The True George Washington: Relations with the Fair Sex: Fidelity

Updated February 28, 2017 | Infoplease Staff


The question whether Washington was a faithful husband might well be left to the facts already given, were it not that stories of his immorality are bandied about in clubs, a well-known clergyman has vouched for their truth, and a United States senator has given further currency to them by claiming special knowledge on the subject. Since such are the facts, it seems best to consider the question and show what evidence there actually is for these stories, that at least the pretended "letters," etc., which are always being cited, and are never produced, may no longer have credence put in them, and the true basis for all the stories may be known and valued at its worth.

In the year 1776 there was printed in London a small pamphlet entitled "Minutes of the Trial and Examination of Certain Persons in the Province of New York," which purported to be the records of the examination of the conspirators of the "Hickey plot" (to murder Washington) before a committee of the Provincial Congress of New York. The manuscript of this was claimed in the preface to have been "discovered (on the late capture of New York by the British troops) among the papers of a person who appears to have been secretary to the committee." As part of the evidence the following was printed:

"William Cooper, soldier, sworn.

"Court. Inform us what conversation you heard at the Serjeant's Arms?

"Cooper. Being there the 21st of May, I heard John Clayford inform the company, that Mary Gibbons was thoroughly in their interest, and that the whole would be safe. I learnt from enquiry that Mary Gibbons was a girl from New Jersey, of whom General Washington was very fond, that he maintained her genteelly at a house near Mr. Skinner's,?at the North River; that he came there very often late at night in disguise; he learnt also that this woman was very intimate with Clayford, and made him presents, and told him of what General Washington said.

"Court. Did you hear Mr. Clayford say any thing himself that night?

"Cooper. Yes; that he was the day before with Judith, so he called her, and that she told him, Washington had often said he wished his hands were clear of the dirty New-Englanders, and words to that effect.

"Court. Did you hear no mention made of any scheme to betray or seize him?

"Cooper. Mr. Clayford said he could easily be seized and put on board a boat, and carried off, as his female friend had promised she would assist: but all present thought it would be hazardous."

"William Savage, sworn.

"Court. Was you at the Serjeant's Arms on the 21st of May? Did you hear any thing of this nature?

"Savage. I did, and nearly as the last evidence has declared; the society in general refused to be concerned in it, and thought it a mad scheme.

"Mr. Abeel. Pray, Mr. Savage, have not you heard nothing of an information that was to be given to Governor Tryon?

"Savage. Yes; papers and letters were at different times shewn to the society, which were taken out of General Washington's pockets by Mrs. Gibbons, and given (as she pretended some occasion of going out) to Mr. Clayford, who always copied them, and they were put into his pockets again."

The authenticity of this pamphlet thus becomes of importance, and over this little time need be spent. The committee named in it differs from the committee really named by the Provincial Congress, and the proceedings nowhere implicate the men actually proved guilty. In other words, the whole publication is a clumsy Tory forgery, put forward with the same idle story of "captured papers" employed in the "spurious letters" of Washington, and sent forth from the same press (J. Bew) from which that forgery and several others issued.

The source from which the English fabricator drew this scandal is fortunately known. In 1775 a letter to Washington from his friend Benjamin Harrison was intercepted by the British, and at once printed broadcast in the newspapers. In this the writer gossips to Washington "to amuse you and unbend your minds from the cares of war," as follows: "As I was in the pleasing task of writing to you, a little noise occasioned me to turn my head around, and who should appear but pretty little Kate, the Washer-woman's daughter over the way, clean, trim and as rosy as the morning. I snatched the golden, glorious opportunity, and, but for the cursed antidote to love, Sukey, I had fitted her for my general against his return. We were obliged to part, but not till we had contrived to meet again: if she keeps the appointment, I shall relish a week's longer stay." From this originated the stories of Washington's infidelity as already given, and also a coarser version of the same, printed in 1776 in a Tory farce entitled "The Battle of Brooklyn."

Jonathan Boucher, who knew Washington well before the Revolution, yet who, as a loyalist, wrote in no friendly spirit of him, asserted that "in his moral character, he is regular." A man who disliked him far more, General Charles Lee, in the excess of his hatred, charged Washington in 1778 with immorality,?a rather amusing impeachment, since at the very time Lee was flaunting the evidence of his own incontinence without apparent shame,?and a mutual friend of the accused and accuser, Joseph Reed, whose service on Washington's staff enabled him to speak wittingly, advised that Lee "forbear any Reflections upon the Commander in Chief, of whom for the first time I have heard Slander on his private Character, viz., great cruelty to his Slaves in Virginia & Immorality of Life, tho' they acknowledge so very secret that it is difficult to detect. To me who have had so good opportunities to know the Purity of the latter & equally believing the Falsehood of the former from the known excellence of his disposition, it appears so nearly bordering upon frenzy, that I can pity the wretches rather than despise them."

Washington was too much of a man, however, to have his marriage lessen his liking for other women; and Yeates repeats that "Mr. Washington once told me, on a charge which I once made against the President at his own Table, that the admiration he warmly professed for Mrs. Hartley, was a Proof of his Homage to the worthy Part of the Sex, and highly respectful to his Wife." Every now and then there is an allusion in his letters which shows his appreciation of beauty, as when he wrote to General Schuyler, "Your fair daughter, for whose visit Mrs. Washington and myself are greatly obliged," and again, to one of his aides, "The fair hand, to whom your letter ... was committed presented it safe."

His diary, in the notes of the balls and assemblies which he attended, usually had a word for the sex, as exampled in: "at which there were between 60 & 70 well dressed ladies;" "at which there was about 100 well dressed and handsome ladies;" "at which were 256 elegantly dressed ladies;" "where there was a select Company of ladies;" "where (it is said) there were upwards of 100 ladies; their appearance was elegant, and many of them very handsome;" "at wch. there were about 400 ladies the number and appearance of wch. exceeded anything of the kind I have ever seen;" "where there were about 75 well dressed, and many of them very handsome ladies?among whom (as was also the case at the Salem and Boston assemblies) were a greater proportion with much blacker hair than are usually seen in the Southern States."

At his wife's receptions, as already said, Washington did not view himself as host, and "conversed without restraint, generally with women, who rarely had other opportunity of seeing him," which perhaps accounts for the statement of another eye-witness that Washington "looked very much more at ease than at his own official levees." Sullivan adds that "the young ladies used to throng around him, and engaged him in conversation. There were some of the well-remembered belles of the day who imagined themselves to be favorites with him. As these were the only opportunities which they had of conversing with him, they were disposed to use them." In his Southern trip of 1791 Washington noted, with evident pleasure, that he "was visited about 2 o'clock, by a great number of the most respectable ladies of Charleston?the first honor of the kind I had ever experienced and it was flattering as it was singular." And that this attention was not merely the respect due to a great man is shown in the letter of a Virginian woman, who wrote to her correspondent in 1777, that when "General Washington throws off the Hero and takes up the chatty agreeable Companion?he can be down right impudent sometimes?such impudence, Fanny, as you and I like."

Another feminine compliment paid him was a highly laudatory poem which was enclosed to him, with a letter begging forgiveness, to which he playfully answered,?

"You apply to me, my dear Madam, for absolution as tho' I was your father Confessor; and as tho' you had committed a crime, great in itself, yet of the venial class. You have reason good?for I find myself strangely disposed to be a very indulgent ghostly adviser on this occasion; and, notwithstanding 'you are the most offending Soul alive' (that is, if it is a crime to write elegant Poetry,) yet if you will come and dine with me on Thursday, and go thro' the proper course of penitence which shall be prescribed I will strive hard to assist you in expiating these poetical trespasses on this side of purgatory. Nay more, if it rests with me to direct your future lucubrations, I shall certainly urge you to a repetition of the same conduct, on purpose to shew what an admirable knack you have at confession and reformation; and so without more hesitation, I shall venture to command the muse, not to be restrained by ill-grounded timidity, but to go on and prosper. 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. You will, I dare say, recognize our being the genuine Descendants of those who are reputed to be our great Progenitors."

Nor was Washington open only to beauty and flattery. From the rude frontier in 1756 he wrote, "The supplicating tears of the women,... melt me into such deadly sorrow, that I solemnly declare, if I know my own mind, I could offer myself a willing sacrifice to the butchering enemy, provided that would contribute to the people's ease." And in 1776 he said, "When I consider that the city of New York will in all human probability very soon be the scene of a bloody conflict, I cannot but view the great numbers of women, children, and infirm persons remaining in it, with the most melancholy concern. When the men-of-war passed up the river, the shrieks and cries of these poor creatures running every way with their children, were truly distressing.... Can no method be devised for their removal?"

Nevertheless, though liked by and liking the fair sex, Washington was human, and after experience concluded that "I never again will have two women in my house when I am there myself."

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