On July 14, 1789, French citizens stormed the Bastille, a medieval Parisian fortress that had become a symbol of French royal control. Months later, one of the fortification’s keys would be given to George Washington, eventually making its way from Paris’s narrow, urban streets to the banks of the Potomac.
How might the General come across such a rare possession? His good friend and mentee, the Marquis de Lafayette, was named commander of the Paris National Guard one day after the storming of the Bastille placing him in charge of the prison and allowing him to come into possession of the key. Lafayette passed it to Thomas Paine (who was then in Paris), to send on to Washington. Paine moved to London and turned the key over to John Rutledge, Jr., who, upon arriving in New York, finally put it in the hands of then-President Washington on or before August 3, 1790.
The president would take it with him to Philadelphia and eventually Mount Vernon. Washington prominently displayed the key as a “token of victory by Liberty over Despotism” in a custom-made, carved and gilded case. It is one of only a handful of possessions to both remain at the estate and be sold to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association when it made its purchase. Washington kept the key to the Bastille in the Mansion’s central passage, where it remains today.