During the American Revolution, newspapers printed sensational stories about George Washington's affairs. An enslaved woman named Venus claimed George fathered her son. And years after his passing, a racy love letter written to a married woman threatened to destroy George's sterling reputation. But what was Washington's private life really like? Was he as virtuous as his reputation? And what about George Washington's children - is it true the man died without ever fathering one?
While the Founding Father often tops lists of the best presidents, he lived an intensely private life and seemed to prefer his rambling plantation, Mount Vernon, to time in the spotlight.
Washington married Martha Dandridge Custis out of obligation and allegedly remained loyal throughout their marriage, despite his spouse's complaints about feeling trapped in the role of first lady. Meanwhile, Washington spent his personal time breeding mules and putting hundreds of enslaved people to work from dawn until dark. All told, he led a complicated and controversial life.
At 27 years old, George Washington agreed to marry Martha Dandridge Custis. But while planning his marriage to the wealthy daughter of a landowner, Washington wrote love letters to Sally Fairfax. In one missive to Fairfax, dated September 12, 1758, Washington said he remained devoted to "a Lady," implying his forbidden love for the woman.
The apparently lovelorn man went on to say, "I feel the force of her amiable beauties in the recollection of a thousand tender passages that I could wish to obliterate," because circumstances kept them apart. Not only was Washington engaged, but the letter's recipient was married to his friend George William Fairfax.
The letter acknowledged Washington's fiancee, Custis, calling her an "animating prospect." Both Fairfax and Washington entered into marriages dictated by social convention and economic prospects, rather than love, but Fairfax kept the letter until the end of her life.
Certain Founding Fathers had multiple children with enslaved women on their plantations, but did Washington have a son with an enslaved woman named Venus? Born in the 1780s, the child was named West Ford. Linda Bryant, one of Ford's descendants, told The New York Times, "We were told [Venus] was his personal sleep partner and that when it was obvious she was pregnant, [Washington] no longer slept with her."
Several people reportedly commented on how much young Ford looked like Washington, and Venus identified Washington as the father.
Jean Lee, a University of Wisconsin historian, doubts the lore, though:
George Washington had an acute self-awareness of his importance to a young, untested nation... He watched and modeled his behavior very carefully, and that would not comport with a liaison.
Other historians believe Washington was sterile, meaning he could not have fathered a child at all.
Several British officials tried to destroy Washington's reputation by allegedly spreading disparaging remarks about his faithfulness and character. In 1775, a Boston, MA, newspaper reported Britain's Royal Navy had seized a letter about General Washington's private life. Supposedly, the letter claimed a Virginia Congressman procured a "Kate the Washer-woman's Daughter over the Way" for the general. However, it seems as if British factions forged the letter to smear Washington.
A British group tried the same tactic in 1777, when a soldier testified Washington kept a "girl from New Jersey" as his mistress and hid the tryst from his wife. The witness declared:
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.
A second witness alleged Gibbons was a spy who stole top-secret documents from her lover while he slept. Records suggest both witnesses and the mistress were fabricated.
Washington visited Barbados in 1751 and contracted smallpox. He survived, but the deadly illness may have left him sterile. According to some reports, Washington never fathered biological children, but his wife had given birth to four children during a previous marriage.
Another theory, promoted by Dr. John K. Amory, suggests Washington's brush with tuberculosis gave the president a "nonsurgical vasectomy."
Washington seemed to want children. He even speculated in his diary that if Martha died before him, he could marry a younger woman to have children. Martha outlived him, though.