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Archive for October, 2012

October 31, 2012

Object Spotlight: Key to the Bastille


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

Category: George Washington, Object Spotlight

October 22, 2012

Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington Launches


George Washington understood the value of owning a comprehensive encyclopedia. Washington explained as much in a September 1797 letter to Clement Biddle, the manager of his Philadelphia business affairs, writing: “As the Encyclopaedia might be useful, to have by me…I would…request Mr. Dobson to have all that are published, neatly bound and sent to me.”1 Washington was so enamored with the possibilities provided by an encyclopedia that he ended up ordering two sets of Philadelphia printer Thomas Dobson’s Encyclopedia, or A Dictionary of Arts, Sciences, and Miscellaneous Literature. Washington’s motives in ordering two sets were both ideological and practical. On one hand, Washington wanted to “encourage” Dobson’s “undertaking the work.” In addition, Washington had already given away one set of the encyclopedia and desired a bound copy for his own library.2

Luckily technological advancements have ensured that encyclopedias have become far more engaging and accessible than they were in the late eighteenth century. However, the utility provided by an encyclopedia remains strikingly similar. With this in mind, Mount Vernon is happy to announce the public launch of the Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington, a new digital history project that allows users to interact and explore primary source materials and objects from the Mount Vernon collection. Entries focus on the totality of Washington’s life and experiences, while also covering the Mount Vernon Estate, its history, and preservation. The encyclopedia includes entries written by Mount Vernon staff and experts, as well as a team of more than thirty outside scholars of history and related fields. The encyclopedia can be found at, and we hope that its resources help encourage others to undertake further study of Washington and his world.

Adam D. Shprintzen, Ph.D.
Editor/Project Coordinator, Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington

1. “George Washington to Clement Biddle, September 6, 1797
2. “George Washington to Clement Biddle, August 14, 1797″

Category: George Washington, Research/Lectures

October 19, 2012

Object Spotlight: Map of the Siege of Yorktown


Exactly 231 years ago, on October 19, 1781, the British officially surrendered to the American and French armies after a sound defeat at the Battle of Yorktown. Several days later, French Lieutenant Colonel Jean Baptiste Gouvion sat down and drew a detailed map of the momentous siege.

This rare map documents the fortifications and troop movements of American and French forces as they tightened their pressure on the British, who were encamped near the mouth of the York River, south of Williamsburg, Virginia. Two lines of American and French batteries are marked in yellow, encircling the British positions marked in red. A summary of the battle’s trajectory appears on the right-hand side of the map. The allies’ successful siege at Yorktown led to the surrender of the entire army commanded by British General Lord Cornwallis, a disastrous defeat that effectively ended the Revolutionary War.

Preserved in the family of George Washington’s close friend and aide, Tobias Lear, this original map was very likely owned by Washington himself. Jean Baptiste Gouvion was one of the engineers responsible for designing and building the French and American fortifications, so his drawing is believed to be the most accurate depiction of the allies’ positions and plan of attack.

You can see this remarkable document on display in the Gilder Lehrman Gallery of the Donald W. Reynolds Museum & Education Center until March of 2013.

Courtesy of Ambassador and Mrs. Nicholas F. Taubman

Jessie MacLeod, Assistant Curator

Category: Object Spotlight

October 16, 2012

MV Mailbox: Greetings from 1908


Before the George Washington Memorial Parkway was constructed in the 1930s, visitors to Mount Vernon took a trolley or electric train to the estate. The author of this week’s postcard wrote to Ada Hudson of 934 22nd NW, Washington D.C. to describe her visit Mount Vernon, including the trolley ride. She writes, “You should take the children, or your friends to Mt. Vernon. It is beautiful at this season, and is a dandy trolley ride through historic Alexandria, where you see the old church George Washington attended.” According to another visitor who made the trek to Mount Vernon in 1907, visitors could also reach the estate by boat and the adventurous traveler could brave the Mount Vernon Pike, a pitted, soggy, muddy roadway, in a car. He describes the Pike’s condition as being “so unspeakable as to be literally a disgrace to the state in which it exists, the country which holds the state, and the people who live in the country.”

This month’s post card also features a view of the east front of the Mansion. On the top of the piazza you will notice a balustrade erected by George Washington’s nephew, Bushrod Washington, in the nineteenth-century and removed in the twentieth-century. The small porch to the left of the house in the photograph was also a nineteenth-century addition removed for authenticity’s sake. Bushrod Washington constructed these embellishments, in part, to maintain and improve the property for the many visitors that poured through the estate during his residency at Mount Vernon.

Although the George Washington Memorial Parkway provides an easy and convenient route to the estate, a ride on the “shrieking, whizzing trolley-line,” as one visitor described it, does sound exciting.

The postcards featured in the MV Mailbox series and hundreds others are part of Mount Vernon’s postcard collection. They range vastly in age and subject matter, but have one underlying commonality: George Washington’s estate.

Abby Cliff

Category: MV Mailbox

October 11, 2012

What’s Blooming in the Garden this Week?


In keeping with last month’s trend, this blog also focuses on a lesser known garden here at Mount Vernon–the Botanical Garden. Although not at all lesser, George Washington’s “little garden by the salt house” is the smallest floral enclosure on the grounds of the estate. Like the Fruit Garden and Nursery, this “little garden” served as an experimental growing area for Washington’s multiple exotic plant species, which he acquired largely from traveling relatives, friends, and traders.

The types of greenery grown in this area varied immensely. For instance, we know shoots of mangel wurzel, everlasting pea, and alfalfa once populated the Botanical Garden during Washington’s lifetime; however, they were probably not cultivated for human consumption. Rather, these plants were grown as fodder for livestock, as all three experience rapid growth rates. Everlasting pea is especially hardy, and receives its name from its ability to continually grow back after it has been cut.

The garden behind the salt house also served as space for Washington to grow nonnative tree species. In a letter to George Augustine Washington, George Washington requested the procurement of magnolia seeds and seeds of other trees “which would be ornamental in a grove or forest.” This desire for decorative foliage highlights Washington’s interest in landscaping; for not only was Washington a dedicated farmer, but he was also committed to aesthetically cultivating the grounds around his estate.

Despite Washington’s many talents, we must never forget that he was also a man, and therefore not infallible. In two separate diary entries from the summer of 1785, Washington records the sowing of chinaberry and bird pepper seeds. The former was presumably intended for decorative purposes, as it is an excellent shading tree once full grown. The latter served a more practical purpose, and was often used interchangeably with cayenne pepper to season meat. Unfortunately, on April 6, 1786, Washington claims that he “took the covering off the Plants in my Botanical garden, and found none living of all those planted the 13th. of June last” and that “none of the plants which were sowed with the seeds from China[…]were to be seen.” Washington goes on to speculate as to whether the climate or his winter preservation techniques were to blame for the demise of the plants, and elaborates a plan to improve his cultivation methods during the new growing season.

The Botanical Garden is truly a unique part of the Mount Vernon estate. Though small, it was a garden in which Washington labored continually, a place where failure was realized and overcome by perseverance, strategy, and dedication.

Brittany Higgs

Category: What's Blooming at Mount Vernon?


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Portraits in Schools

Kids holding George Washington Portrait

Mount Vernon recently invited K-12 schools nationwide to request framed portraits of George Washington to display in a respectful, prominent place.

The response was overwhelming: thousands of schools submitted letters! Along with the portrait, schools received curriculum materials to help explore our first president’s contributions.

Where has George Washington gone back to school? Click here to see!

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