The True George Washington: Relations with the Fair Sex

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff

Relations with the Fair Sex

Early Romance

The book from which Washington derived almost the whole of his education warned its readers,?

"Young Men have ever more a special care That Womanish Allurements prove not a snare;"

but, however carefully the lad studied the rest, this particular admonition took little root in his mind. There can be no doubt that Washington during the whole of his life had a soft heart for women, and especially for good-looking ones, and both in his personal intercourse and in his letters he shows himself very much more at ease with them than in his relations with his own sex. Late in life, when the strong passions of his earlier years were under better control, he was able to write,?

"Love is said to be an involuntary passion, and it is, therefore, contended that it cannot be resisted. This is true in part only, for like all things else, when nourished and supplied plentifully with aliment, it is rapid in its progress; but let these be withdrawn and it may be stifled in its birth or much stinted in its growth. For example, a woman (the same may be said of the other sex) all beautiful and accomplished will, while her hand and heart are undisposed of, turn the heads and set the circle in which she moves on fire. Let her marry, and what is the consequence? The madness ceases and all is quiet again. Why? not because there is any diminution in the charms of the lady, but because there is an end of hope. Hence it follows, that love may and therefore ought to be under the guidance of reason, for although we cannot avoid first impressions, we may assuredly place them under guard."

To write thus in one's sixty-sixth year and to practise one's theory in youth were, however, very different undertakings. Even while discussing love so philosophically, the writer had to acknowledge that "in the composition of the human frame, there is a good deal of inflammable matter," and few have had better cause to know it. When he saw in the premature engagement of his ward, Jack Custis, the one advantage that it would "in a great measure avoid those little flirtations with other young ladies that may, by dividing the attention, contribute not a little to divide the affection," it is easy to think of him as looking back to his own boyhood, and remembering, it is to be hoped with a smile, the sufferings he owed to pretty faces and neatly turned ankles.

While still a school-boy, Washington was one day caught "romping with one of the largest girls," and very quickly more serious likings followed. As early as 1748, when only sixteen years of age, his heart was so engaged that while at Lord Fairfax's and enjoying the society of Mary Cary he poured out his feelings to his youthful correspondents "Dear Robin" and "Dear John" and "Dear Sally" as follows:

"My place of Residence is at present at His Lordships where I might was my heart disengag'd pass my time very pleasantly as theres a very agreeable Young Lady Lives in the same house (Colo George Fairfax's Wife's Sister) but as thats only adding Fuel to fire it makes me the more uneasy for by often and unavoidably being in Company with her revives my former Passion for your Low Land Beauty whereas was I to live more retired from young Women I might in some measure eliviate my sorrows by burying that chast and troublesome Passion in the grave of oblivion or etarnall forgetfulness for as I am very well assured thats the only antidote or remedy that I shall be releivd by or only recess that can administer any cure or help to me as I am well convinced was I ever to attempt any thing I should only get a denial which would be only adding grief to uneasiness."

"Was my affections disengaged I might perhaps form some pleasure in the conversation of an agreeable Young Lady as theres one now Lives in the same house with me but as that is only nourishment to my former affecn for by often seeing her brings the other into my remembrance whereas perhaps was she not often & (unavoidably) presenting herself to my view I might in some measure aliviate my sorrows by burying the other in the grave of Oblivion I am well convinced my heart stands in defiance of all others but only she thats given it cause enough to dread a second assault and from a different Quarter tho' I well know let it have as many attacks as it will from others they cant be more fierce than it has been."

"I Pass the time of[f] much more agreeabler than what I imagined I should as there's a very agrewable Young Lady lives in the same house where I reside (Colo George Fairfax's Wife's Sister) that in a great Measure cheats my thoughts altogether from your Parts I could wish to be with you down there with all my heart but as it is a thing almost Impractakable shall rest myself where I am with hopes of shortly having some Minutes of your transactions in your Parts which will be very welcomely receiv'd."

Who this "Low Land Beauty" was has been the source of much speculation, but the question is still unsolved, every suggested damsel?Lucy Grymes, Mary Bland, Betsy Fauntleroy, et al.?being either impossible or the evidence wholly inadequate. But in the same journal which contains the draughts of these letters is a motto poem?

"Twas Perfect Love before But Now I do adore"?

followed by the words "Young M.A. his W[ife?]," and as it was a fashion of the time to couple the initials of one's well-beloved with such sentiments, a slight clue is possibly furnished. Nor was this the only rhyme that his emotions led to his inscribing in his journal: and he confided to it the following:

"Oh Ye Gods why should my Poor Resistless Heart
Stand to oppose thy might and Power
At Last surrender to cupids feather'd Dart
And now lays Bleeding every Hour
For her that's Pityless of my grief and Woes
And will not on me Pity take
He sleep amongst my most inveterate Foes
And with gladness never wish to wake
In deluding sleepings let my Eyelids close
That in an enraptured Dream I may
In a soft lulling sleep and gentle repose
Possess those joys denied by Day."

However woe-begone the young lover was, he does not seem to have been wholly lost to others of the sex, and at this same time he was able to indite an acrostic to another charmer, which, if incomplete, nevertheless proves that there was a "midland" beauty as well, the lady being presumptively some member of the family of Alexanders, who had a plantation near Mount Vernon.

"From your bright sparkling Eyes I was undone;
Rays, you have; more transperent than the Sun.
Amidst its glory in the rising Day
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you'l Find.
Ah! woe's me, that I should Love and conceal
Long have I wish'd, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was't free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart."

When visiting Barbadoes, in 1751, Washington noted in his journal his meeting a Miss Roberts, "an agreeable young lady," and later he went with her to see some fireworks on Guy Fawkes day. Apparently, however, the ladies of that island made little impression on him, for he further noted, "The Ladys Generally are very agreeable but by ill custom or w[ha]t effect the Negro style." This sudden insensibility is explained by a letter he wrote to William Fauntleroy a few weeks after his return to Virginia:

"Sir: I should have been down long before this, but my business in Frederick detained me somewhat longer than I expected, and immediately upon my return from thence I was taken with a violent Pleurise, but purpose as soon as I recover my strength, to wait on Miss Betsy, in hopes of a revocation of the former cruel sentence, and see if I can meet with any alteration in my favor. I have enclosed a letter to her, which should be much obliged to you for the delivery of it. I have nothing to add but my best respects to your good lady and family, and that I am, Sir, Your most ob't humble serv't."

Because of this letter it has been positively asserted that Betsy Fauntleroy was the Low-Land Beauty of the earlier time; but as Washington wrote of his love for the latter in 1748, when Betsy was only eleven, the absurdity of the claim is obvious.

In 1753, while on his mission to deliver the governor's letter to the French, one duty which fell to the young soldier was a visit to royalty, in the person of Queen Aliquippa, an Indian majesty who had "expressed great Concern" that she had formerly been slighted. Washington records that "I made her a Present of a Match-coat and a Bottle of Rum; which latter was thought much the best Present of the Two," and thus (externally and internally) restored warmth to her majesty's feelings.

When returned from his first campaign, and resting at Mount Vernon, the time seems to have been beguiled by some charmer, for one of Washington's officers and intimates writes from Williamsburg, "I imagine you By this time plung'd in the midst of delight heaven can afford & enchanted By Charmes even Stranger to the Ciprian Dame," and a footnote by the same hand only excites further curiosity concerning this latter personage by indefinitely naming her as "Mrs. Neil."

With whatever heart-affairs the winter was passed, with the spring the young man's fancy turned not to love, but again to war, and only when the defeat of Braddock brought Washington back to Mount Vernon to recover from the fatigues of that campaign was his intercourse with the gentler sex resumed. Now, however, he was not merely a good-looking young fellow, but was a hero who had had horses shot from under him and had stood firm when scarlet-coated men had run away. No longer did he have to sue for the favor of the fair ones, and Fairfax wrote him that "if a Satterday Nights Rest cannot be sufficient to enable your coming hither to-morrow, the Lady's will try to get Horses to equip our Chair or attempt their strength on Foot to Salute you, so desirous are they with loving Speed to have an occular Demonstration of your being the same Identical Gent?that lately departed to defend his Country's Cause." Furthermore, to this letter was appended the following:

"DEAR SIR,?After thanking Heaven for your safe return I 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 to-morrow morning very early we shall be at Mount Vernon.


Nor is this the only feminine postscript of this time, for in the postscript of a letter from Archibald Cary, a leading Virginian, he is told that "Mrs. Cary & Miss Randolph joyn in wishing you that sort of Glory which will most Indear you to the Fair Sex."

In 1756 Washington had occasion to journey on military business to Boston, and both in coming and in going he tarried in New York, passing ten days in his first visit and about a week on his return. This time was spent with a Virginian friend, Beverly Robinson, who had had the good luck to marry Susannah Philipse, a daughter of Frederick Philipse, one of the largest landed proprietors of the colony of New York. Here he met the sister, Mary Philipse, then a girl of twenty-five, and, short as was the time, it was sufficient to engage his heart. To this interest no doubt are due the entries in his accounts of sundry pounds spent "for treating Ladies," and for the large tailors' bills then incurred. But neither treats nor clothes won the lady, who declined his proposals, and gave her heart two years later to Lieutenant-Colonel Roger Morris. A curious sequel to this disappointment was the accident that made the Roger Morris house Washington's head-quarters in 1776, both Morris and his wife being fugitive Tories. Again Washington was a chance visitor in 1790, when, as part of a picnic, he "dined on a dinner provided by Mr. Marriner at the House lately Colo. Roger Morris, but confiscated and in the occupation of a common Farmer."

It has been asserted that Washington loved the wife of his friend George William Fairfax, but the evidence has not been produced. On the contrary, though the two corresponded, it was in a purely platonic fashion, very different from the strain of lovers, and that the correspondence implied nothing is to be found in the fact that he and Sally Carlyle (another Fairfax daughter) also wrote each other quite as frequently and on the same friendly footing; indeed, Washington evidently classed them in the same category, when he stated that "I have wrote to my two female correspondents." Thus the claim seems due, like many another of Washington's mythical love-affairs, rather to the desire of descendants to link their family "to a star" than to more substantial basis. Washington did, indeed, write to Sally Fairfax from the frontier, "I should think our time more agreeably 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," but private theatricals then no more than now implied "passionate love." What is more, Mrs. Fairfax was at this very time teasing him about another woman, and to her hints Washington replied,?

"If you allow that any honor can be derived from my opposition ... you destroy the merit of it entirely in me by attributing my anxiety to the animating prospect of possessing Mrs. Custis, when?I need not tell you, guess yourself. Should not my own Honor and country's welfare be the excitement? 'Tis true I profess myself a votary of love. I acknowledge that a lady is in the case, and further I confess that this lady is known to you. Yes, Madame, 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. 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 control of our actions, not to be resisted by the strongest efforts of Human Nature. You have drawn me, dear Madame, or rather I have drawn myself, into an honest confession of a simple Fact. Misconstrue not my meaning; doubt it not, nor expose it. 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."

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