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11 Key People Who Shaped George Washington's Life

December 10, 2019 in History

By Christopher Klein

A who’s who of the important figures in the first American president’s life and career.

Eulogized by Henry Lee as “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” George Washington stood preeminent among the pantheon of American Founding Fathers. At his home Mount Vernon, on the battlefield and in the presidency, Washington crossed paths with many others who shaped his life. This is the cast of characters—friend and foe alike—who influenced the development of Washington the man, Washington the general and Washington the president.

Washington the Man


Following the sudden death of her wealthy husband, Daniel Custis, in 1757, 26-year-old Martha Dandridge Custis became perhaps Virginia’s richest and most eligible widow. Among the suitors who came calling at her mansion, dubbed the “White House,” was young Virginia militia officer George Washington. Washington biographer Ron Chernow writes that the future American president “courted Martha with the crisp efficiency of a military man laying down a well-planned siege.” The pair, who wed in January 1759, had no children together but raised Martha’s son and daughter (Jacky and Patsy) from her first marriage. While Martha’s initial appeal may have been more economic than romantic—Washington described her as “an agreeable partner” shortly after they wed—the union grew into one of the most admired marriages in American history. At Washington’s side in winter quarters for nearly half of the Revolutionary War and then as First Lady, Martha provided financial security, emotional support and much-needed stability amid a swirl of turbulent historical events.

READ MORE: Why Martha Washington Was the Ultimate Military Spouse


George Washington dancing the minuet with Sally Fairfax at the Carlyle House, 1755.

“The world has no business to know the object of my love, declared in this manner to you when I want to conceal it,” Washington wrote weeks before his wedding. The letter wasn’t sent to Martha Custis, however, but to Sally Fairfax, the wife of one of his best friends and patrons. Described as an intelligent, “dark-eyed beauty,” Fairfax lived in a neighboring estate four miles downstream of Mount Vernon and married into Virginia’s largest landowning family. It’s unknown if romance actually blossomed between the two—and Fairfax is said to have cut off correspondence with Washington after his engagement to Custis—but a friendship ultimately endured. Fairfax and her husband were frequent …read more


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