The Bastille Key, a French Relic in America

The Bastille key is a symbol of the French monarchy and the prison that was taken by Parisian revolutionaries on July 14, 1789. Today, it is exhibited in the United States at a museum south of Alexandria in Virginia.
© Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation located on the banks of the Potomac River, is now a museum home to the final resting place of the first president of the United States. But that’s not all! Visitors will also find a very French relic, the key to the Bastille prison, kept in a glass case in the entrance hall of the residence. Employees handling it wear rubber gloves. According to associate curator Adam Erby, this is “one of Mount Vernon’s most iconic objects.”

The key arrived in the United States in 1790 and was gifted to George Washington by the Marquis de Lafayette. Named commander of the national guard of Paris on the day of the Taking of the Bastille, July 14, 1789, Lafayette received the key to the prison as a symbolic gesture from the people. Made of wrought iron, it weighs one pound and three ounces, and its teeth are designed in the shape of the royal fleur-de-lis.

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© Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

After the French Revolution, the Bastille Prison was destroyed and its stones were used to build the Concorde Bridge, first named Pont Louis-XVI, then Pont de la Révolution following the king’s execution. Proud of the progress of the Revolution, Lafayette decided to give the Bastille key to his mentor from the American War of Independence. The key was accompanied by an etching of the Bastille in ruins and a letter addressed to George Washington. “It is a tribute,” wrote the Marquis in March 1790, “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.”

A Sensation in the United States

The key was entrusted to Thomas Paine, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States and author of the pamphlet Common Sense, who was tasked with bringing the key to America. But his trip was postponed, and it was a certain John Rutledge Jr., a planter from South Carolina, who presented the key to the U.S. president. The ceremony was held in New York, then the capital of the United States, in August 1790. Drawings of the key were featured in every newspaper in the country.

Kept in New York, then moved to Philadelphia, the key was later exhibited in George Washington’s residence in Mount Vernon. Lafayette even stopped there during his national tour in October 1824. Finally, the key was left to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association, which still looks after the site today. The relic from the Bastille has since led to a vast number of spinoff products, available to buy in the museum gift shop, including keyrings, lucky charms, paperweights, and Christmas decorations. Those looking to be extra chic can even wear a tie covered with prints of the key!