George Washington's friendships were selective but often long-lasting, loyal, and integral to his public life. Among his friends Washington also showed a capacity for intimacy and playfulness that was largely absent from his public persona.
Growing up in Virginia, Washington formed friendships with local families of his social standing. At sixteen, Washington met George William Fairfax and his wife Sally. George William Fairfax became a mentor to Washington, while Washington's admiration for Sally Fairfax turned into love. However, Washington's flirtation seems not to have interfered with his friendship with the couple. After Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis, the Fairfaxes were frequent visitors to Mount Vernon. Another neighbor, Henry Lee, also befriended Washington and subsequently served under him during the American Revolution.
Indeed, a number of Washington's closest friendships grew out of his Revolutionary War service. Washington befriended General Henry Knox during the Revolution and later named him Secretary of War in 1789. The two were friends for nearly twenty-five years, and Washington declared of Knox in 1798: "there is no man in the United States with whom I have been in habits of greater intimacy, no one whom I have loved more sincerely, nor any for whom I have had a greater friendship."1
The French Marquis de Lafayette, another general who served during the Revolution, formed a deep bond with Washington in the model of a father and son. For Lafayette, Washington felt "such perfect love and gratitude that neither time nor absence can impair."2 Washington also formed close friendships with his personal secretary and aid Tobias Lear, Revolutionary War General Nathaneal Greene, the physician James Craik, and Annis Boudinot Stockton, a New Jersey woman at whose house a number of generals dined during the war. Stockton wrote and published poetry extolling Washington's virtues, and he wrote playful replies to thank her for the flattering tributes.
In the 1780s Washington formed two significant friendships that supported his ever-increasing government duties. David Stuart married Washington's step-daughter-in-law, Eleanor Calvert Custis in 1783, and was incorporated into the Washington family. Stuart translated letters, wrote speeches, and kept Washington informed of the latest political developments when they were apart. During his time in Philadelphia in the 1780s and 1790s, Washington strengthened his friendship with Samuel and Elizabeth Powel, a wealthy couple he had first met in 1775 and in whose home he frequently found respite from his political duties. Mrs. Powel remained Washington's close friend throughout his political career and retirement.
Washington's friends remained important towards the end of his life. Only eight months before his death, Washington rode ten miles to his polling place to vote for his friend Henry Lee for Congress. Lee would later give the eulogy for Washington to a joint session of Congress in December 1799. At Washington's side at his death was his friend and physician James Craik. The friendships he formed carried down through his family after his death, as exemplified by Lafayette's bond with Washington's step-granddaughters, and Elizabeth Powel's friendship with Washington's nephew Bushrod.
Cassandra Good, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History
1. "George Washington to John Adams, 25 September 1798," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008).
2. "George Washington to the Marquis de Lafayette, 30 September 1779," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.).
Clary, David A. Adopted Son: Washington, Lafayette, and the Friendship That Saved the Revolution. New York: Bantam Books, 2007.
Maxey, David W. "A Portrait of Elizabeth Willing Powel (1743-1830)." Transactions of the American Philosophical Society. Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 2006.
Nordham, George Washington. "The Friendship of George Washington and Henry Knox." Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 119, no. 2 (February 1985): 100–3.
Rose, Ruth P. "Dr. David Stuart: Friend and Confidant of George Washington." Northern Virginia Heritage 10, no. 1 (January 1988): 9.
Shively, Frances Clark. “George Washington and Henry Lee.” Daughters of the American Revolution Magazine 111, no. 5 (May 1977): 467.
Stegeman, John F. "Lady of Belvoir: This Matter of Sally Fairfax." Virginia Cavalcade 34, no. 1 (June 1984): 4–11.