Washington’s most significant landscape improvements took form between 1785 and 1787. During this break from public affairs, rarely a day passed without some work on his landscape projects. He rode through the woods to mark specimen trees for transplanting, directed gardeners and enslaved workers to plant hedges and prune shrubs, and wrote letters requesting seeds or cuttings of unusual plants. When Washington departed to attend the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, his work on the Mount Vernon landscape was nearly complete, needing only the passing seasons for plantings to become established.
By 1787, George Washington had installed the major elements of his landscape design, as beautifully recorded by his friend and admirer, Samuel Vaughan.
An enthusiastic supporter of the American cause, the wealthy English merchant Samuel Vaughn arrived in Philadelphia in September 1783, just days after the signing of the Treaty of Paris formally ended the American Revolution. Vaughan had long admired General Washington and met him through the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture.
Vaughan spent several days at Mount Vernon that summer, while Washington was in Philadelphia, presiding over the heated debates of the Constitutional Convention. The General was then beginning to think about improvements he wished to make at Mount Vernon, and Vaughan proved a valuable source of information on the latest English ideas on both landscape design and interior furnishings.
Vaughan explored the estate, took detailed measurements of the Mansion and surrounding features, and made a rough sketch in his small travel notebook. He subsequently compiled this information into a large finished drawing, which he presented to the General as a gift.
Known today as the “Vaughan plan,” this bird’s-eye view precisely captures George Washington’s “grand design” for his “pleasure grounds.” Preserved among his papers after his death, the original drawing returned to Mount Vernon in 1975. Vaughan’s drawing provides invaluable documentation about the appearance of the estate, guiding the restoration of landscape elements that have disappeared over time.
Samuel Vaughan’s drawing shows the major elements of George Washington’s pleasure grounds. A lettered key in the lower right identifies specific features: from the top, the sweeping curves of the Potomac River, the east lawn, and groves of trees at both ends of the Mansion. The formal geometry of the circle and the straight lines of outbuildings and garden pathways contrast strongly with the serpentine walks that border the central bowling green. Washington himself praised Vaughan’s accuracy, noting only that the trees came too close to the gate at the bottom of the drawing.
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