CooperToons HomePage Merry History Dept. of Education CooperToons Books Life of George Washington

George & William & Sally & Martha

A Most Merry and Illustrated Inquiry

George & William & Sally & Martha

L to R: William & George & Sally & Martha

On July 26, 1755, Lieutenant Colonel George Washington was relaxing at Mount Vernon. He had recently returned from the French and Indian Wars where he had been on the staff of the British General Edward Braddock. Edward had come from England and had been ordered to drive the French out of Pittsburgh - then called Fort Duquesne (pronounced doo-KANE). Edward had commandeered equipment and men for the journey, and everyone got together at Cumberland, Maryland. Then they set out.

The trip took longer than expected, mainly because Edward decided they had to build a new road along the way. Then ten miles east of Pittsburgh and at what is now known as the Battle of the Monongahela, the French stomped Edward and his troops into the ground. Edward was killed, and the rest of the army returned to Virginia in disgrace.

Except George, of course. He emerged as a hero.

In fact, George had widely been credited with saving the remaining soldiers from annihilation. Despite a case of hemorrhoids so bad he had to tie a pillow to his saddle, George had organized a command to protect the army as they beat their retreat back to Virginia.

But on that day as George sat at Mount Vernon - there were plenty of cushions there - George received a girlishly twittering letter from three young admirers.

Dear Sir,

After thanking heaven for your safe return, I [an editorial "I" obviously] must accuse you of great unkindness in refusing us the pleasure of seeing you this night. I do assure you nothing but our being satisfied that our company would be disagreeable should prevent us from trying if our legs would not carry us to Mount Vernon this night. But if you will not come to us tomorrow morning very early, we shall be at Mount Vernon.

Sally Fairfax
Ann Spearing
Elizabeth Dent

We don't know much about Ann or Elizabeth, but we do know quite a bit about Sally. Born Sarah Cary, she was the wife of George William Fairfax. Sally (as she preferred) and William lived at Belvoir Mansion a few miles down the Potomac shore from Mount Vernon.

William's dad, William, Sr., was a long time friend to the Washington family and had been something of a surrogate father to young George. It was William, Sr., who ten years earlier had helped teach George surveying. It was about that time - when George was 16 - that the 18-year-old William, Jr., married Sally who was about the same age.

You'll sometimes read that George wanted to marry Sally but he was too low born for Mr. Cary's oldest daughter. So Papa Cary arranged Sally's marriage with William. Who knows? William might be Lord Fairfax some day.

The only trouble with this rather simplistic scenario - the Washington's were too low-brow for the Cary family but the Fairfaxes weren't - is that Lawrence Washington, George's elder half-brother, had married Anne Fairfax, William's sister.

Instead it's more likely that in 1848, the 18-year-old Sally just didn't put the 16-year-old George at the top of her list. But by 1755, the gangling adolescent had grown to a strapping 6' 2" 24-year old war hero and had been catching the eye of the young 20-something belles of tidewater Virginia.

But we shouldn't read too much in the girls' letter. Flirtatious correspondence was a common occupation for the young ladies in the 18th century. It was all open and above board. In fact, the letter from Sally and her friends was included in a letter which Sally's husband, William had written. William had also welcomed George back home and asked him to come for a visit.

William and Sally were among George's best friends and they made the trip back and forth from Mount Vernon and Belvoir all the time. And it's evident from the letters of George and Sally and William (and Ann and Elizabeth), they were good friends indeed.

And just how good friends were they?

Well, they were such good friends that many people first learn about Sally when they read the blaring headlines


After all, George having extra girlfriends has appeared in docudramas and miniseries and is further affirmed by talking heads on what was once called educational television but now prefers airing shows about ancient aliens, ghosts, and includes authentic footage from the 1950's that were obviously shot with held-held camcorders that weren't invented for another 40 years. Why, you can even read the headline about Sally in one of those non-electronic devices with white flappy things in the middle. So how can it not be true?

Now there's one thing to remember when you read the amazing little known facts that probably never happened. If something did really happen, there must be some source that can be traced down to the event itself. If your only information is something your great-grandpappy told your grandfather a century after it happened, you can bet it's bogus. On the other hand, sometimes we can point to sources which are authentic, but on closure scrutiny don't prove what you think they do.

The idea that George and Sally were dancing the minuet (wink, wink) comes from three letters. Two of them George wrote in 1758 and the other in 1798.

George wrote the first letter when he was going back to Pittsburgh with British General John Forbes. John's army was (again) trying to drive the French out of Pittsburgh.

Believe it or not, this expedition was a success. Or rather when the British Army got to Pittsburgh, they found the French had skinned out. The English walked into the fort and renamed it Fort Pitt. So we now have the Pittsburgh Pirates and not Les Pirates du Duquesne.

But on September 12, 1758, George was sitting in camp - again in Cumberland, Maryland - and not doing much. So he wrote a letter to Sally.

We must admit that by today's standards this letter is not something you would write to another man's wife even if you're all good friends. But before we move from the standards of our times to the standards of George's time, let's actually read the letter. And to avoid any claims of "taking the quote out of context", we'll include the entire letter. We'll also make the reading a bit less onerous - George was often a windbag - and add some commentary and explanations on the way.

First George starts off:

Dear Madam [with a few exceptions, in 18th century you did not address people by name - not even friends or relatives - and instead used titles like "Sir", "Madam", "Brother", "Sister", "Cousin", and even "Husband" and "Wife"],

Yesterday I was honored with your short, but very agreeable favor of the first instance [that means George got her last letter dated September 1]. How joyfully I catch at the happy occasion of renewing a correspondence which I feared was disrelished on your part [so Sally hadn't written George for a while]. I leave to time, that never failing expositor of all things, and to a monitor equally as faithful in my own breast, to testify. In silence I now express my joy, silence which in some cases I wish the present speaks more intelligibly than the sweetest eloquence.

OK. Nothing wrong here, but for a guy who goes on about about silence, George sure talks a heck of a lot.

George continues:

If you allow that any honor can be derived from my opposition to our present system of management, [George is griping that he doesn't think General Forbes knew what he was doing], you destroy the merit of it entirely in me by attributing my anxiety to the animating prospect of possessing Mrs. Custis.

The mention of "possessing" Mrs. Custis was a reference to George planning to marry Martha. That Martha was already a "Mrs." was because she had been married previously (her first husband had died in 1757). We know that George and Martha were planning to get married since on July 20th George had written a letter to Martha mentioning their "pledge".

But to Sally, George writes on:

When (I need not name it, guess yourself) should not my own honor and country's welfare be the excitement?

In other words, George is saying it would be better for his reputation as a military officer that people think that any anxiety he has is because he is worrying about the upcoming campaign - not thinking about Martha.

Now here is where things start to get interesting.

'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 could wish to obliterate, till I am bid to revive them.

Now George is beginning to speak with admirable ambiguity. For instance, he could be waxing enthusiastic about his upcoming nuptials with Martha. But that interpretation comes into question as George writes on:

But experience, alas, sadly reminds me how impossible this is and evinces an opinion which I have long entertained, that there is a destiny which has the sovereign control of our actions not to be resisted by the strongest efforts of human nature.

Now is George saying it is "impossible" to "obliterate" the force of Martha's "amiable beauty"? Well, we guess that's possible. Or is he talking about ... someone else?

The latter possibility seems more likely as we read on:

You have drawn me, my dear madam [that "madam" stuff again], or rather have I drawn myself, into an honest confession of a simple fact. Misconstrue not my meaning. 'Tis obvious [as we'll see it wasn't all that obvious]. Doubt it not nor expose it.

Now it doesn't make sense for George to tell Sally not to "expose" his true meaning if he's talking about Martha. And in the next paragraph, we can really see that he is talking about someone else:

The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared 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.

Clearly George can't be talking about Martha if the world has no business to know the "object of his love". So at this point, most everyone agrees George is talking about Sally - and George is trying to smoodge her.

But perhaps realizing he may be going a bit too far, George starts to simmer down:

The hours at present are melancholy dull. Neither the rugged toils of war [that is, George hasn't fought a battle on the expedition] nor the gentler conflict of A- b-s [George means "Assembly Balls" - that is the fancy dance parties that the George and his fellow soldiers often went to - which he abbreviated probably since the word "balls" - like the word "nuts" in the later day Ozarks - was not something used in polite company] is in my choice. I dare believe you are as happy as you say. I wish I was happy also. Mirth, good humor, ease of mind, and what else, cannot fail to render you so and consummate your wishes.

At the "consummate your wishes" George may have been writing with a wink. But George now switches gears once again although it's not immediately evident:

If one agreeable lady could almost wish herself a fine gentleman for the sake of another, I apprehend that many fine gentlemen will wish themselves finer. Ever [George may mean "even"] Mrs. Spotswood is possessed. She has already become a reigning toast in this camp, and many there are in it who intends [18th century grammar here] (fortune favoring) to make honorable scars speak the fullness of their merit and be a messenger of their love to her.

So George is now talking about a "Mrs. Spotswood" who was a recently widowed cousin of Martha's. She, like Martha (and Sally), was quite well-to-do and so sought after by many would-be gentlemen. What she was doing in a military camp we can only guess (or maybe we shouldn't guess).

George continues but starts throwing in even more mundane matters:

I cannot easily forgive the unseasonable haste of my last express, if he deprived me thereby of a single word you intended to add.

Here the 18th century English can start making things confusing. The "last express" means the person who delivered the mail. In that day, mail was usually sent by private individuals, who would be anxious to head out and so Sally might have to cut short her letter writing. But George goes on to tell Sally she can take her time with the next mail carrier.

The time of the present messenger is, as the last might have been, entirely at your disposal.

Now George starts to make some remarks about the inconvenience of being on General Forbes' trip.

I can't expect to hear from my friends more than this once before the fate of the expedition will, somehow or other, be determined. I therefore beg to know when you set out for Hampton, and when you expect to return to Belvoir again [that is, Sally was going to Hampton, Virginia, about 150 miles from Belvoir], and I should be glad to hear also of your speedy departure, as I shall thereby hope for your return before I get down.

In this next sentence it's a bit difficult to get just what George actually means:

The disappointment of seeing your family would give me much concern.

Now George just can't help but make another dig at General Forbes.

From anything I can yet see 'tis hardly possible to say when we shall finish. I don't think there is a probability of it 'till the middle of November.

Now - interestingly - we find George is an "express" for Sally's letters to other gentlemen.

Your letter to Captain Gist I forwarded by a safe hand the moment it came to me. His answer shall be carefully transmitted.

"Captain Gist" was Christopher Gist. Christopher was George's guide on his first journey to Pittsburgh in 1753 and subsequent trips. [You can read about George's first trip if you click here and even buy a Merrily Annotated Edition of George's own account by clicking here.] But what is interesting is Sally obviously kept up considerable correspondence with other men, even frontiersmen like Christopher.

George continues, saying:

Colonel Mercer, to whom I delivered your message and compliments, joins me very heartily in wishing you and the ladies of Belvoir the perfect enjoyment of every happiness this world affords.

So we see Sally not only writes letters to George and Christopher but also now to a Colonel Mercer. And George was practically Sally's postmaster!

Finally George has to close. There is, after all, a war on. So how does he sign off?

Does he write:

XXX, George

Or maybe:

Your Hunk, Big George

Or even:

Lovey-Dovey, Georgie-Worgie

Nope. He closes in proper 18th century style:

Be Assured That I Am,
Dear Madam,
With the Most Unfeigned Regard,

Your Most Obedient
And Most Obliged Humble Servant,

George Washington

But Loquacious George isn't quite done yet. He adds:

N. B. [that is, "P. S."] 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 not do me the honor to accept of mine.

Once more it's a bit difficult to see exactly what George is driving at. But in George-ese, he seems to be saying that because of everything that's happening, he must make overtures to Sally since Sally is not taking the initiative.

OK, so what do we make about George's most famous - quote - "love letter" - unquote?

First of all, the letter - to us - is a rather strange mixture of formality, expostulations of being a "votive of love", making comments about his "possession" of Martha, saying something is impossible, talking of how Martha's cousin is the toast of the camp, griping about the general leading the military expedition, and ending with a postscript reproaching Sally that she isn't reciprocating in some way.

Now to make sense of what George is saying - or at least how he is saying it - we must digress into the provenance of this letter.

Throughout his life George kept copies of his correspondence and bound them into books. After he died, the remaining loose letters were copied, collated, and made available to scholars. They were published over the years, and in the early 20th century, the Washington expert, John C. Fitzpatrick, put together an edition of George Washington's diaries, letters, and journals.

But some of George's letters were left out.

Such as the one to Sally.

The letter, in fact, didn't surface until 1877, almost four score years after George died. It was first published in an article in the New York Herald announcing the letter was being put up for auction along with other correspondence found in the possession of the Fairfax family.

Strangely, few people showed any interest. At first no one even entered a bid. And when the letter was finally sold to an anonymous buyer, it went for $13. Even correcting for inflation, this is virtually nothing.

After the sale, the letter disappeared, and some historians doubted its authenticity. But even those who accepted George's authorship denied it was written to Sally. Instead John believed that the steamy parts were indeed about Martha. After all, John snorted, if the letter was to Sally, then George would have been a "worthless scoundrel". Another historian suggested the letter was to one of Sally's unmarried sisters. So the iconic marble-hewn George Washington stayed intact.

But then in the late 1950's - 80 years after the letter was auctioned off and vanished - hey, presto!, the original showed up at the Harvard Houghton Library. The writing was definitely in George's hand, and now modern historians accept the letter was from George to Sally.

So how does this letter prove:


Well, to show what the letter proves or doesn't prove, let us return to those thrilling days of yesteryear, the 18th century.

One of the mistakes often made by modern-day tabloid historians is they misunderstand social customs of the time. So today you'll read that George - who wore his hair in a ponytail - was a cross-dresser or that Abraham Lincoln - who shared his bed with his law partner when riding the circuit - was an early fancier of same gender relations. And one author pointed out that Margaret, the sister of the early American realist painter Thomas Eakins, dressed up like a man when she went skating. So the Eakins family must have been a bunch of oddballs.

Of course, in George's time, gentlemen often tied their long hair back in what they called a queue. That is, a ponytail - just like many men do today. And Abe and his partner shared beds in the hotels because in that day and age you had to double up unless you wanted to sleep on the floor. And it's hard to understand how a 19th century woman wearing a 19th century woman's skating costume is dressed like a man.

But back to George and his letters.

By the 18th century, letter writing had become the pastime for the uppercrust. Without television, radio, the Internet, and in a day when travel was uncertain and at times impossible, "keeping up correspondence" was a major passive entertainment.

There were even how-to books on "proper" letter writing. So when following the instructions, the language in the letters was a combination of formality and flower. We see George greeting Sally as "Madam" and closing as her "Obedient and Humble Servant". Such style was an indication of attainment and education.

But most importantly, exchanges of extravagant expressions of affection were acceptable between men and women even if they were married to someone else. The idea behind such "virtuous affairs" originated from stories of the chivalrous knight - a "gallant" in 18th century patois - and his courtly lady that were popular at the time. The fact that the man would see the lady only rarely and then under proper circumstances allowed what seems to us to be flamboyant expressions that today would raise the eyebrows (at least) of a husband.

One well-known example of this genre of correspondence were the letters written by James Lovell, a representative to the Continental Congress from Massachusetts and one of John Adams's few friends, to Abigail, John's wife. Some letters James wrote had passages that rivaled the "votive of love" letter from George to Sally.

For instance, check out what James wrote to Abigail in July,1778.

Amiable though unjust Portia! Doubly unjust! To yourself, and to me. Must I only write to you in the language of gazettes [that is, in the unornamented language of newspapers], enumerating, on the part of Britain, acts of deceit, insolence and cruelty, or, on the part of America, instances of patience under repeated losses, fortitude under uncommon hardships, and humanity under the grossest provocations to revenge? Must I suppress opinion, sentiment and just encomium upon the gracefulness of a lovely suffering wife or mother? It seems I must or be taxed as a flatterer.

In other words, James feels Abigail is being "unjust" if she limits his letters to normal mundane matters you can read in the newspapers and not let him write her letters praising her personally (that is, the "ecomium").

Today no one seriously suggests that Abigail and James were sneaking around to the Braintree farm sheds when John was in France. And when some of the letters were intercepted by the British and appeared in the Tory papers, James and Abigail simply kept up the correspondence. Of course, John and Abigail's own letters continued as affectionate as ever.

On the other hand, flowery and enthusiastic language did permit an eloquent young man to, shall we say, explore his options. So if a swain did want to go beyond long distance flirtations, he could begin to push the boundaries. Then if the lady rebuked the gentlemen's "impudence", why, he could just protesteth that the lady had misunderstood his intentions - which of course were honorable.

And George did have a reputation for "impudence" with the ladies - but again in a playful, yet acceptable manner. In 1777, Martha Bland, the wife of Colonel Theodorick Bland, was with her husband at Morristown and wrote a friend.

"Now let me speak of our noble and agreeable commander [she means George, of course], for he commands both sexes, one by his excellent skill in military matters, the other by his ability, politeness, and attention [we presume it's the men George commands by his skill in military manners and the ladies by his politeness and attention]. We visit them twice or three times a week by particular invitation. He is generally busy in the forenoon, but from dinner 'till night he is free for all company. [Yes, George and his officers had a surprisingly active social life with dances, dinners, and entertainments while his men were living in tents and getting on with little food and no pay.] His worthy lady seems to be in perfect felicity when she is by the side of her "Old Man" as she calls him [and yes, when George and the army were in winter camp, Martha stayed with him]. We often make parties on horseback 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 like [unlike men, ladies often used first names when writing to their best friends].

George's Impudence


One thing we need to remember about George writing "impudent' letters to Sally. Sally's husband, William, was at Belvoir. In fact George had also written to William the same day he wrote to Sally. The letters would certainly have been sent by the same messenger - official postal service was limited - and delivered the same day. In fact, they would have been folded and sealed together in a single packet (envelopes were not commonly used) to prevent their loss.

Finally, another 18th century entertainment (now long past) was reading your letters out loud to family and friends. This custom was not only good for a laugh, but it had a true social function. It was the way for a lady to show her family - i. e., her husband - that there was nothing to hide as she kept up an often voluminous correspondence with other men.

And Sally? She must have quickly written a reply since on September 25 George responded.

Dear Madam [What else?],

And he continues:

Do we still misunderstand the true meaning of each others letters? I think it must appear so, though I would feign hope the contrary as I cannot speak plainer without. But I'll say no more, and leave you to guess the rest.

So George is saying they are misunderstanding their letters. And although we don't have Sally's reply, it's pretty clear she sure as heck didn't write back "George! You're really hot! Let's get together the next time William is visiting his mother! Sneak in the pantry window!"

No, it's far more likely that Sally had simply sent a friendly, but noncommittal reply.

In fact, she may have even sent George a mild rebuke. One historian has written that Sally ordered George to stop writing after his letters got too emotional, and another reported that at one point she "banished" George from visiting her. Alas, we must admit the sources are not the best. One was a book written by the uncle of Howard Hughes in 1926, and the other is an "inference" from another historian that George was avoiding Belvoir because of his wounded feelings.

But whatever Sally wrote, however "agreeable" (see below), in this second letter George definitely backs off. When George plunges on, it's not about being a "votive" of anything. Instead he starts griping again about what a hard time the army has been having on the expedition. You'd almost think George was writing on Facebook!

I am now furnished with news of a very interesting nature. I know it will affect you but as you must hear it from others I will relate it myself. The 12th past [that is, the 12th day of the last month (August)] then Major Grant with a chosen detachment of 800 men marched from our advanced post at Loyal Hannan [modern Loyalhanna, Pennsylvania, about 35 miles east of Pittsburgh] against Fort Duquesne [Pittsburgh]. On the night of the 13th he arrived at that place, or rather upon a hill near to it, from whence went a party and viewed the works [that is, the enemies fortifications], made what observation's they could, and burnt a logged house not far from the walls, egged on rather than satisfied by this success, Major Grant must needs insult the enemy next morning by beating the reveille in different places in view. This caused a great body of men to sally from the fort and an obstinate engagement to ensue, which was maintained on our side with the utmost efforts that bravery could yield, till being overpowered and quite surrounded they were obliged to retreat with the loss of 22 officers killed and 278 men besides wounded.

We wonder if George expected Sally to keep records of the casualties as he keeps going in more detail.

This is a heavy blow to our affairs here, and a sad stroke upon my regiment, that has lost out of 8 officers and 168 that was in the action, 6 of the former killed and a 7th wounded, and 62 of the latter killed besides wounded. Among the slain was our dear Major Lewis. This gentleman as the other officers also did, bravely fought while they had life, though wounded in different places.

Now normally if you decide to write love letters, you don't tell about people being killed and "wounded in different places". And George continues:

Your old acquaintance Captain Bullett [probably Sally was writing the captain as well], who is the only officer of mine that came of untouched [George wasn't hurt either], has acquired immortal honor in this engagement by his gallant behavior and long continuance in the field of action. It might be thought vanity in me to praise the behavior of my own people were I to deviate from the report of common fame. But when you consider the loss they have sustained, and here that every mouth resounds their praises, you will believe me impartial.

Well, George has certainly shifted his tone from the previous letter. And George keeps on about military matters.

What was the great end proposed by this attempt, or what will be the event of its failure, I can't take upon me to determine. It appears however (from the best accounts) that the enemy lost more men than we did in the engagement - thus it is the lives of the brave are often disposed of - but who is there that does not rather envy than regret a death that gives birth to honor and glorious memory.

But George now has to show Sally, he's thinking of her family - and throws something in about William:

I am extremely glad to find that Mr. Fairfax has escaped the dangers of the Siege at Louisburg [this was a battle in the French and Indian Wars at Louisbourg, Cape Breton, Nova Scotia in the past July]. Already have we experienced greater losses than our army sustained at that place and have gained not one obvious advantage so miserably has this expedition been managed. That I expect after a months further trial, and the loss of many more men by the sword, cold, and perhaps famine, we shall give the expedition over as impracticable this season and retire to the inhabitants condemned by the world and derided by our friend.

And now comes the important part:

I should think my time more agreeable spent believe me, in playing a part in Cato with the company you mention, and myself doubly happy in being the Juba to such a Marcia as you must make.

We'll come back to Juba and Marcia later. But now George switches to a bit of social chit-chat.

Your agreeable letter contained these words "My sisters and Nancy Gist [the daughter of George's guide, Christopher], who neither of them expect to be here soon after our return from town, desire you to accept of their best compliments etc." Pray, are these ladies upon a matrimonial scheme? Is Miss Fairfax to be transformed into that charming domestic - a Martin - and Miss Cary to a Fare. What does Miss Gist turn to - a Cocke [this is Captain Thomas Cocke - which does not imply what you're thinking] - that can't be, we have him here.

The next paragraph, though, does show us that Sally's letters were friendly enough and fairly lengthy.

One thing more and then have done. You ask if I am not tired at the length of your letter? No, Madam [can't you just write "Sally", George?], I am not, nor never can be while the lines are an inch asunder to bring you in haste to the end of the paper.

By now George also realizes he might have been rambling a bit.

You may be tired of mine by this. Adieu, Dear Madam, you possibly will hear something of me or from me before we shall meet. I must beg the favor of you to make my compliments to Colonel Cary [Sally's father, Colonel Wilson Cary, who lived until 1772] and the ladies with you.

And George signs off as we can expect:

And believe that I am most unalterably
Your Most Obedient and Obliged

George Washington

What, as Flakey Foont asked Mr. Natural, does it all mean?

This letter has only two paragraphs of interest for the tabloids. In the first paragraph George says he's afraid they were misunderstanding each others letters. So clearly Sally was not responding to his first letter the way George had hoped.

Then we have the "Juba/Marcia" paragraph. Remember that George wrote:

I should think my time more agreeable spent believe me, in playing a part in Cato with the company you mention, and myself doubly happy in being the Juba to such a Marcia as you must make.

OK, just what is Cato and who are Juba and Marcia?

The play Cato was wrtten in 1712 by the once famous politician, James Addison, who liked writing bad plays as a sideline. Cato is in fact a horribly corny melodrama written in what can only be described as unintentional satire of Shakespeare. Good luck to anyone today managing more than the first few lines.

But the plot does have some relevance to the George/Sally question. The play is set in Ancient Rome, and one of the subplots is about Marcia who was the daughter of Cato. In the play, she and the African prince, Juba, have a secret love affair which they must keep hidden.

So surely, George and Sally must have been playing the parts for real.

But go back and read the whole paragraph. George is not saying he has been playing the part of Juba (and Sally taking the role of Marcia). Instead he would have preferred playing the part rather than serving in a disastrous military campaign run by a bumbling nincompoop of a general. But more importantly, if we next consider the conventions and pastimes of the 18th century, we will see that the Juba/Marcia allusion may mean nothing at all.

Remember this was the day before radio, television, DVD's, and the Internet. Instead to enjoy yourself you - and this is hard to believe - actually had to go over to someone's house and visit! Yes, yes, I know the younger folks will say "Ah, c'mon, quit your kiddin'", but this is actually how you networked with your friends.

Today it takes a traveler about 20 minutes to go from Mount Vernon to the Belvoir Mansion site (which is on a military base). But it would take George and Martha at least an hour one way. The return trip could be longer if they had to return at night.

Because travel was so slow - and uncertain - visits were lengthy. It wasn't worth the time to spend two hours on the road for a half hour chat.

So usually if you were invited to someone's house, you'd show up in the early afternoon. You'd eat dinner - the main meal - with your hosts around 2:00.

The dinners could last hours. After negotiating the eight or so courses, the men would then repair to another room for cigars and wine (usually Port or Madiera). The ladies would hie off to another parlor for tea and cakes. Then after an hour or so, the two groups would get back together.

So what did they do then? Well, there was dancing, of course. A gentleman might sing a song or a lady play the harpsichord.

And there were "theatricals".

A "theatrical" was when the guests would perform parts of a play and were a popular form of entertainment even into the early 20th century. That George is referring to a theatrical entertainment is supported by his comment of playing the part "in the company you mention", that is, with a group friends Sally had invited over.

In theatricals it was common to pick a scene to be acted out by a man and a woman who were not married to each other. This, like the dancing, was a socially acceptable way for a man and woman to interact with someone other than a spouse. We even have a photograph of George Armstrong Custer dressed up for a theatrical where he was paired up with another officer's wife.

And what was one of the most popular plays in George's time? Yes, it was Cato. So an evening's theatrical where one of the men took the part of Juba and a lady the part of Marcia would be pretty standard fare. No one in George's time - like Sally's husband - reading that George said he'd rather play Juba to Sally's Marcia, would see anything amiss.

We aren't saying, of course, that George didn't harboring hankerings for Sally. It's just that the Juba/Marcia reference isn't as important as most people think and was a remark George could easily wave away. Even the "votive to love" paragraphs of the previous letter fell within social norms of the time.

But if George was writing within the social norms of the time, then did George - that's George, not James - also write in such a flamboyant style to other ladies?

Sadly, we have very few letters that George wrote to the fairer sex. His most voluminous distaff correspondence was with Martha, and she burned all she had after George died.

On the other hand George did write to Benjamin Franklin's daughter, Sarah Franklin Bache, who was sometimes his dance partner. But this letter is also open and above board. George says he is quite complimented by the kind words Benjamin had made about him. As far as George's few earlier letters to Sally, they were kind and courteous as one might write to a good neighbor.

But .... (you'd know there would be a "but").

We do have a letter from 1783 that George wrote to Annis Boudinot Stockton, the wife of Richard Stockton and sister of Elias Budinot. Elias had been in charge of the prisoners of war during the Revolution, and Richard had been a member of the Continental Congress and had been held prisoner by the British for a while.

In the letter to Annis, George wrote:

You see, Madam, when once the woman has tempted us and we have tasted the forbidden fruit, there is no such thing as checking our appetites, whatever the consequences may be.

Hold on there, George! We hope that Mr. Stockton wasn't home!

Just kidding, of course. From the rest of the letter, we know that George was just writing Annis and thanking her for some poetry she wrote in his praise. Still, we can see that the flowery and by today's standards somewhat suggestive prose was indeed pretty par for the course between well-acquainted correspondents. Certainly when George wrote to ladies who paid him a compliment, he could exhibit the saucy "impudence" that some of the ladies liked.

Ironically the most telling letter of George's feelings to Sally was written on May 16, 1798, and is a rare example of George writing in straightforward and plain language.

George was writing to Sally, now widowed, who was living in England. Sally and William left America in 1773, ostensibly on business, but William - and hence Sally - had remained loyal to the British Crown and no doubt felt it best to move to friendlier environs.

They never returned to America. Belvoir Mansion burned down in 1783 - probably by accident as by then hostilities had ceased - and what was left was completely destroyed during the War of 1812. William died in 1787, and Sally lived until 1811.

But in this last letter to Sally, George wrote:

During this period [the years since the American Revolution], so many important events have occurred, and such changes in men and things have taken place, as the compass of a letter would give you but an inadequate idea of. None of which events, however, nor all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mind the recollection of those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.

Well, here we have it. George's happiest moments in his life were those he enjoyed in Sally's company. Not with Martha, but with Sally. And one popular informational website assures us that in this letter George confesses his "passion" for Sally.

And what type of panting, gasping, and "passionate" prose does he close this steamy letter with? Well, he wrote:

Knowing that Mrs. Washington is about to give an account of the changes, which have happened in the neighborhood and in our own family, I shall not trouble you with a repetition of them.

I am, etc.

George Washington

So what is this? A letter confessing his "passion" to Sally from George and Martha?

Not, as Eliza Doolittle said, bloody likely.

But what did Sally think? Did she have regrets in passing up George? After all, William never grabbed the "Lord Fairfax" title, and so in England he and Sally were just two more of those rustic displaced colonials. Why, there were even whisperings that William's maternal ancestors came not from England, but from Africa!

As for Sally's old friend, George Washington, he was now the most famous man in the world. And the most admired. The year before George sent Sally the last letter, King George III - yes, King George III - had said General Washington was the most distinguished of any man living and the greatest character of the age.

OK, what did Sally think? Well, there is a letter she wrote in 1788 which is quoted on the same popular informational website we mentioned earlier. There we read that Sally wrote her sister-in-law:

I know now that the worthy man is to be preferred to the high-born who has not merit to recommend him ... when we inquire into the family of these mighty men we find them the very lowest of people.

Ha! So we see that Sally really did hanker after George!

Well, mebbe. There's a couple of things, though. First, watch out for quotes that have the dot-dot-dot (...). And secondly the editors on the Fount have left out - as you guess - The Rest of the Paragraph.

It turns out that Sally was not not talking about George at all. But about the marriage of her sister-in-law's daughter. The whole paragraph reads:

There was a time of my life when I should not have been well pleased to hear of the union between a daughter of yours and Mr.---- [the editors blanked out the name]. But, thank God, I have outlived those prejudices of education and know now that the worthy man is to be preferred to the high-born who has not merit to recommend him. In this country we every day see the daughters of noblemen give their hands to nabobs just returned from India with great wealth ill-gotten. When we inquire into the family of these mighty men we find them the very lowest of people.

Sure, Sally might have had George in mind as one who helped her outlive her prejudices. But the paragraph is not saying she regretted marrying William. She simply says she's not opposed to her sister-in-law's daughter marrying an ordinary bloke.

So it is true that George may have very well carried a torch for Sally. But to prove ...


      ...we see you have to:

Indulge in some really inspired editing of George and Sally's letters.

Misunderstand custom and style of the 18th century letter writing.

Be unaware of the common and popular entertainments of the time.

And of course we have to assume that George Washington acted like our own political leaders and public figures who preach wholesome family values for others while they go around and ....

Well, never mind.

But if not with Sally, did George ever act like our own political leaders? Well, some people have wondered. In fact, in George's time there were were rumblings about

George & Kate & Sukey & Mary

But that, as they say, is another story.

George Washington:  Another Story

Another Story


"George Washington in Love", Thomas Fleming, American Heritage, Vol. 59, Issue 3, pp. 42 - 51, 2009.

"A Washington Affair of Honor, 1779", Marian Sadtler Hornor, Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, 65 (3), July, 1941.

Sally Cary; A Long Hidden Romance of Washington s Life, Wilson Miles Cary, De Vinne Press, 1916.

"The Fairfaxes", The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families, Mario de Valdes y Cocom, Although for a while the heritage of William Fairfax was swept under the rug, the evidence is pretty clear that that by 20th century American standards William was black, or what we now call in the 21st century, mixed race.

William's mother was from the West Indies and was what was then (and now) referred to as Creole. But since "Creole" has various meanings - ranging from a hybrid language to simply being a colonial - that such references may have meant nothing in the 18th century. Also editors of the Fairfax family papers tended - to quote Shakespeare - "craftily qualify" the documents. However, Professor De Valdes found an original unedited letter from William's father - arranging for William's education in England -and it was clear that William's family understood his parentage could be traced back to Africa.

First in Their Hearts: The Life of George Washington, Thomas Fleming, Walker and Company, 1984. Specifically mentions Cato as a subject of home theatricals at Belvoir. Other books and articles on George also talk about how popular theatricals were.

   Getting Into the Act: Women Playwrights in London 1776-1829, Ellen Donkin, Routledge, 1995. Although this books is mainly dealing with women playwrights of the professional stage, it (briefly) mentions the amateur "home theatrical", a subject for which scholarly research is surprisingly fragmented. Nevertheless, the private theatrical in the 18th century was particularly popular with aristocrats - particularly the ladies - and so was something the well-to-do colonials would naturally want to emulate. But with the rise of the professional stage in the early 1800's there was a time when - as you read in Jane Austen's 1814 novel Mansfield Park - even home performances were not for the genteel classes. This shift in propriety was due to the low reputation in which actors were held as a social class.

However in the Victorian era, the increase in the affluent middle class produced more leisure time - as well actors like John Henry Brodribb - better known as Henry Irving - receiving knighthoods. Soon various "how-to" books for the amateur actor appeared with plays suitable for home entertainment. So following the mid-1800's the amateur theatrical became respectable once more and only faded in the following century with the rise of radio, films, and television.

The George Washington Scandals", John Fitzpatrick, Schribner's Magazine, 1927, pp. 389-394

"The First George Washington Scandal," Allen French, Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Volume 65, pp. 460 - 474 (1935).

Founders Online: Correspondence and Other Writings of Six Major Shapers of the United States, George's Letters plus the only two from Sally.

Adams Papers: Digital Edition,

"The King's English: Eighteenth-Century Language", Cathy Hellier, Colonial Williamsburg, Good article on conversation in Colonial America. We should note that women used first names with friends more often than men.

Proceedings of the New Jersey Historical Society: 1846-1966, 51:250-253. This tells us about George's "impudence."