May 31, 1790 – Thomas Paine Forwards the Key to the Bastille to George Washington

On this day in history, Thomas Paine sent a letter to George Washington informing him he was enclosing for him the main key of the Bastille prison, a gift to Washington from the Marquis de Lafayette.

George Washington is said to have had a father-son type of relationship with the young Marquis de Lafayette. At age 19, the wealthy and well-connected Lafayette was recruited in France by Silas Deane to serve in the Continental Army. King Louis XVI ordered Lafayette to remain in France, but Lafayette ignored him and set sail for America in early 1777.

The Marquis de LaFayette Major General in the Armies of the United States of America, Charles Willson Peale, mezzotint, c. 1787

The Marquis de LaFayette Major General in the Armies of the United States of America, Charles Willson Peale, mezzotint, c. 1787

Lafayette arrived at General Washington’s camp along Brandywine Creek south of Philadelphia in September 1777. Washington was immediately taken with Lafayette, and when Lafayette was wounded in battle, Washington sent his own surgeon to care for him, telling the doctors to “[t]reat him as if he were my son.” After Lafayette recovered, he became a valued member of Washington’s close-knit military family.

After the American Revolution, Lafayette returned to France, where he helped launch the French Revolution in 1789. He served in the National Assembly and drafted the Declaration of the Rights of Man. He proudly sent the key to the Bastille to George Washington, who was then serving as the first President of the United States. In his letter to Washington on March 17, 1790, he declared:

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 Kea [sic] of that fortress of despotism — it is a tribute Which I owe as A Son to My Adoptive father, as an aid de Camp to My General, as a Missionary of liberty to its patriarch.

Adieu, My Beloved General, My Most Affectionate Respects Wait on Mrs Washington, present me most affectionately to George, to Hamilton, Knox, Harrison, Jay, Humphrey and all friends Most tenderly and respectfully Your Most Affectionate and filial friend

Lafayette”

Washington acknowledged receipt of the picture and the key in a letter to Lafayette on August 11, 1790 as the “token of victory gained by Liberty over Despotism.” The key can still be seen at Mount Vernon.

Key to the Bastille

Key to the Bastille

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