Thomas, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, the only British peer who permanently resided in colonial America, helped create the United States by hiring, mentoring, and raising from obscurity young George Washington. As a teenager, Washington surveyed for Lord Fairfax, the proprietor of over five million acres across northern Virginia and what is now West Virginia.
Washington’s association with the Fairfaxes polished his manners, helped fill his purse, and elevated him into the leadership elite of the largest and wealthiest American colony. Lord Fairfax, nearly 40 years his senior, befriended Washington across five decades, through the American Revolution, having lived to see his former teenage mentee become the new nation’s chief of men.
It is said the aging Lord Fairfax was spared by Virginia from having to renounce the crown during the Revolution partly because of his longstanding ties to Washington. Whatever his private views, Fairfax would have disinherited his heirs to the title had he publicly embraced the Revolution. He quietly spent his final years at his remote Shenandoah Valley estate. Today he rests peacefully in a tomb at Christ Episcopal Church in Winchester.
Fortunately for Nicholas, 14th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, his ancestor carefully retained the peerage for his descendants. (Thomas was a childless bachelor, so Nicholas descends from his cousins, including Bryan, 8th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, an Anglican pastor in Virginia and close friend to Washington, who bequeathed him a Bible.) Nicholas returned this week to Washington’s native Fairfax County to celebrate its 275th anniversary.
Nicholas Fairfax, who sits in the reformed House of Lords as one of its 90 elected peers, is a Conservative and Brexit supporter, about which he spoke to an attentive Fairfax City audience. He described the European Union as a financially profligate, unaccountable, undemocratic, failing project that discourages business and is frightened of the will of the people. Britain could not control its own borders and was forced to yield on jurisprudence to European tribunals.
“We were told we weren’t allowed to leave, like in a John Grisham novel,” Fairfax smilingly recalled of the EU’s “patronizing condescension.” Most British voters preferred key decisions about Britain to be made by Britain, he said. “We’re too small a country to be isolationist or protectionist,” unlike America, Fairfax pointed out, and quitting the EU means more openness to the rest of the world.
Last year’s Brexit campaign ended friendships, Fairfax lamented, with “fervent leavers” like himself often derided as “parochial morons.” Of the unexpected Conservative setback in last week’s election, he noted young people voted for Labour’s Corbyn “like speed dating” despite his extremism. Conservatives would have retained their parliamentary majority if only a total 436 votes had shifted in several razor thin constituencies. Meanwhile, he said, Scottish independence for now is dead.
Of British and American politics, Fairfax said: “Extreme unpredictability is the new norm.” Yet he concluded optimistically that the decades long “special relationship” (between Britain and America), although a cliché that sometimes doesn’t reflect reality, does in fact “flourish and is a powerful force for good.”
The “special relationship” is traditionally understood as dating to WWII and the Churchill/FDR partnership, or perhaps to WWI. But the ties are much deeper, embedded in the cultural and political DNA of Britain and America, dating back across 400 years to colonial Virginia, Britain’s first major American colony. And it was incarnated in the ties between Washington and old Lord Fairfax, one a very wealthy peer of the realm, the other an ambitious commoner who was bold and courageous.
Hearing and meeting the current Lord Fairfax, who is appreciative of his family’s long American ties, was revealing and reassuring. The special relationship precedes our own troubled days, was born and matured in far more troubled times, and will endure.