George Washington Papers

From George Washington to Sarah Cary Fairfax, 16 May 1798

To Sarah Cary Fairfax

Mount Vernon 16th May 1798.

My dear Madam,

Five and twenty years, nearly, have passed away since I have considered myself as the permanent resident of this place; or have been in a situation to endulge myself in familiar intercourse with my friends, by letter or otherwise.

During this period, so many important events have occurred, and such changes in men and things have taken place, as the compass of a letter would give you but an inadequate idea of. None of which events, however, nor all of them together, have been able to eradicate from my mind, the recollection of those happy moments—the happiest of my life—which I have enjoyed in your company.

Worn out in a manner by the toils of my past labour, I am again seated under my Vine & Fig tree, and wish I could add that there are none to make us affraid; but those whom we have been accustomed to call our good friends and allies, are endeavouring if not to make us affraid, yet to despoil us of our property; and are provoking us to Acts of Self-defence, which may lead to War. What will be the result of such measures, time, that faithful expositor of all things, must disclose. My wish is, to spend the remainder of my days (which cannot be many) in rural amusements—free from those cares which public responsibility is never exempt.

Before the War, & even while it existed, altho’ I was eight years from home at one stretch, (except the en passant visits made to it on my March to and from the Siege of Yorktown) I made considerable additions to my dwelling house, & alterations in my Offices, & Gardens; but the dilapidati⟨on⟩ occasioned by time, & those negleets which are co-extensive with the absence of Proprietors, have occupied as much of my time, within the last twelve months in repairing them, as at any former period in the same space. And it is matter of sore regret, when I cast my eyes towards Belvoir, which I often do, to reflect ⟨that⟩ the former Inhabitants of it, with whom we lived in such harmony & friendship, no longer reside there; and that the ruins can only be viewed as the memento of former pleasures;1 and permit me to add, that I have wondered often (your nearest relatives being in this Country), that you should not prefer spending the evening of your life among them rather than close the sublunary Scene in a foreign Country—numerous as your acquaintances may be, and sincere, the friendships you may have formed.

A Century hence, if this Country keep united (and it is surely its policy and Interest to do so) will produce a City—though not as large as London—yet of a magnitude inferior to few others in Europe, on the Banks of the Potomack; where one is now establishing for the permanent Seat of the Government of the United States (between Alexandria & Georgetown, on the Maryland side of the River). A situation not excelled for commanding prospect, good water, salubrious air, and safe harbour by any in the world; & where elegant buildings are erecting & in forwardness, for the reception of Congress in the year 1800.

Alexandria, within the last seven years, (since the establishment of the General Government) has increased in buildings, in population, in the improvement of its Streets by well executed pavements, and in the extension of its Wharves, in a manner, of which you can have very little idea. This shew of prosperity, you will readily ⟨conceive is owing to its commerce. The extension of that Trade is occasioned in a great degree by opening of the Inland navigation of Potomack River now cleared to Fort Cumberland upwards of 200 miles and by a similar attempt to accomplish the like up the Shannandoah 150 miles more. in a word if this Country can stear clear of European Politics, stand firm on its bottom & be wise and temperate in its government, it bids fair to be one of the greatest & happiest nations in the world.

Knowing that Mrs Washington is about to give an account of the changes wch have happened in the neighbourhood, & in our own family I shall not trouble you with a repetition of them⟩;2illegible⟩ received accurate information ⟨illegible⟩ from particular friends, from ⟨illegible⟩ and having only one ⟨illegible⟩ miles ⟨illegible⟩ I have not been as far as Occoquan these seven years; ⟨illegible⟩ from hoping it. Be that as it may, ⟨illegible⟩ and under all circumstances, I shall ⟨illegible⟩ be ⟨illegible

Go: Washington⟩

ALS (letterpress copy), DLC:GW; LB, DLC:GW. In the final paragraph the words in angle brackets before superscript number 2 are taken from the letter-book copy; the remainder of the paragraph is taken from Fitzpatrick, Writings of Washington, description begins John C. Fitzpatrick, ed. The Writings of George Washington from the Original Manuscript Sources, 1745–1799. 39 vols. Washington, D.C., 1931–44. description ends 32:262–65, because Fitzpatrick was able to decipher more of this portion of the letterpress copy than either the editors of this volume or, it would seem, GW’s copyist.

Sarah Cary Fairfax, the widow of George William Fairfax and an old friend and former neighbor at Belvoir of the Washingtons, had been in England since 1773 and was nearly seventy years old.

1GW wrote to her husband, George William Fairfax, on 27 Feb. 1785 in a similar vein: “But alas! Belvoir is no more! I took a ride there the other day to visit the ruins. . . . When I viewed them—when I considered that the happiest moments of my life had been spent there . . . I was obliged to fly from them; & came home with painful sensations, & sorrowing for the contrast.”

2GW’s draft of the letter that Martha Washington copied and sent to Mrs. Fairfax reads: “Whether you are indebted to me, or I to you a letter, I shall not (because it would not comport with that friendship I have always professed, & still feel for you[)], enquire; but I shall proceed, having so good an opportunity as is afforded by Mr Fairfax’s voyage to England, to assure you that although many years have elapsed since I have either received or written one to you, that my affectionate regard for you have undergone no diminution⟨,⟩ and that it is among my greatest regrets, now I am again fixed, (I hope for life) at this place, at not having you as a neighbour & companion—This loss was not so sensibly felt by me while I was a kind of perambulator, during eight or nine years of the War, and during other eight years which I resided at the Seat of the General government occupied in scenes more busy, tho’ not more happy, than in the tranquil employment of rural life with which my days will close.

“The changes which have taken place in this County, since you left it (and it is pretty much the case in all other parts of this State) are, in one word, total. In Alexandria⟨,⟩ I do not believe there lives, at this day, a single family with whom you had the smallest acquainta⟨nce⟩. In our Neighbourhood, Colo. [George] Mason, Colo. [Daniel] McC⟨ar⟩ty & wife, Mr [Richard] Chichester, Mr Lund Washington and all the Wagener’s, have left the stage of human life; and our Visitors on the Maryland side are gone, & going likewise. These, it is true, are succeeded by another Generation⟨;⟩ among whom your niece, Mrs [Sarah Carlyle] Herbert, has a numerous offspring; & as she, Mrs [Hannah Fairfax] Washington of Fairfield, & your Nephews Thomas & Ferdinand Fairfax are (as I am informed) among your Correspondents, it would perh⟨aps⟩ be but an imperfect repetition of what you receive more correctly in deta⟨il⟩ from them, to relate matters which more immediately concern themselves: I shall briefly add however, that Mrs Washington has just lost another daughter [Louisa] who late⟨ly⟩ married Mr Thomas Fairfax and is the se⟨cond⟩ wife he has lost—both very fine Women.

“With respect to my own family, it will not, I presume, be new to you to hear that my son died in the Fall of 1781. He left four fine children—three daughters & a son, the two oldest of the former are married and have three children between them all girls. the eldest of the two Elizabeth married Mr Law (a man of fortune from the East Indies) brother to the Bishop of [Carlisle] the other, Martha, married Mr Thos Peter, Son of Robt Peter of George Town; who is also very wealthy—both live in the Federal City. The youngest daughter Eleanor, is yet single, & lives with me, having done so from an infant; as has my Grand Son George Washington, now turned of seventeen except when at College; to three of which he has been—viz.—Philadelphia, New Jersey and Annapolis at the last of which he now is” (DLC:GW). A transcription of the letter that Martha copied from this draft and made a few additions to is printed in Fields, Papers of Martha Washington, description begins Joseph E. Fields, ed. “Worthy Partner”: The Papers of Martha Washington. Westport, Conn., and London, 1994. description ends 314–17. Both GW’s draft and Martha’s copy of the letter are dated 17 May.

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