Keeper of the Key

This Day in History

Many Americans are familiar with the French holiday known as Bastille Day: the day on July 14th, 1789 in which starving, exasperated and desperate French citizens stormed the French prison in what quickly became a revolt against the horrors of unrestrained royal power and authoritarian rule.

But how many know that the chief symbol of “royal despotism” is embodied in a piece of wrought iron originating at the infamous prison?  

Weighing just a little over of a pound, it possesses a ton of symbolism and resides now in George Washington’s beloved home, Mount Vernon in Virginia.

And just how and why did it find its way across the Atlantic to its new home?

Shortly after the fall of the Bastille, Marquis de Lafayette was placed at the head of the local guard charged with maintaining law and order within the volatile country of France.  

Digital rendering of the Key to Bastille by John Henry Adams

He was soon handed the main key to the Bastille prison which he subsequently elected to present to his friend, the esteemed American president, George Washington in the summer of 1790.

Lafayette was feeling quite positive regarding the direction his homeland was headed and knew well that the symbolism of the key would not be lost on the very astute and libertarian-minded Washington. 

Of course, the journey of the key to the Bastille encompassed several months.  During the “first leg of its journey,” it was placed in the hands of Thomas Paine, the prominent figure in the American Revolution who wrote the best-selling pamphlet Common Sense.

Parts of the Bastille still stand today

In the late summer of 1790, the key was formally gifted to George Washington by South Carolina’s John Rutledge, Jr., son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.

Finally, in 1797, just before Washington retired and returned to his beloved home, Mount Vernon, the key was placed prominently in the foyer of the mansion where it has remained ever since.

Its symbolism is no less powerful today than it was then.

Perhaps the “key” to liberty, prosperity and limitless possibility indeed rests in studying our past, both our victories and defeats and heeding the clarion calls of those who have gone before us. Marquis de Lafayette and his dear friend George Washington certainly understood this.  

Vive lAmerique!

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