Saturday, September 27, 2008

Founding father Romances: George and Martha Washington

Compared to John and Abigail Adams, we know very little about the relationship between George and Martha Washington. Exactly three letters survive. After George Washington's death, Martha burnt their private correspondence.
What do we know?
Martha Dandridge Custis was a wealthy widow and their marriage provided Washington with the economic funds to join the elite of the Virginia planters' class. We also know from a private Washington letter that in all likelihood he was passionately in love with Sally Fairfax during the early part of 1758. Sally Fairfax was the wife of George William, and towards the end of his life, Washington wrote to the elderly Sally confessing that she was the passion of his youth and some of the happiest moments of his life were spent with her.
Washington however was a man of great self-control. He had an image of himself and what he wanted from life -- including a happy domestic arrangement. Thus in January 1759 he marries the wealthy widow and calls her an agreeable partner. Many scholars feel that there were more economic factors in this match than romantic.
But why did Martha choose Washington? What did she see in him? She is the one with the money, and thus the catch, rather than the other way around. He is the dashing soldier, but there must have been some attraction. He is known to have been good with her children. But her reasons are lost in the midst of history.
All the available evidence suggests that they did have a happy marriage. For example, she did join him on campaign during the American revolution. She certainly remained his hostess and other than the one intriguing letter to the elderly Sally, Washington's name is not linked with another woman's. Indeed the Fairfaxes were close neighbours and good friends of the Washingtons.
There again given the self-control and discipline with which Washington conducted his life, he probably required an agreeable partner rather than a passionate lover and at least had the good sense to marry one.
Unfortunately they did not have children. Whose fault this was is impossible to determine. But there is no evidence of Washington having fathered any children. And the phrase, according to Joseph J Ellis's excellent biography, His Excellency, -- Washington slept here -- is generally accepted by scholars to have NO sexual connotations.
So with the Washington marriage-- who knows. But it became the sort of marriage that Washington wanted. Stable and full of good sense. And there is nothing wrong with that.

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