How France’s treasured Bastille key ended up at Mount Vernon
an angry French mob stormed the royal Bastille prison in Paris, igniting the French Revolution. But as France celebrates Bastille Day and the birth of its republic, one of the most potent symbols of the revolution — the main key to the Bastille — hangs in George Washington’s historic estate in Mount Vernon, Va.
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.
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 U.S. 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.
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.”