange of Carpets myself—since I find you will ⟨n⟩ot do me the honour to accept of mine.
ALS, MH. The text of this letter appeared in the New York Herald on 30 Mar. 1877, and on 31 Mar. the Herald reported that Bangs & Co. in New York had sold it and another letter from GW, one for $13 and the other for $11.50. Because of its contents, the authenticity of the letter was questioned until the manuscript, undeniably in the writing of GW, surfaced in Houghton Library, Harvard University, in 1958.
Sarah Cary Fairfax, called Sally, married George William Fairfax in 1748.
1 George William Fairfax wrote GW on 1 Sept. (first letter) that he was writing in answer to GW’s letter to him of 27 Aug. and that his wife Sarah Cary Fairfax was answering GW’s letter to him of 22 Aug., both of which letters had just been brought by a messenger to Belvoir. Mrs. Fairfax’s letter of 1 Sept. has not been found. GW wrote on 12 Sept. not only this letter to Mrs. Fairfax but also a letter to her husband, both at Belvoir (see George William Fairfax to GW, 15 Sept.).
2 GW did not make a practice of making copies of his letters to his family and friends, and very few of the personal letters he sent to people in Virginia from Fort Cumberland during the summer of 1758 have survived; but judging from the letters written to him by friends GW never missed an opportunity to criticize Bouquet’s and Forbes’s management of the campaign.
3 This is the first and only allusion to Martha Dandridge Custis in GW’s surviving correspondence before 16 Jan. 1759 when Capt. Robert Stewart congratulated GW on his recent “happy union with the Lady that all agree has long been the just object of your affections.” GW visited the recently widowed Mrs. Custis in New Kent County three times earlier in the year, twice in March and once during the first week of June. It has been assumed that on one of these visits GW proposed marriage to Mrs. Custis and that Mrs. Custis accepted his proposal. It is not certain, however, despite some suggestive evidence, at precisely what time the young colonel made his proposal or at what time the young widow gave her acceptance, whether one or both was done during his first visits, or by letters during the summer or fall, or upon their reunion in December after GW’s return from the Forbes campaign. Whatever letters that may have been exchanged between GW and Mrs. Custis in 1758 have, like nearly all of the rest of their correpondence, disappeared; but in the numerous letters filled with personal allusions which GW’s devoted friend Robert Stewart wrote to him during the summer, fall, and early winter of 1758, not once does Stewart give any hint of knowing of an engagement between GW and Mrs. Custis. If, as is possible, GW was in September still in pursuit of the prize, this letter to Mrs. Fairfax may be read as little more than an ineptly facetious piece of banter. If, on the other hand, there was an engagement that remained something of a shared secret between him and the Fairfaxes, one is left to wonder whether GW intended in fact to direct some of his awkward gallantries to Mrs. Custis or, as is generally assumed, only to give the impression to prying eyes that his words were all meant for his betrothed though in truth intended for Mrs. Fairfax alone.
4 GW wrote “in” instead of “it.”
5 If this refers to Assembly Balls, as it seems to, his reason for not spelling it out remains a mystery.
6 Charles Smith wrote GW on 7 Sept. of John Spotswood’s recent death. In his early thirties when he died, Spotswood left a very large estate to his two young sons and his widow, Mary Dandridge Spotswood, Martha Dandridge Custis’s first cousin. The rich widow chose none of the eager officers for her second husband; she later became the wife of John Campbell of Williamsburg and Jamaica.
7 Thomas Burris delivered to George William Fairfax GW’s letters of 22 and 27 Aug. and returned to GW’s camp with the letters of Mr. and Mrs. Fairfax    written on 1 September.
8 George William Fairfax wrote on 15 Sept. that it had been decided that they would leave on 25 September. They were to visit his wife’s parents Wilson and Sarah Cary of Ceelys in Elizabeth City County near Williamsburg.
9 George Mercer, formerly GW’s aide-de-camp, was now lieutenant colonel in William Byrd’s 2d Virginia Regiment.
Cite as: The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.
Canonic URL: http://rotunda.upress.virginia.edu/founders/GEWN-02-06-02-0013 [accessed 03 Feb 2015]
Original source: Colonial Series (7 July 1748–15 June 1775), Volume 6 (4 September 1758–26 December 1760)
Henriques, Peter R. Realistic Visionary: A Portrait of George Washington. Charlottesville: U of Virginia, 2006. Print.
Lengel, Edward G. Inventing George Washington: America's Founder, in Myth and Memory. New York: Harper, 2011. Print.