Americans tend to view the Founders as detached icons, removed from their humanity. They peer down through history from their pedestals, all traces of their daily existence erased. They spoke in lofty platitudes, always concerned with posterity and its judgments. Rather than seeing them with their coats off, up to their elbows in labors both physical and mental, they are viewed in the poses created for them by sculptors, painters, and all too often historians and biographers. Judging them without viewing them as what they were, mortal men subject to the temptations and desires of all, dehumanizes them. It creates a false image of who and what they really were – politicians involved in a scandal or two.
Yet all were subjected to the temptations and vagaries presented by power, politics, women, and the pursuit of financial security. During their lifetimes they endured the criticisms of each other, a salacious press, and the opinions of their constituents. George Washington sagely observed the damage to his reputation, commenting that no man’s reputation could survive, undamaged, a term in the presidency. The press of the day loved nothing so much as a scandal, and the Founders all found themselves the subjects of wagging tongues in the early days of the Republic. Here are some of the scandals the Founders strove to keep hidden, or were forced to acknowledge, during the formative years of the American Republic.
1. George Washington fell in love with another man’s wife
As a youth in Virginia, George Washington found himself enthralled with Sally Fairfax, the wife of George Fairfax, then the son of the wealthiest planter in the colony. They spent considerable time together, often at Belvoir, the Fairfax estate to the south of Mount Vernon. By the time of the French and Indian War, Washington expressed his feelings to Sally, somewhat unwisely, in a letter. The letter, written in September, 1758, included his intention to keep his feelings to himself. “The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to you, when I want to conceal it”, he wrote. Washington was at the time engaged to be married to Martha Custis, a wealthy widow and his eventual wife. Historians have long considered Washington’s love of Sally to have been a youthful passion, dismissed in later years.
George Fairfax remained a Loyalist during the Revolution, and died in England in 1787. Sally remained there, living in Bath as a widow. But George Washington never forgot her, and continued to correspond with her throughout the remainder of his life. In 1798, a year before his death, Washington wrote to Sally, beseeching her to return to Virginia. In his letter he referred to the time they had spent together as “the happiest in my life, which I have enjoyed in your company”. Sally resisted his urgings, remaining in Britain until her death in 1811. During her lifetime she left little evidence of her feelings for George, and none of her letters give a clue to subsequent generations of their relationship together. Martha’s thoughts on the matter are likewise unknown. George managed to conceal his feelings from his contemporaries quite well.