October 31, 2012
On the wall of the Central Passage of Mount Vernon hangs a key to a building that no longer exists. Prominently displayed in a custom-made gilded case, this heavy iron key once opened the doors of the Bastille, the infamous Paris prison where thousands of political dissidents were locked up by agents of the French monarchy for more than five centuries. What did George Washington have to do with a French prison? More than you might think.
On July 14, 1789, a Parisian mob stormed the Bastille, marking the start of the French Revolution. The revolutionaries set fire to the prison and, in the weeks that followed, destroyed the building, which they viewed as a loathsome symbol of absolute monarchy. One of the commanders who ordered this raid was the Marquis de Lafayette, a French officer who had served as George Washington’s aide-de-camp (personal assistant) during the Revolutionary War.
On March 17, 1790, Lafayette sent Washington a precious gift: the key to the Bastille, along with a sketch of the prison just after it was raided. The two men had become close friends during the war, and Lafayette even named his first son George Washington de Lafayette after his former general. But this gift was about more than a close personal friendship. As the leader of the American Revolution and the new country’s first president, Washington symbolized the freedom from monarchy that French revolutionaries sought.
In the letter that accompanied his gift, Lafayette demonstrated the high esteem he and his compatriots felt for Washington: “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 the fortress of despotism. It is a tribute, which I owe, as a son to my adoptive father, as an Aide-de-Camp to my General, as a Missionary of liberty to its Patriarch.”
Washington, in turn, accepted these souvenirs as a “token of victory by Liberty over Despotism.” He proudly displayed the key and sketch in his executive residence in Philadelphia and later in the Central Passage of Mount Vernon. In fact, the Bastille key was one of the few items that remained in the house even after George Washington died. It was still affixed to the Central Passage wall when the Mount Vernon Ladies Association acquired the house from John Augustine Washington in 1860, and it remains there to this day. If only this key could talk–imagine the stories it would tell!
Transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association through the generosity of John Augustine Washington III, 1860 [W-14/A, Key to the Bastille]
Courtesy of The Shriners Hospitals for Children and The Masonic Charity Foundation of Connecticut [Sketch of the Bastille]
Jessie MacLeod, Assistant Curator