Unlocking Liberty The Key to the Bastille: Part I

Story Number: NNS190510-12Release Date: 5/10/2019 11:48:00 AM
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By Mass Communication Specialist Seaman Jack Lepien, USS George Washington Public Affairs

NEWPORT NEWS, Va. (May 7, 2019) (NNS) -- For 419 years, the key to the Bastille prison in Paris stood as a symbol of oppression. Now, it stands as a testament to freedom, democracy, and the continued friendship between two great revolutionary nations.

Although the history of the key is long, it remained relatively uneventful until the involvement of a noble Frenchman, Marquis de Lafayette. Born into a wealthy family, Lafayette quickly rose through the ranks of the French military, earning a commission as a lieutenant in the Noailles Dragoons in 1773, at the age of 15.

His life as a French officer quickly fell apart when he was one of many soldiers laid off when the government decreased military spending in 1775.

Jobless, he left for the city of Metz for militia duty, where he was invited to attend a dinner with the Duke of Gloucester, King George III’s younger brother. Throughout the dinner, the Duke lambasted the democratic ideals of the American revolutionaries. This, Lafayette later said, was the turning point in his life.

“My heart was enlisted,” said Lafayette. “I thought only of joining my colors to those of the revolutionaries.”

Lafayette set sail for America in 1777, ignoring French King Louis XVI’s orders to remain in France. He was commissioned as a major-general in America’s rapidly-growing army.

Lafayette arrived in Gen. George Washington’s camp, and the men were immediately taken by each other. George Washington supposedly loved Lafayette like a son. Layfette had his own personal goal with Washington.

“I am here to learn, not to teach,” Lafayette told Washington.

Lafayette looked to Washington as a mentor in all matters of war, democracy, and even life in general. They built this relationship over months and years and steps and miles.

After British Lord Charles Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown in October 1781, Lafayette said goodbye to his mentor and surrogate father and set sail for home. In France, he continued to support the American cause and assisted with negotiating the Treaty of Paris in 1783.

Although the revolution in America had ended with this treaty, France’s own revolution was on the verge of ignition. Spurred by socio-economic inequality, famine, and political dissatisfaction, 18th century France was a powder keg ready to blow. In 1789, Lafayette contributed to the fervor of the French Revolution, writing the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The Bastille, a highly-garrisoned prison in Paris, was stormed by the people in response to bread shortages and starvation in the city. After being captured, command of the Bastille and the local area was given to Lafayette.

The key to the Bastille was surrendered to Lafayette on July 14, 1789. The key that symbolized the tyranny of an oppressive monarchy now stood for the hope of a newly-liberated people.

But wait! There’s more! Look for Part II of this story in next week’s Surveyor.

For more information about the Key to the Bastille, Marquis de Lafayette, and George Washington, visit https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/bastille-key/, and https://www.mountvernon.org/library/digitalhistory/digital-encyclopedia/article/marquis-de-lafayette/.

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