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Key To The Bastille Gates At Mount Vernon

July 14, 2017

James and I were able to see the key to the Bastille gates at Mount Vernon during our trip this spring.  Today is Bastille Day, the common name given in English-speaking countries to the French National Day, which is celebrated on the 14th of July each year.  As such, I want to give the background as to how the key was in the possession of George Washington.

With his military experience from serving during the American Revolution, the thirty-two year old Marquis de Lafayette quickly assumed a prominent role in the opening chapter of the French Revolution. After the Bastille fell, Lafayette was placed in command of a local national guard formed to keep order throughout France.

The Bastille main prison key was turned over to Lafayette shortly after the Bastille was stormed on July 14, 1789 by angry citizens rioting in the streets of Paris. The Bastille was a natural target when violence erupted after severe shortages of bread led the people into the streets. Lafayette was optimistic about the fate of the revolution when he prepared to ship the Bastille key to Washington in March of 1790.

Several months passed before the gift finally arrived at its destination. On the first leg of the journey Lafayette entrusted the key to Thomas Paine, well-known for his participation in the American Revolution. The actual presentation to Washington late in the summer of 1790 was an honor that fell to John Rutledge, Jr., a South Carolinian returning to the United States from London.

The principal key to the Bastille is made of wrought iron and weighs one pound, three ounces. Washington’s prominent display of this celebrated souvenir in the presidential household illustrated his appreciation to his French pupil as well as recognition of its symbolic importance in America. Shown first at a presidential levee in New York in August, the key continued to be showcased in Philadelphia when the seat of government moved there in the fall of 1790.  Shortly before Washington’s retirement from the presidency in 1797, the key was taken to Mount Vernon and given a place of honor in the first floor passage.

Here is the way I saw it at Mount Vernon this spring as I took this photo.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. July 14, 2017 6:52 PM

    Great article! For more information about “George Washington’s Liberty Key: Mount Vernon’s Bastille Key,” check out http://www.LibertyKey.US

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