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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. 

Classroom Materials downloads are ZIP files that include, when available: document images (JPEGs), document transcripts (PDF as well as Word and/or Excel files), and ready to use classroom resources (activities, discussion prompts, lesson plans, etc.). These materials are available for educational uses only. If you would like to reproduce them in any other medium, please contact Dawn Bonner, Manager of Visual Resources.

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