Sally Fairfax was a woman deeply loved by George Washington. A dark-eyed beauty known for her intelligence, Fairfax entertained Washington at Belvoir, her husband's estate on the Potomac just south of Mount Vernon. Lawrence Washington, who had married Sally's sister-in-law Anne Fairfax, often brought his younger brother George to Belvoir.
Fairfax gave the awkward adolescent Washington a polish that helped him later. She first met Washington in 1748 when she was eighteen years old. Two years his senior, Fairfax taught him the best manners for moving in Virginia's highest circles, including how to converse with powerful men, charm their wives and daughters, and even dance the minuet. She opened a new world of history, philosophy, and literature to Washington. By the time he served in the French and Indian War, Washington, now engaged to Martha Custis, admitted to Sally that he loved her. "The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to – you," he wrote, "when I want to conceal it."1
Even if they had met under different circumstances, there would have been little chance for a match. Washington described their relationship in terms of Sheridan's play Cato, which he often read with Fairfax. He must forever play Juba, a soldier from the provinces, to her Marcia, the Roman ruler's daughter. Washington came from the middling planter class, but Fairfax, born Sarah Cary in 1730, came from one of the wealthiest families in Virginia. Her father Colonel Wilson Cary owned Ceelys, a large plantation on the south side of the James. While his favorite daughter Sally had many suitors, Colonel Cary would only allow her to marry someone of equal rank. She finally met a man worthy of her at the Governor's Ball in Williamsburg in 1747. He was George William Fairfax, the eldest son of Sir William Fairfax and part of Virginia's largest landowning family.
Remaining ever faithful to her marriage, Fairfax also remained a close friend of Washington and his wife Martha, visiting them frequently at Mount Vernon. But in 1773, she moved to England with her husband who was determined to become the next Lord Fairfax. From then on Fairfax's life was haunted by tragedy. Her noble in-laws looked down on her and never granted a title to her husband.
Back in Virginia, Fairfax's brother lost the Cary fortune while the state confiscated the holdings of the Fairfax family for being Loyalists. After George Fairfax died in 1787, Sally retired to a quiet life in Bath. She heard from Washington for the last time in 1798 when he wrote urging her to come back to Virginia. He added that nothing could "eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company." But she never returned, dying alone in England in 1811. She left no record of her feelings for Washington, except for a cryptic line written to a family member: "I know now that the worthy man is to be preferred to the high-born."2
Mary Stockwell, Ph.D.
1. "George Washington to Mrs. George William Fairfax, 12 September 1758," The Papers of George Washington Digital Edition, ed. Theodore J. Crackel (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2008.)
2. "Sally Fairfax to a Sister-in-Law in Virginia, 1788," quoted in Wilson Miles Cary, Sally Cary: A Long Hidden Romance of Washington's Life (New York: The De Vinne Press, 1916), 45.
Cary, Wilson Miles. Sally Cary: A Long Hidden Romance of Washington's Life. New York: The De Vinne Press, 1916.
Fleming, Thomas. The Intimate Lives of the Founding Fathers. New York: HarperCollins, 2009.
Fleing, Thomas. "Washington in Love." American Heritage 59 (Fall 2009) 3: 42-51.
Washington, George. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscripts, Volume 2, ed. John Fitzpatrick. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931-1944.