Sally Cary Fairfax (ca. 1730 - 1811) was the wife of George William Fairfax (1729–1787), a prominent member of the landed gentry of late colonial Virginia. As such, she was mistress of the Virginia plantation and estate of Belvoir. She is well-remembered for being the woman George Washington was apparently in love with just before his marriage to Martha Dandridge Custis.1
Sally Cary, as she was born, came from one of Virginia's oldest and wealthiest families. Her forefather, Miles Cary of Bristol, England, first came to America in the mid-17th century and established himself as a Virginian nobleman. Colonel Wilson Cary, Sally’s father and a member of the House of Burgesses, inherited one of Virginia’s largest fortunes and the family estate, Ceelys on the James. Little is known about his wife and Sally’s mother, Sarah, on account of an 1826 fire that destroyed many of the family’s records. Out of Colonel Cary’s four daughters, the eldest Sally was the most sought-after and a grande belle in Virginian society. Although she had many suitors, George William Fairfax eventually won Sally’s favor, and in records found by Wilson Miles Cary, a writer and family historian, their marriage was announced in The Virginia Gazette in December 1748. After their marriage, Sally and George William moved into the Belvoir estate that had been established in the early 1740s, by his father Col. William Fairfax.
The Fairfax family, as the Carys, was a living remnant of European feudalism and English aristocracy. Fairfax family members generally held the reins of social and political power in Virginia.
Sally’s sister-in-law, Anne Fairfax, married Lawrence Washington soon after her brother George William Fairfax had wed Sally Fairfax. A young George Washington, Lawrence’s half-brother, began to visit Belvoir frequently. Wishing to advance his brother’s fortunes, Lawrence introduced George to George William. A friendship grew between the two men, despite the fact that George William was considerably older. Yet a relationship also blossomed between Sally Fairfax and George Washington. Sally had been well-educated under the Colonel’s supervision, and as a young man with limited education and inexperienced in climbing the social ladder, Washington was impressed with this attractive, popular, and intelligent woman—arguably viewing her as the ideal of womanhood. She was a key inspiration for the future President to elevate himself to a higher social, cultural, and intellectual sphere, which is clear in the increasing level of refinement in his letters to her.
While serving in the Forbes campaign in September 1758, Washington wrote a particularly famous letter to Sally, telling her that “Tis true, I profess myself a Votary to Love…I feel the force of her amiable beauties in the recollection of a thousand tender passages that I wish to obliterate, till I am bid to revive them – but experience alas! Sadly reminds me how Impossible this is.” In another letter, he makes an allusion to the literary characters Juba, prince of Numidia, who loves Cato's daughter Marcia, in the play Cato, by Joseph Addison. This ambiguity makes the question of the relationship’s consummation frustrating to historians, and the answer is still unknown. (Because actual textual evidence of an affair between Sally Fairfax and George Washington is slim, there are skeptics who doubt the truth in all the gossip. Yet the letters prove that a strong relationship between the two most surely existed.)
Despite any ardor that Sally and young Washington may have shared, the forbidden temptation that Sally represented could not fit into the lofty standards that Washington had established for himself. All evidence points that they were on their best behavior. Washington married the wealthy Martha Dandridge Custis, initially perhaps only to heighten his social status, but their marriage appears to have been strong. Sally and George William were, in fact, the most frequent visitors to Mount Vernon, implying that any inkling the spouses had of previous indiscretions, (or flirtation) was politely ignored.2
The happy foursome separated in 1773 when the Fairfaxes repaired to England to attend to family matters. Thereafter, George William’s fortunes were crushed. As a Loyalist, he had every intention of returning to America after the 1776 insurrection was over, but the success of the Revolution prevented either of them from ever returning. He died in 1787 and Sally then lived alone until her death in 1811.
There were signs of regret on Sally’s part in the end. She wrote to her sister-in-law in 1788: “I know now that the worthy man is to be preferred to the high-born who has not merit to recommend him…when we enquire into the family of these mighty men we find them the very lowest of people.” Washington, too, confesses to Sally in a letter that she was the passion of his youth and told her that he had: “never been able to eradicate from my mind those happy moments, the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company.”3
Note: All excerpts from correspondence have been taken from Wilson Miles Cary's Sally Cary: A Long Hidden Romance of Washington's Life. (See Bibliography)
- Wilson Miles Cary, Sally Cary: A Long Hidden Romance of Washington’s Life, New York: The DeVine Press, 1916.
- Joseph J. Ellis, His Excellency George Washington, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
- Nathaniel Wright Stevenson, “The Romantics and George Washington”, In: The American Historical Review, Vol. 39, No. 2 (Jan., 1934), p. 274-283.
- Paul van Dyke, “Washington” In Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, Vol. 71, No. 4 (Apr., 1932), p. 191-205.
- Martha Washington, by Patricia Brady (2006).
- Thomas Fleming "George Washington in Love," American Heritage, Fall 2009.
- Thomas Flexner (Fall 2009). "George Washington in Love". American Heritage: 48.
- James Thomas Flexner (1974). Washington: The Indispensable Man (paperback). New York: Back Bay Books (Little Brown and Company). p. 364. ISBN 0-316-28605-2.
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