Sunday, January 2, 2011

A Votary to Love: George Washington on the Affairs of the Heart

by Michael Kaplan

Pater Patriae as Paterfamilias. The Washington Family. Edward Savage, ca. 1789-1796.


The Father of the Country a votary to love? Who would have thought it! This is George Washington we’re talking about, the man who defined gravitas. More a monument than a flesh and blood man, Washington exercised such ironclad discipline and self-control that he never betrayed a hint of emotion in public. To imagine Washington as anything other than formal and correct was just not possible. In 1858 Nathaniel Hawthorne, incredulous at the thought of sculptor Hiram Powers portraying Washington the nude, exclaimed: “What would he do with Washington, the most decorous and respectable personage that ever went ceremoniously through the realities of life? Did anybody ever see Washington nude? It is inconceivable. He had no nakedness, but I imagine he was born with his clothes on, and his hair powdered, and made a stately bow on his first appearance in the world.”

In truth Washington was a volatile and passionate man, especially in his youth. As he matured and worked his way up through the hierarchical society of Virginia’s planter elite, Washington learned to keep his passions in check and his words few and to the point. Yet as his cryptic correspondence with Sally Fairfax reveals, beneath the façade of Cincinnatus the flames of passion burned.

Sarah “Sally” Cary Fairfax (1730-1811) was something like the Kim Kardashian of her day: a grande belle (a rich party girl we would now say) who, with her posse of three younger sisters, stood at the center of high society in colonial Williamsburg. But of course this must be understood in an eighteenth-century context of elegance, sophistication, and restraint, rather than in the context of twenty-first-century vulgarity and hedonism. Actually, this overstates the contrast. Male Virginians, both of the planter elite and the lower sorts, participated in a culture of drinking, gambling, parties, and whoring that could be as licentious as anything in the celebrity culture of the twenty-first century. Washington was exceptional in his rejection of the hedonistic values of his society. Elite women, though, were excluded from the raunchier side of life in colonial Virginia. They took part only in the more elegant and sophisticated of social events. The sexual double standard held firm for the Virginia elite. This is important for understanding why the relationship between Sally Cary Fairfax and George Washington never went beyond unrequited sexual and romantic tension.

The Cary sisters were the daughters of Colonel Wilson Cary (1703-1772), a leader of the House of Burgesses (colonial Virginia’s representative assembly) and one of the wealthiest planters in Virginia. Sally grew up in luxury at the Cary estate, Ceelys, on the James River near Newport News, and in the Cary townhouse in Williamsburg. The Carys, who ranked among the First Families of Virginia, were also a junior branch of the British aristocracy; Colonel Cary bore the same coat of arms as Lord Hunsden in England. The Fairfax family of northern Virginia, into which Sally would marry, was likewise connected to the British peerage. One of Sally’s more illustrious relatives in British history was Sir Robert Cary, Earl of Monmouth and cousin of Queen Elizabeth, who won fame as Lord Warden of the Marches on the border between England and Scotland in the 1590s. Sir Robert wrote a memoir describing his efforts to suppress the infamous Border Reivers who kept the Borders in a constant state of violence. The clannish and turbulent culture of the Anglo-Scottish Borders would be transplanted to Northern Ireland in the seventeenth century and
to the American backcountry in the eighteenth century, where it would take shape as Jacksonian America.

Sally Cary Fairfax, around the time she met George Washington.

But the Anglo-Scottish Borders, and even the Virginia backcountry, were far away from Sally Cary’s world. Sally was afforded all the advantages that her wealth and social station could provide. Colonel Cary, who owned one of Virginia’s largest libraries, made sure that all four of his daughters were well educated. Sally was fluent in French, kept up with world affairs, and was well versed in music, art, literature, and dance. She also excelled in the feminine arts of charm and seduction: Sally was a coquette who loved wrapping Virginia’s most eligible men around her little finger. Sally and her sisters would make the rounds of Williamsburg’s fanciest balls when the House of Burgesses was in session, enjoying lavish dinners, dancing, and sophisticated conversation with Virginia’s movers and shakers. Returning home from one such ball during King George’s War, one of the wars for empire between England and France, Sally’s carriage was stopped by a sentry who demanded the watchword of the night. Her coachman not knowing what to say, Sally stamped her foot and said “But I am Miss Sally Cary!” Upon hearing her declaration the soldier said “pass.” The officer of the watch, being one of Sally’s many admirers, had made her name the password!

As historian Thomas Fleming comments, “The Carys enjoyed the pursuit of happiness long before it became the object of a new nation’s aspirations.” The one known portrait of Sally (above) Fleming notes, “reveals a slim, dark-haired young woman most people would call handsome rather than beautiful. But the narrow face is striking nonetheless: the deep-set dark eyes emanate a subtly mocking intelligence; the nose is strong and the mouth, firm and confident. Her waist is narrow and her bosom ample.” It would be easy, as Fleming says, to imagine Sally “as the leader of some lively revels.” In short, Sally Cary embodied all of the beauty, wealth, power, and sophistication of Viriginia’s planter elite; the world that the young George Washington was determined to enter.

At the age of eighteen, Sally Cary married George William Fairfax, son of Colonel William Fairfax, master of the Belvoir estate on the Potomac River. The colonel’s cousin, Thomas Fairfax, the sixth Baron Fairfax, was the largest landowner in northern Virginia, laying claim to a domain of five million acres, much of it in the unexplored lands of the west. Colonel Fairfax, a widower, was Lord Fairfax’s American land agent. The marriage of Sally Cary and George William Fairfax was a merger of two great Virginia dynasties. Love had little to do with it. It was soon after her arrival at Belvoir that Sally Fairfax met a young protégé of the Fairfax family, sixteen-year-old George Washington.

Biographer Ron Chernow observes that our iconic images of Washington come from Gilbert Stuart’s portraits of the 1790s “when the swagger and panache of his early days had faded.” They fail to convey the charisma of his youth and middle age, leaving us with a very misleading impression of who George Washington really was. (Chernow, Washington: A Life [New York: Penguin Press, 2010], p. 746.) The museum at Mount Vernon has constructed several figures of the young Washington based on forensic and historical evidence. The Washington they reveal leaves no doubt why a Sally Cary Fairfax or a Martha Dandridge Custis could fall for him. He was, in the words of Martha’s biographer Patricia Brady, “a hunk.”

The George Washington who Sally and Martha fell in love with.

But the sixteen-year-old George was also an awkward country bumpkin in serious need of a makeover. George’s older half-brother Lawrence Washington (who was married to the colonel’s daughter Anne Fairfax), the Fairfax family, and especially Sally Fairfax, were determined to give him some polish and sophistication. That George was over six feet tall, a natural athlete, and an excellent horseman, made the task much easier. The young Washington was also committed to the gospel of self-improvement; he had a ferocious work ethic (more like that of Puritan New England than the Virginia gentry) and was determined to do whatever it took to advance himself up the ladder of Virginia society. So Lawrence and Colonel Fairfax took charge of promoting George’s career, first as a surveyor, later as a soldier; George William Fairfax took George under his wing as a friend and social companion; and Sally Fairfax devoted herself to initiating George in the finer points of social intercourse with the fair sex.

Here is a video I found on YouTube of scenes from the 1984 television miniseries, George Washington. Jaclyn Smith and Barry Bostwick do an outstanding job bringing the relationship of Sally Fairfax and George Washington to life.


Even in youth George Washington had the presence of a natural leader. Or at least he did once he overcame the awkwardness and self-consciousness of his teenage years. Sally Fairfax played a crucial part in this transformation. Washington could never be considered handsome—not in the pretty boy sense we think of today. His face was pockmarked from a bout with smallpox and his teeth were rotting away; his nose and eye sockets were too large as were his hips, hands, and feet. Yet the whole was much more than the sum of its parts. Washington was an excellent dancer and his movements were graceful and fluid. As he matured and gained confidence as a military leader and plantation master, Washington’s presence would seem nothing less than majestic. Washington was always fastidious about his appearance, and whether dressed in his military uniform or in elegant high fashion, he would immediately dominate whatever room he was in. (Andrew Jackson was much like Washington in this.) Describing Washington when he assumed command of the Continental Army in 1775, Dr. Benjamin Rush wrote:

He seems to be one of those illustrious heroes whom providence raises up once in three or four hundred years to save a nation from ruin. If you do not know his person, perhaps you will be pleased to hear that he has so much martial dignity in his deportment that you would distinguish him to be a general or a soldier from among ten thousand people. There is not a king in Europe that would not look like a valet de chambre by his side.
(Benjamin Rush to Thomas Ruston, October 29, 1775, L. H. Butterfield, ed., The Letters of Benjamin Rush [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1951], Vol. I, p. 92.)

Washington’s charisma would have its effect on women. Lydia Minturn Post, a prominent New York lady, on meeting Washington during the dark days of November 1776, when the patriot cause seemed on the verge of collapse, wrote, “I will confess a womanly admiration of a noble exterior. Washington’s influence and authority must be enhanced by his gallant bearing and commanding figure, as he sits [on] his proud steed.” Martha Dangerfield Bland, the twenty-five-year-old wife of Colonel Theodorick Bland of Virginia, likewise fell under Washington’s spell. Writing to her sister-in-law Fanny Randolph from the Continental Army’s Morristown encampment in May 1777, Mrs. Bland described enjoyable afternoon parties on horseback with the commander in chief and his aides. “Now let me speak of our noble and agreeable commander (for he commands both sexes, one by his excellent skill in military matters, the other by his ability, politeness, and attention).” She noted the companionate relationship between George and Martha Washington, who had joined the general at the camp. “His worthy lady seems to be in perfect felicity, while she is by the side of her ‘Old Man,’ as she calls him.” On these outings, Washington could let his guard down and his flirtatious charm with attractive young women—the charm he honed with Sally Fairfax twenty-five years earlier—would emerge. “But I had forgot my subject, almost, this is our riding party, generally at which time General Washington throws off the Hero and takes on the chatty agreeable companion. He can be downright impudent sometimes, such impudence, Fanny, as you and I like, and really, I have wished for you often.”

Charles Willson Peale, Washington at Princeton, 1779. The charismatic commander in chief who sustained the Glorious Cause by inspiring his countrymen, and charming his countrywomen.

A close friendship developed between George Washington and Sally Fairfax as she embarked on the project of turning the young bumpkin into a polished gentleman. Washington’s education was sorely lacking. His formal schooling had been ended by his father’s death when he was eleven, leaving Washington the least educated of the major Founders. Drawing on her extensive library, Sally introduced George to history, literature, poetry, and drama, of which Joseph Addison’s play Cato, would have by far the most lasting impact on him. Based on Plutarch and first published in 1713, Cato was the most popular English drama of the eighteenth century. The tragic tale of how the Roman senator Marcus Porcius Cato the Younger (95-46 BC) sacrificed his life in a doomed attempt to save the Roman Republic from the dictatorial ambitions of Julius Caesar, shaped the Revolutionary generation’s understanding of honor, virtue, and the need to defend liberty by standing up to tyranny. Cato would be Washington’s favorite play and moral touchstone throughout his public life. He most notably staged a performance at Valley Forge to bolster the morale of the Continental Army’s officers and common soldiers. Washington
deliberately crafted a Catonic image, the image of a selfless patriot who put the public’s welfare above his own self-interest, which was the classical republican definition of virtue. By giving the young, impressionable Washington his first immersion in Cato, Sally Fairfax planted the seed that would become Cincinnatus, the man who could be trusted with power.

But long before these hints of future greatness came to fruition, Cato fired Washington’s romantic imagination. One of the play’s themes was the forbidden love between Cato’s daughter Marcia and the Numidian prince Juba. Sally would stage amateur theatrical performances at Belvoir with George taking on the role of Juba and herself playing Marcia. The roles were tailor made for them and could be a metaphor for their own relationship. Act I, Scene V, had special resonance for Washington. Here Juba proclaims his love for Marcia, declaring “At sight of thee my heart shakes off its sorrows; / I feel a dawn of joy break in upon me, / And for a while forget the approach of Caesar.” (I, v, 3-5) Marcia, however, will have none of it. She does indeed love Juba, but Cato has forbidden her to marry a non-Roman provincial. Marcia’s first loyalty will always be to her father and to Rome. Juba, she insists, must put aside his romantic yearnings and focus on the battle to come. “My prayers and wishes always shall attend / The friends of Rome, the glorious cause of virtue, / And men approved of by the gods and Cato.” (I, v, 15-17) Sadly, Juba concedes that there are greater issues at stake than their personal desire and happiness:

      Thy reproofs are just,
Thou virtuous maid; I’ll hasten to my troops,
And fire their languid souls with Cato’s virtue.
If e’er I lead them to the field, when all
The war shall stand ranged in its just array,
And dreadful pomp; then will I think on thee!
O lovely maid, then will I think on thee!
And, in the shock of charging hosts, remember
What glorious deeds should grace the man who hopes
For Marcia’s love. (I, v, 24-33)
Washington was falling in love with Sally Fairfax, but like Marcia, she could never be his. She was married to his friend, a member of the family whose patronage he needed to advance in the world. It didn’t help matters that Sally enjoyed having George under her spell. The tall, charismatic Washington was a true contrast to Will Fairfax, a diminutive, fastidious, and dour man, who did not exude much passion, and was more a courtier than a leader. But like Juba, George would ultimately place duty ahead of desire. When Lawrence Washington died of tuberculosis in 1751, Sally supported George’s decision to take up his late half-brother’s commission as an officer in the Virginia militia. Washington settled upon a military career as the path to fortune and renown. This was also a message he absorbed from Cato. Twenty-five years later, when he assumed command of the Continental Army, Washington phrased his acceptance to the Continental Congress in words straight out of Cato, pledging himself to serve “the glorious Cause.”

1 comment:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    ReplyDelete