How George Washington Got the Key to the Bastille


If you go to Mount Vernon and tour the mansion you will see it.

Over at, Sara Georgini tells the story of Washington’s key to the Bastille.

Here is a taste:

President George Washington knew how to curate a blockbuster exhibit—and with just one artifact. Elite visitors who mingled in August 1790 at his New York reception, a meet-and-greet of sorts, clustered around an extraordinary sight: a midnight-colored metal key, just over seven inches in height and a little more than three inches wide, a key that once sealed the king’s prisoners into the notorious Bastille prison of Paris.


Following Washington’s party, newspapers across the country ran an “exact representation” of the key, splayed out in grim silhouette. This “new” relic of the French Revolution, sent by Washington’s longtime friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, soon appeared on display in Philadelphia, hung prominently in the president’s state dining room. (The legislation moving the nation’s capital from New York to a federal district, situated along the Potomac River, passed in 1790; Philadelphia was the interim capital until 1800.)

To the first American president, the Bastille key came to represent a global surge of liberty. He considered the unusual artifact to be a significant “token of victory gained by Liberty over Despotism by another.” Along with a sketch of the Bastille by Etienne-Louis-Denis Cathala , the architect who oversaw its final demolition, the key hung in the entryway of Washington’s Virginia estate, Mount Vernon. How and why it landed in the president’s home makes for a fascinating tale.

Read the entire piece here.

The Founding Fathers Wanted You To Be Polite

PoliteIn his recent piece at Aeon, historian Steven Bullock reminds us that “18th-century Britons and American believed that politeness was essential for a free society.”  This required “respect for other people” and having “sensitivity to their expectations and concerns.”  In fact, it was even an important way of “challenging authoritarian rule.”

Here is a taste:

Jefferson and Lafayette’s extraordinary acceptance of limits on their power (so unlike the impatient Nicholson) points to the formative influence of the politics of politeness. If Revolutionary leaders were not all as cautious about demanding obedience, they still brought with them almost a century of thinking about the need to ground power in restraint and responsiveness. Tellingly calling themselves ‘Whigs’ (and their opponents ‘Tories’), patriots celebrated their military leader, the Virginian George Washington, as a powerful exemplar of these values. Jefferson reported to the general in 1784 that many Americans believed his ‘moderation and virtue’ had kept the Revolution from ending like ‘most others’ – by destroying the ‘liberty it was intended to establish’.

The politics of politeness also helped revolutionaries reconsider social relationships. Resisting attempts to punish loyalists after the war, Alexander Hamilton declared the spirit of the Revolution ‘generous’ and ‘humane’ – and therefore in the best tradition of ‘moderation’. Even captive enemies, Jefferson had similarly argued earlier, should be treated ‘with politeness’. Abigail Adams counselled legal changes in her call to ‘Remember the Ladies’ in 1776, but conceded that new laws were needed primarily for the ‘vicious and Lawless’. More enlightened men, Adams noted, had already willingly ‘give[n] up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of Friend’

Read the rest here.

The Return of Lafayette

Jonathan Wilson of the University of Scranton has written a really nice piece for The Readex Report on the Marquis de Lafayette‘s visit to the United States in 1824. Lafayette was so popular in the United States due to his involvement in the American Revolutionary War that Wilson describes his return as a “media event.”

Here is a taste:

In summer 2015, a wooden frigate named the Hermione sailed from France to the United States. It was recreating one of the voyages that brought the Marquis de Lafayette to fight in the American War of Independence. The new Hermione was a painstaking replica of Lafayette’s ship, built with authentic eighteenth-century methods. Its voyage, however, became a modern multimedia spectacle—with international television coverage, a website, and a busy Twitter account.

Advanced technology aside, something similar happened nearly two hundred years ago. In the summer of 1824, Lafayette himself, now an elderly man, returned to the United States after many years in France. Enormous crowds of Americans, many of whom were too young to remember the Revolution at all, turned out to see the legendary general in person. His tour of U.S. cities also became a national journalistic event; today, we can trace it through thousands of surviving newspaper articles. Exchanging stories through the federal postal system, newspaper editors helped their readers visualize other communities’ celebrations. By doing so, they helped Americans experience the feeling of membership in one nation.

The attention started even before Lafayette sailed from France, and from the start, making sense of a slow and unpredictable information supply was part of the newspapers’ job. For example, in January 1824, when Congress debated a resolution inviting General Lafayette to visit the United States, representatives argued over whether anyone knew for sure that Lafayette would actually want to visit. Congressmen from French-speaking Louisiana claimed to have special information no one else had: they said they had seen letters about the subject from the general himself. Newspapers relayed their information around the country.

The unpredictability continued long after Lafayette accepted Congress’s invitation. Newspapers tracked his movements as well as they could, trying to help their readers prepare. In June 1824, the New York Gazette announced that the general was finally on his way to New York City from the northern French port of Le Havre. Newspapers in New England picked up the story, but they seemed mildly skeptical—probably in part because they hoped the general would honor Boston with his first American stop instead.

Read the entire piece here, including lots of excerpts from 19th century newspapers.

If you are interested in learning more about Lafayette, I found Sarah Vowell’s recent talk at the Free Library of Philadelphia to be very entertaining.