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They key is 7.35 inches long, and is made of solid iron. It has a hammer-like handle and thick edges with a rectangular lock.

The case is gilded, vertical, and rectangular with three glazed sides. The interior is painted white with a brass hook at the top back center. The backboard is cove-molded with beaded edges down its sides, and has carved scrolls and leaves at its bottom. Two circular iron hangers at sides of backboard attach case to wall.

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"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 the fortress of despotism. It 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." - Marquis de Lafayette to George Washington, March 17, 1790

The storming of the Bastille by a French mob on July 14, 1789, marked the beginning of the French Revolution. As commander of the Paris National Guard in 1789, the Marquis de Lafayette received the keys to the political prison and symbol of absolute monarchy. In 1790, he sent this solid iron key and a drawing of the prison in ruins to George Washington, his former commander, who was serving his first term as America's first president in New York City. Washington prominently displayed the key as a "token of victory by Liberty over Despotism" in a custom-made, carved and gilded case in his Philadelphia executive residence and then in the Central Passage at Mount Vernon, where both objects remain to this day.

Despotism is defined as "the exercise of absolute power, especially in a cruel and oppressive way." To Washington and Lafayette, this key symbolized the larger meaning of freedom and the fight for a new political era in both France and America that took the power of the government away from kings and queens and gave it to the people. 


Consider these questions when analyzing the Bastille Key:

  • Why do you think Lafayette would send such an important artifact to George Washington? What does the key say about the relationship between Lafayette and Washington?
  • Washington hung this key in his house, right in the central passage (entry). Why do you think he chose that specific spot for it?
  • Notice the case that the key is in. What does the case tell us about the key that's inside?
  • What does the key symbolize? How does this key represent revolutions around the world?

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Lafayette gave this key to George Washington in 1790. The key symbolized a "token of victory by Liberty over Despotism," since it unlocked the notorious political prison in France. Washington treasured this key, and it remained in the mansion after his death.