Τhe last thing George Washington needed was a scandal. Only days had passed since handing over the presidency to his successor. The Father of the Country was basking in the adulation of a grateful nation. He was lauded not only as the man who led the colonies in a successful revolution against the most powerful nation on earth but also as the principal architect of the new federal government. A modern Cincinnatus, he had twice held the reins of power, only to voluntarily relinquish them. He did all of this without even a hint of scandal or blemish on his character. Washington’s reputation and legacy seemed assured.
That was before the letter arrived, hinting at a scandal that could tarnish his name and reputation forever. The freshly-retired president read once again the words on the page, informing him of the discovery of a package of steamy love letters written to Washington by a married woman.
The letter came to him from Elizabeth Willing Powel. Saucily and accusingly, she charged Washington with brazenly corresponding with a married woman. She wrote, “You shall pass sentence on yourself… Suppose I should prove incontestably that you have without design put into my possession the love letters of a lady addressed to you under most solemn sanction, & a large packet, too.”
This was a startling and potentially devastating claim. Washington had been married for nearly forty years. As far as the public was concerned, his union with Martha was happy and unsullied by infidelity. If it could be shown that Washington had been less than honorable toward his marriage vows, it would not only stain the reputation of the first President but also that of the first First Lady.
Powel went on to reveal that she came across this correspondence — love letters intended only for Washington’s eyes — when she took possession of a certain writing desk. With this revelation, Washington knew the letters and Powel’s claims were authentic. As his presidency came to a close, he sold much of the furniture used in his executive offices. In his haste, he must have overlooked these cherished — and confidential letters — tucked securely away in one of the desk’s drawers.
Powel continued to boast about her find, waving it as a victory banner over the seemingly unconquerable general. “Was the taste of your sex predominant in your breast; and did the love of variety so preponderance, that because you had never blundered as President, was you determined to try its delights as a private gentleman…?”
After the boasting, teasing, and undisguised accusations, Powel got the heart of the matter. Money. $245, to be precise.
Extortion, you might think. Hush money, demanded by Powel, with a promise to remain silent about this scandal. Clearly, that’s why she would dare write such a brazen letter to the man who was proclaimed as being “first in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen.” If extortion, though, how on earth did she arrive at the amount of $245?
This is where the table — or, more precisely, the writing desk — turns. Yes, Powel did mention $245, but it wasn’t a demand for Washington to pay her; it was a promise that she would pay him.
As for the letters, they were, unquestionably, real. Washington had, in fact, been corresponding for a long time to a married woman, and Powel had proof of this decades-long love affair. The name of the married woman was Martha Custis Washington.
As Powel continued to write, “To keep you no longer in suspense, tho’ I know that your nerves are not as irritable as a fine [lady’s], yet with the generosity of my sex relieve you, by telling you that upon opening one of the drawers of your writing desk, I found a large bundle of letters from Mrs. Washington bound up and labeled with your usual accuracy.”
She assured Washington that once she realized the nature of her find, she stopped reading the letters and determined, instead, to return them to the rightful owner.
As for the $245, it was the price for the desk Powel had agreed to purchase. She wrote, “I shall, my good sir, give to Mr. Lear 245 dollars which I find was the first cost of the writing desk. In my estimation, its value is not in the least diminished by your use of it, not from its having been the repository of those valuable documents….”
One can only imagine the bemused look on Washington’s face as he replied to Mrs. Powel. His letter, dated March 26, 1797, explains, “Had it not been for one circumstance, which bye the bye is a pretty material one… that I had no love letters to lose… your letter would have caused a serious alarm; and might have tried how far my nerves were able to sustain the shock of having betrayed the confidence of a lady.”
He thanked Mrs. Powel for her delicacy in handling the matter. He noted, for the record, that if the letters had fallen into more inquisitive hands, anyone hoping for a scandal or even a steamy read would be somewhat disappointed. “The correspondence would, I am persuaded, have been found to be more fraught with expressions of friendship, than of enamoured love, and consequently, if the ideas of the possessor of them, with respect to the latter passion, should have been the romantic order to have given them warmth, which was not inherent, they might have been consigned to the flames.”
Unfortunately for history, it wasn’t some disappointed reader who consigned George and Martha’s correspondence to the flames. Of the hundreds of letters the couple exchanged over their 40-year marriage, only four are known to survive. Historians speculate that Washington disposed of the rest, or, more likely, they were burned by Martha after his death. Perhaps she, like Bess Truman, was thinking about history.
To read Powel’s letter in its entirety and to see much more of George Washington’s papers, visit the Digital Collections of the Washington Library.