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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 Parisian 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 loathsome political prison and symbol of absolute monarchy. In 1790, he sent this 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.


Solid iron key with conical-tipped cylindrical shank, hammer-like handle, and thick wards with raised ogee-profile edges.

Object Details
Classroom Tips







Overall: 7 3/8 in. × 3 1/4 in. × 1 in. (18.73 cm × 8.26 cm × 2.54 cm)Other (Bit): 1 1/8 in. × 1 11/16 in. × 11/16 in. (2.86 cm × 4.29 cm × 1.75 cm)Other (Weight): 1.18 lb. (0.54 kg)

Credit Line

Transferred to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association through the generosity of John Augustine Washington III, 1860

Object Number


Colors (Beta)

Classroom Tips

  • Ask students why they believe the Marquis de Lafayette chose to give the Bastille Key to George Washington? Host a discussion on how the key represents ideals for a new political era in both France and America.
  • Ask students to think about a historical object that could represent America during the era of revolutions? As the Bastille Key represents the catalyst for the French Revolution, what could be a possible historical artifact that could symbolize the beginning of the American Revolution? Host a conversation with students about what objects hold symbolic value to them today. Are there objects in their home that have more symbolic value than monetary value?
  • Pair the Bastille Key with the primary source documents The Declaration of Independence (U.S., 1776) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (France, 1789). Instruct students to read the documents to determine specific areas that symbolize the Bastille Key’s larger meaning of freedom to George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette. Ask students to write an essay explaining the specific connections between France and the U.S. that illustrate why the Bastille Key represented more than just a means to unlock a door. 

Classroom Materials are ZIP files that include, when available: object images (JPEGS) and teaching tips for the classroom. These materials are for educational uses only.


Mount Vernon's object research is ongoing and information about this object is subject to change. For information on image use and reproductions, click here.
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