Henningsen: The key to the Bastille

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(HOST)  Today, as France celebrates Bastille Day, teacher, historian, and commentator Vic Henningsen reminds us of a curious connection between the French and American revolutions.

(Henningsen) The storming of the Bastille by the citizens of Paris on July 14th, 1789 was both the precipitating event and the iconic image of the French Revolution.  
For over a century political prisoners had had been thrown into the fortress prison, which represented all of the tyranny of King Louis XVI’s ancien regime,  there to vanish without a trace. Its capture and destruction symbolized the people’s triumph over oppression. The French celebrate July 14th as we celebrate July 4th – for the same reason.

By 1789, the ideals of equality famously expressed in our Declaration of Independence pervaded France.  They figure prominently in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen which, presented in draft on July 11th, ignited Paris and led to storming the Bastille.  Its primary author was the aristocratic Marquis de Lafayette – a hero, as it happened, of the American Revolution.  He volunteered for the American cause at nineteen, serving with distinction under George Washington.  By war’s end Lafayette was the most well-known Frenchman in America and had become a kind of adopted son to the childless Washington. Rapidly emerging as a leader of revolutionary France, Lafayette secured the key to the Bastille and dispatched it to Washington as a symbolic tribute from "a missionary of liberty to its patriarch."  

To convey the key Lafayette selected none other than Thomas Paine who, though he couldn’t deliver it personally, wrote Washington: "That the principles of America opened the Bastille is not to be doubted and therefore the Key comes to the right place."  Washington proudly hung it in the entry hall at Mount Vernon.

But Lafayette wasn’t just paying homage – he was symbolically reminding Washington of some unfinished business.   Since the end of the Revolutionary War, he’d been urging Washington to free his slaves, arguing that such a gesture would set a powerful example for other Americans, inspiring the new republic to live up to its ideals. "I would never," he wrote, "have drawn my sword in the cause of America, if I could have conceived that thereby I was founding a land of slavery."  Although Lafayette even purchased land in South America where Washington could resettle freed slaves, Washington never committed to the plan.  But he did consider it, and Lafayette knew that Washington was increasingly uncomfortable with the contradiction of slavery in a free republic.

Without prior announcement, Washington did indeed free his slaves at his death in 1799.  He was the only founder to do so and the act stunned his countrymen, as Lafayette predicted it would.  Did Lafayette’s symbolic nudge play a role in his decision?  We’ll never know for sure, but it’s hard to imagine Washington passing the Bastille key several times a day without thinking about it.  

The key still hangs at Mount Vernon:  a potent symbol of the revolutionary power of ideals of liberty and equality – in France and America.

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