How the key to the Bastille ended up at Mount Vernon, via the Marquis de Lafayette



On July 14, 1789, an angry French mob stormed the royal prison of the Bastille in Paris, sparking the French Revolution. But as France celebrates July 14 and the birth of its republic, one of the revolution’s most potent symbols – the master key to the Bastille – hangs in George Washington’s historic estate at Mount Vernon, Virginia. .

The key arrived in Mount Vernon after a convoluted trip involving the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Paine, a South Carolina lawyer, and stopped in New York and Philadelphia.

Lafayette first arrived in America at the age of 19 to fight in the American Revolution against England’s King George III and found himself as a “boy general” leading the decisive defeat of the British at Yorktown , Virginia, in 1781. After his return to France, he was a leader of the revolt against King Louis XVI.

This map helped George Washington win the Revolutionary War. It is now on display at Mount Vernon.

On March 17, 1790, after taking the Bastille, the revolutionaries presented the key to Lafayette, the 32-year-old chief of the Paris National Guard. He endeavored to send it, along with a letter, to Washington in New York, then the capital of the United States.

“Allow me, my dear General, to present to you an image of the Bastille as it looked a few days after I ordered its demolition, with the main key to this fortress of despotism – it is a tribute that I owe as a Son to my adoptive father, aide-de-camp to my general, missionary of freedom to his patriarch,” Lafayette wrote. He included a drawing of the ruins of the Bastille by the French architect who oversaw its demolition. .

Lafayette entrusted the delivery of the key to Paine, the author of the revolutionary American pamphlet “Common Sense”, who was visiting Europe at the time. On May 1, Paine wrote to Washington: “I feel happy to be the person through whom the Marquess has transmitted this first trophy of the spoils of despotism and the first ripe fruits of American principles transplanted into Europe.

When Paine’s trip to America was postponed, he gave the key and drawing of the Bastille to John Rutledge Jr., a prominent South Carolina lawyer who was returning from London. Rutledge presented the papers in Washington in early August. Lafayette’s letter was delivered separately.

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Washington wrote Lafayette a note of thanks: “My dear Marquis, I received your affectionate letter of March 17th by one conveyance, and the pledge of the victory won by Liberty over Despotism by another” and “I Please accept my most sincere thanks. In return, Washington sent Lafayette a pair of shoe buckles, “Not for the value of the thing, my dear marquis, but as a memorial, and because they are the making of this town.”

Washington presented the key to the Bastille at a presidential reception in New York. The key, made of dark wrought iron, is seven inches long and weighs one pound and three ounces. Its teeth are designed in the shape of a royal fleur-de-lis.

After the U.S. capital moved to Philadelphia in late 1790, Washington displayed the key in a wood and gilt glass case in the President‘s State Dining Room. Just before completing his second term as president in early 1797, he took the locked key to his estate in Mount Vernon, Virginia, where he hung it first in the “Lafayette room” and then in the hall of first-floor entrance, according to Mount Vernon Conservators. Washington died in 1799 and his widow, Martha, kept the key on display.

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During this time, Lafayette helped lead the French Revolution and the establishment of France’s First Republic in September 1792. During the ‘Reign of Terror’ led by the victors, Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded with the recently invented guillotine. The new rulers also went after French aristocrats, even Lafayette, who in August 1792 fled to Belgium, where officials handed him over to Austria. He was imprisoned there for five years as a dangerous radical. After his release, he returned to France.

In 1824, at the invitation of President James Monroe, 67-year-old Lafayette and his son, George Washington de Lafayette, embarked on a year-long tour of the United States. In September they visited Mount Vernon, where Lafayette’s son had lived during his father’s imprisonment. The aging hero “found in the place where Washington had put him the main key to the Bastille, which Lafayette sent to him after the destruction of this monument of despotism”, writes Lafayette’s secretary in his travel diary. “The accompanying note is still carefully kept with the key.”

The Key to the Bastille remained on display at Mount Vernon after the non-profit Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the estate from the Washington family in 1858 and opened it to the public. A visitor in 1922 was former French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau, known as the “Tiger of France”, who, like Lafayette, was once imprisoned for political reasons. “What interested me the most there, wrote Clemenceau later, was the key to the Bastille, the gift of Lafayette. As an ex-prisoner, I’m naturally interested in that sort of thing.

In 1959, during the Eisenhower administration, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s wife, Nina, visited Mount Vernon. When the tour director ‘began to explain that the dove of peace on the mansion’s weather vane bore an olive branch, Ms. Khrushchev muttered ‘Yes, yes’ and walked away,’ reported the New York. Daily News. “She was more interested in the Key to the Bastille. She put on her glasses to get a closer look.

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In 1951, syndicated columnist Drew Pearson called for the key to be returned to France after French President Vincent Auriol visited the Washington home. “When he left, he remained behind him, clinging to the walls of Mount Vernon, a symbol of France as dear to the French people as the Liberty Bell of Philadelphia is to the American people. It is the key to the Bastille,” Pearson wrote. “The average American who visits Mount Vernon does not appreciate the significance of the key and the role it has played in French history. But in France, it means the day of freedom, the foundation of the French republic.

The key temporarily returned to France in 1989, when President George HW Bush took it to Paris for the July 14 200th anniversary celebration. He presented the key to French President François Mitterrand to be displayed for a week at the new Bastille Opera House, next to the original Bastille site.

While France celebrates La Fête Nationale on Thursday July 14, in the United States visitors to Mount Vernon can see the key to the Bastille in the central passage. For $29.95 you can even show your support for the French Revolution by purchasing your very own Mount Vernon Cast Iron Key to the Bastille Paperweight.


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