Was George Washington an adulterer?

The roof of the Capitol Rotunda shows George Washington being lifted to heaven by angels. According to a new book, however, this Founding Father was no angel. He was once a passionate young man desperately in love with his friend’s wife. 

“Sally Fairfax was a beautiful, sophisticated woman who was married to Washington’s neighbor, George William Fairfax,” says Steve Yoch, author of “Becoming George Washington.” “It’s not a stretch to believe the affair was consummated.”

Yoch isn’t the first to point out Washington’s probable infidelity. Many prominent historians agree that Washington was in love with Sally Fairfax, yet whether their relationship ever crossed the sexual threshold has resisted surveillance by generations of historians.

According to Yoch, in the fall of 1757, a tremendously ill Washington stumbled into Mount Vernon expecting to be carried out feet first. He’d been serving as the Colonel in charge of the entire Virginia Regiment during the French and Indian War and was informed he had likely contracted tuberculosis, an illness which had killed his older brother.

He immediately wrote to Sally Fairfax, entreating her to come to take care of him. She lived just four miles away and, more importantly, her husband was in England for the winter. “There is little doubt that Washington and Fairfax shared long visits during his extended convalescence,” says Yoch. “Washington believed that he was facing near certain death and he may have been less concerned about the long term implications of his actions. Likewise, the absence of Fairfax’s husband certainly created an opportunity the young couple may have seized.”

Yoch and others point to a series of imploring letters Washington sent to Fairfax even after his engagement to Martha Custis. In September 1758, Washington wrote, “Tis true, I profess myself a votary [devoted worshipper] to love—I acknowledge that a lady . . . is known to you.” While Washington was forced to use circumspect language in the letter because it might be intercepted, many scholars agree that it was intended to reflect his amorous feelings toward Fairfax.

Although Fairfax apparently rebuffed Washington’s pleas and despite the fact that she was married to a loyalist and moved often, she retained all of his letters until her death in 1811. Unfortunately, much of Fairfax’s correspondence to Washington has been lost. Yoch says that Washington may have chosen to destroy it or it may have been found by Martha Washington who, upon her husband’s death, chose to burn much of his personal correspondence.

An additional piece of circumstantial evidence to support an affair occurred long after the revolution. After Fairfax’s husband died, she wrote a friend to reveal her preference for the “self-made” man. As her husband had inherited his wealth, it’s possible she was referring to Washington.

In 1798, after winning the Revolutionary War and serving two terms as president, Washington wrote a final letter to Sally from Mount Vernon observing that “many important events occurred, and changes in men and things have taken place,” but all the events taken together have not “been able to eradicate from my mind the recollections of those happy moments, the happiest of my life, that I have enjoyed in your company.”

Yoch says there is no definitive evidence that Washington ever had an affair while married to Martha. “But what we do know is that Washington was a young man of tremendous passion who spent months alone with the woman he loved when he reasonably believed he was at death’s door. Washington was not an angel; he was once a young man whose infatuation may have gotten the better of him.”

To learn more about George Washington and Sally Fairfax, visit www.becominggeorgewashington.com.


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