The key arrived at Mount Vernon after a convoluted journey involving the Marquis de Lafayette, Thomas Paine, a South Carolina lawyer, and stops in New York and Philadelphia.
Lafayette first arrived in America at age 19 to fight in the American Revolution against England’s King George III and wound up as a “boy general” leading the decisive defeat of the British at Yorktown, Va., In 1781. After returning to France, he was a leader of the revolt against King Louis XVI.
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On March 17, 1790, after taking over the Bastille, revolutionaries presented the key to Lafayette, the 32-year-old head of the Paris National Guard. He endeavored to send it, along with a letter, to Washington in New York, then the US capital.
“Give me leave, My dear General, to present you with a picture of the Bastille just as it looked a few days after I Had ordered its demolition, with the Main Key of that fortress of despotism — it is a tribute Which I owe as A Son to My Adoptive father, as an aid de Camp to My General, as a Missionary of liberty to its patriarch, ”Lafayette wrote. He included a drawing of the Bastille ruins by the French architect who oversaw its demolition.
Lafayette entrusted delivery of the key to Paine, the author of the American revolutionary pamphlet “Common Sense,” who was visiting Europe at the time. On May 1, Paine wrote Washington, “I feel myself happy in being the person thro ‘whom the Marquis has conveyed this early trophy of the Spoils of Despotism and the first ripe fruits of American principles transplanted into Europe.”
When Paine’s voyage to America was postponed, he gave the Bastille key and drawing to John Rutledge Jr., a prominent South Carolina lawyer who was sailing home from London. Rutledge presented the items to Washington in early August. Lafayette’s letter was delivered separately.
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Washington wrote Lafayette a thank-you note: “My dear Marquis, I have received your affectionate letter of the 17 of March by one conveyance, and the token of victory gained by Liberty over Despotism by another” and “I pray you to accept my sincerest 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 manufacture of this city.”
Washington displayed the Bastille key at a presidential reception in New York. The key, made of dark-colored wrought iron, is seven inches long and weighs one pound and three ounces. Its teeth are designed in the shape of the royal fleur-de-lis.
After the US capital was moved to Philadelphia in late 1790, Washington displayed the key in a gilded wood-and-glass case in the president’s state dining room. Just before finishing his second term as president in early 1797, he took the encased key to his estate at Mount Vernon, Va., Where he hung it first in the “Lafayette bedchamber” and then in the first-floor entry hall, according to Mount Vernon curators. Washington died in 1799, and his widow, Martha, kept the key on display.
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Meanwhile, Lafayette helped lead the French Revolution and the establishment of the First Republic of France in September 1792. In the subsequent “Reign of Terror” carried out by the victors, Louis XVI and Queen Marie Antoinette were beheaded with the recently invented guillotine. The new leaders also went after French aristocrats, even Lafayette, who in August 1792 fled to Belgium, where officials turned him over to Austria. He was put in prison there for five years as a dangerous radical. After his release, he returned to France.
In 1824, at the invitation of President James Monroe, the 67-year-old Lafayette and his son, George Washington de Lafayette, embarked on a one-year tour of the United States. That 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 it the principal key of the Bastille, which Lafayette sent him after the destruction of that monument of despotism,” Lafayette’s secretary wrote in his journal of the trip. “The note which accompanied it is still carefully preserved along with the key.”
The Bastille key remained on display at Mount Vernon after the nonprofit Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association purchased the estate from the Washington family in 1858 and opened it to the public. One 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 most there,” Clemenceau wrote later, “was the key of the Bastille — the gift of Lafayette. As an ex-jailbird I am naturally interested in such things. ”
In 1959, during the Eisenhower administration, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev’s wife, Nina, visited Mount Vernon. When the tour director “started to explain that the dove of peace on the mansion’s weather vane carried an olive branch, Mrs. Khrushchev muttered, ‘Yes, yes’ and walked away, ”the New York Daily News reported. “She was more interested in the Key to the Bastille. She put on her glasses for a closer look. ”
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In 1951, syndicated columnist Drew Pearson urged that the key be returned to France after French President Vincent Auriol had visited Washington’s home. “When he departed, there remained behind him, hanging on the walls of Mount Vernon, a symbol of France as dear to the French people as the Liberty Bell in 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 key’s significance and the role it played in French history. But in France it means the day of liberty, the founding of the French republic. ”
The key did return to France temporarily in 1989, when President George HW Bush took it to Paris for the 200th anniversary celebration of Bastille Day. He presented the key to French President Francois Mitterrand to be displayed for a week at the newly opened Bastille Opera House next to the original Bastille site.
As France celebrates La Fete Nationale on Thursday’s Bastille Day, in the United States, visitors to Mount Vernon can see the Bastille key in the central passage there. For $ 29.95, you can even show your support for the French Revolution by buying your own “Mount Vernon Cast Iron Key to the Bastille Paperweight.”