Bastille Key at Mt. Vernon

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Bastille Key at Mt. Vernon, courtesy of Mt. Vernon Ladies Association

The Bastille Key, the cast iron key to the main prison in France, was given to Marquis de Lafayette following the Storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Lafayette, at the time, was acting as a commander of a local protection force aimed at keeping the peace in France. He passed on the Bastille Key to George Washington in 1790. Marquis de Lafayette, of course, was quite instrumental in the American Revolution and held similar ideals as Washington and other Founding Fathers.

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Storming of the Bastille, courtesy of Encyclopedia Brittanica

This object is important to George Washington and the American Revolution in general because it represented the ability of a people to overthrow injustice. The Bastille, prior to the Storming, was seen as a symbol of aristocratic power. This changed when citizens of France attacked the Bastille, the local prison and armory. As such, it is remembered as one of the most important acts of the French Revolution. Such obvious parallels can be drawn between the Storming of the Bastille and American Revolution era events like the Boston Tea Party. The Washington family recognized the power of this object and it remained in the Mansion for several generations following Martha Washington’s death. It was only of a few furnishings to remain in their original place in the home.

Although technically a testament to French events, the Bastille key remains a symbol for the larger themes of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These themes are instrumental to American society and surely make the case for keeping the Key on display at Mt. Vernon.

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