Story by SN Jack Lepien on 06/27/2019In Part I of this story, Marquis de Lafayette, a French nobleman, traveled and fought alongside Gen. George Washington, forming a father-son bond with the soon-to-be first president of the United States. Lafayette then traveled home to France, where he took part in the French Revolution, eventually becoming the head of the Paris National Guard, which left him in charge of the Bastille Prison.
Now leading, and holding the keys to, the Bastille Prison, Lafayette sent the key to the main gate of the prison to his former leader, general, mentor, and good friend, President George Washington.
The key underwent a long and tumultuous journey from Paris to London to the front hall of Washington's home, Mount Vernon. It was first entrusted to Thomas Paine, an Englishman best known for his Enlightenment-era writings, including Common Sense, a pamphlet depicting moral and political reasons why the American colonies deserved independence from the British Empire.
Paine, who was living in England at the time, was given the key in 1790, because he was a well-known supporter of democracy and a friend to both Lafayette and Washington.
Paine, however, was unable to deliver the key to America, as he was busy writing pamphlets in support of the French Revolution, such as Reflections upon the Revolution in France and The Rights of Man. His writings were so controversial that he was forced to flee his monarchy-controlled homeland for France later that year.
Unable to make the long journey across the Atlantic, Paine gave the key to another prominent American, South Carolinian John Rutledge Jr. Rutledge. Jr. was the son of John Rutledge, whose resume included serving on the first Supreme Court, as the first governor of South Carolina, and as a delegate to both the First and Second Continental Congress. Rutledge, Jr. was in Europe, traveling with, learning from, and becoming the protg of then-Minister to France and future third president of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
Rutledge Jr. carried the key from Europe to America, where he presented it to President George Washington, along with a drawing Lafayette had commissioned of the Bastille, and a letter.
Lafayette wrote, "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 despotismit is a tribute 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."
After being showcased in New York and Philadelphia, the key eventually found its home in the first-floor passage of Mount Vernon.
The key has hung there for centuries and continues to do so to this day.
Many guests and visitors to the estate have seen the Key to Bastille hanging at Mount Vernon, including Marquis de Lafayette, who returned to America in 1824 with his son.
There, Lafayette saw the key and the grave of his adoptive father.