Samuel Vaughan’s name has come up frequently as we research the New Room, and if you read about the room’s marble mantel or porcelain vases here on the blog, the name might sound familiar to you too. When Washington received the mantel, he declared in a letter to Vaughan, “[I] shall consider the fixture of it in my house more as a monument of your friendship, than as a decoration of my room, … & value it accordingly.”
Who was this generous friend, whose gift of a marble mantel still stands as a central feature of Washington’s most elegant room?
Portrait of Samuel Vaughan (1720–1801), painted by Robert Edge Pine, oil on canvas, 1760. British Embassy, Washington DC.
Samuel Vaughan (1720–1802) was a London merchant made wealthy by the West Indies trade and ownership of a Jamaican sugar plantation. He enthusiastically supported the political ideals of the American Revolution and was an ardent admirer of George Washington. Vaughan traveled to the United States in 1783 and hosted Washington for dinner in Philadelphia in December of that year. The two men shared many interests and struck up a warm correspondence that continued after Vaughan returned to England in 1791.
Vaughan sent Washington several notable gifts, in addition to the marble mantel and porcelain vases:
- A painting of the 1759 Battle of Minden, a key Anglo-German victory over the French in the Seven Years War. After initially displaying this painting over the New Room mantel, as Vaughan proposed, Washington moved it to the downstairs bedchamber, where it hangs today (courtesy of Washington and Lee University, Lexington, Virginia).
Mount Vernon Grounds in 1787, drawn by Samuel Vaughan, watercolor and ink on paper, 1787. W-1434
- A detailed drawing of Washington’s gardens laid out around the Mansion. Vaughan created this drawing based on a sketch and notes that he compiled during a visit to Mount Vernon during the summer of 1787, while Washington was in Philadelphia presiding over the Constitutional Convention.
- Numerous books and pamphlets, on topics ranging from ornamental plasterwork to the French Revolution to the purported discovery of America by Welsh explorers.
- Rum (consumed long ago)!
This narrative only begins to reveal the fascinating story of Vaughan’s life, the range of his political and cultural interests, and the depth of his connections to America and its first president.
Portrait of Sarah Vaughan and Her Son Richard Vaughan, by Robert Edge Pine, oil on canvas, 1760. British Embassy, Washington DC.
Vaughan’s links to the New World began with his family’s far-flung commercial interests. While still in his 20s, he was sent to attend to operations in Jamaica and Boston. There, in 1747, he married Sarah Hallowell (1727¬–1809), whose father, Benjamin Hallowell, was a wealthy merchant, shipbuilder, and landowner. The couple spent several years on the Vaughan family sugar plantations in Jamaica—Flamstead and Vaughansfield—and then removed in London, where Samuel carried on business in the City.
Despite his considerable wealth and business pursuits, Vaughan was strongly drawn to some of the most radical circles in English religion, politics, philosophy, science, and social policy. A dissenter from the Church of England, he joined the Unitarian Church at Newington Green, a center for political radicals and social reformers.
Politically, Vaughan supported Whig efforts to reform Parliament, extend liberties, and oppose abuses of power by government ministers. Through his membership in the Club of Honest Whigs (a social club that gathered to discuss scientific and philosophical topics), Vaughan met notable thinkers and statesmen ranging from the English chemist Joseph Priestley (who discovered oxygen) to Philadelphia’s redoubtable Benjamin Franklin.
Vaughan’s enthusiasm for the American Revolution placed him in contact with both leading American patriots and British sympathizers. In December 1774, he hosted an extended house party that included both Franklin and Boston patriot Josiah Quincy, Jr. In 1779 Vaughan’s eldest son Benjamin (1751–1835) published the first collected volume of Franklin’s writings, and in 1781–1782, Benjamin Vaughan served as aide to British Prime Minister Lord Shelburne, assisting in secret negotiations that led to the Peace of Paris, ending the American Revolution.
Vaughan’s libertarian views prompted him to see the American Revolution as an opportunity to effect social reforms that could not be introduced in England. Within months of the peace treaty, the 63-year-old Vaughan left London for the United States, intending to relocate permanently and establish a new life, on republican principles, with his wife and several grown children.
Arriving in Philadelphia in September 1783, the Vaughan family lodged temporarily with Benjamin Franklin’s daughter, Sarah Franklin Bache. Samuel Vaughan plunged quickly into civic affairs, and his contributions to American arts and sciences were numerous.
In February 1785 Samuel became a charter member of the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture, a topic of great interest to George Washington (who was elected an honorary member in 1786). Vaughan further promoted American science through his sponsorship of Humphry Marshall’s American Grove, the first full-fledged American botanical catalog (1786).
Wanstead House, from The Compleat English Traveler, by Nicholas Spencer, 1771. Wikipedia.
Vaughan’s interests and talents also extended to the gentlemanly pursuits of architecture and landscape design. His English residence in the village of Wanstead, about 9 miles northeast of London, had given him close acquaintance with one of Britain’s most celebrated country estates: Wanstead House, designed in 1715 by Colen Campbell, was one of the earliest examples of the Palladian taste, and its extensive formal gardens were renowned as the English Versailles.
State-House Garden, Philadelphia, drawn and engraved by William Birch, 1800. The Library Company of Philadelphia.
In America, Vaughan drew on his knowledge of English architecture and gardening to supervise the construction of Philadelphia’s Philosophical Hall. More notably, he designed two influential gardens in the picturesque taste: the State-House (now Independence Hall) Garden in the middle of the city, and Gray’s Ferry Tavern grounds, a fashionable retreat on the banks of the Schuykill River. Both featured winding paths set among hillocks and hollows, and for the State-House Garden, Vaughan installed trees and other plantings representing native species from each section of the country, as an explicit encouragement to American national identity. George Washington and other delegates to the Constitutional Convention enjoyed visits to both of these gardens during the summer of 1787, even as Vaughan himself was visiting Mount Vernon and recording Washington’s own pleasure grounds, designed in similar fashion during the preceding three years.
Politics, science, progressive agriculture, gardening, botany, animal husbandry, architecture, interior design, invention … the range of shared interests formed the basis for a lasting bond between Samuel Vaughan and George Washington. Their correspondence suggests Vaughan was not only an ardent admirer of Washington, but also a collaborator or even a mentor, conveying knowledge of a cosmopolitan world that Washington had only glimpsed from afar. Vaughan may even have evoked the memory of Washington’s earliest mentor, his much esteemed elder half-brother Lawrence, born but two years before Vaughan.
Although Vaughan returned to England in 1791, his admiration for Washington as a champion of liberty remained unabated. Of Washington’s anticipated election to the presidency, Vaughan wrote in 1788, “The World looks up to You Sir, with anxious expectations of Your presiding there, to put a finishing hand to a Constitution for settling the unalienable Rights of the People on a lasting foundation, for promoting the united and durable happiness of a great Empire.”
Portrait of George Washington, painted by Gilbert Stuart, Vaughan type, oil on canvas, 1795. Originally owned by Samuel Vaughan. National Gallery of Art, Andrew W. Mellow Collection, 1942.8.27.
For visitors to Mount Vernon, Vaughan’s marble chimney piece continues to grace the New Room, “a monument,” as Washington intended to his English friend and admirer. For most people, however, the most lasting memorial to this friendship is Gilbert Stuart’s “Vaughan type” portrait of George Washington, the original of which was painted in Philadelphia in 1795. Samuel Vaughan’s son, John, acquired two of the artist’s contemporary copies and sent one to his father, Samuel, in London. There it was engraved and published in 1796 in an influential treatise on physiognomy, the popular “science” of analyzing facial features as clues to character and personality. The inscription on the engraving credited Samuel Vaughan as the owner, thus permanently linking his name with that of his hero.
Susan P. Schoelwer, Curator