A portrait of the Washington family (c. 1796).
Edward Savage/Wikimedia Commons
explainer / family

Did George Washington ‘Have a Couple of Things in His Past’?

A historian assesses Donald Trump’s claim that the first president faced his own allegations of sexual assault.
The bigger question among Washington scholars when it comes to the Founder’s sexuality in recent years has been whether or not he was sterile. Given that the historical consensus now is that he was likely unable to have children, most historians do not believe that Washington fathered any children. He certainly didn’t have any children with Martha, but if he had sexual relationships with other women (including enslaved women, as was common among his contemporaries), historians have yet to find firm evidence. It is certainly possible; as historians learned in the case of Thomas Jefferson, knowing the character of individuals is insufficient to understanding their sex life.
Washington met his first great love when he was 16. She was the recently married 18-year-old Sarah Cary Fairfax. Sally, as she was known, was married to a wealthy Virginia landowner whose sister, in turn, was married to Washington’s elder brother Lawrence. George and Sally socialized and performed plays together, building a flirtatious friendship. In the winter of 1758, Sally nursed the seriously ill young Washington back to health at Mount Vernon. Her husband was abroad, and it is possible there was physical intimacy involved—but there is no way to know. Washington relied on Sally’s husband for patronage and guidance, so the young man on the make would surely have trod carefully.
Soon after Washington recovered, he met the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis. It is unclear when they became engaged, but by September 1758 he was expecting to marry her. He wrote Sally a remarkable letter that month, which she saved for the rest of her life (and which made national news when it resurfaced at an auction in 1877). “Tis true, I profess myself a Votary to Love,” he told her, “and further I confess, that this Lady is known to you.—Yes Madam, 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.” However, he knew “how Impossible this is.” He admitted that his declaration of love was “an honest confession of a Simple Fact” but she should not share it, as “the World has no business to know the object of my Love.”

Sally professed not to understand who “this Lady” was and soon after, Washington married Martha Custis.
View source