George Washington Papers

To George Washington from Lafayette, 17 March 1790

From Lafayette

Paris March the 17th 1790

My dear General

It is with the Utmost Concern that I Hear My letters Have Not Come to Hand, and While I lament the Miscarriage, I Hope You do Not impute it to Any fault on My part1—In these time of troubles, it Has Become More difficult to Know, or to Reach Opportunities, and How this Will be Carried I leave to the Care of Mr Payne Who Goes to London.2

Our Revolution is Getting on as Well as it Can With a Nation that Has Swalled up liberty all at once, and is still liable to Mistake licentiousness for freedom—the Assembly Have More Hatred to the Ancient System than Experience on the proper Organisation of a New, and Constitutional Governement—the Ministers are lamenting the loss of power, and Affraid to use that which they Have—and As Every thing has been destroied and Not much New Building is Yet Above Ground, there is Much Room for Critics and Calomnies.

to this May be Added that We still are Pestered By two parties, the Aristocratic that is panting for a Counter Revolution, and the factious Which Aims at the division of the Empire, and destruction of all Authority and perhaps of the lifes of the Reigning Branch, Both of which parties are fomenting troubles.

And after I Have Confessed all that, My dear General, I will tell you With the Same Candour that We Have Made an Admirable, and Almost incredible destruction of all abuses, prejudices, &c. &c. that Every thing Not directly Useful to, or Coming from the people Has been levelled—that in the topographical, Moral, political Situation of France We Have Made More changes in ten Month than the Most Sanguine patriot could Have imagined—that our internal troubles and Anarchy are Much Exagerated—and that upon the Whole this Revolution, in which Nothing will be wanting But Energy of Governement just as it was in America, Will propagate implant liberty and Make it flourish throughout the world, while We must wait for a Convension in a few years to Mend Some defects which are not Now perceived By Men just Escaped from Aristocracy and despotism.

You know that the Assembly Have adjourned the Westindia affairs, leaving Every thing in the Actual State, Viz.—the ports oppened as We Hear they Have Been to American trade. But it was impossible, circumstanced as We are, to take a definitive Resolve on that Matter—the Ensuing legislature will More Easily determine, after they Have Received the demands of the Colonies who Have Been Invited to Make them, particularly on the object of Victualling.

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 of that fortress of despotism3—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



1GW had written Lafayette on 14 Oct. 1789 that he had not received a letter from him since his own arrival in New York City in April 1789.

2For Thomas Paine’s activities at this time, see his letter to GW, 16 Oct. 1789, source note. See also Paine to GW, 1 May 1790.

3The key sent by Lafayette to GW was the main key to the Bastille, supposedly carried from the Bastille to the Paris town hall after the fall of the prison on 14 July 1789 and there presented to Lafayette. The delivery to GW of the key and a drawing of the Bastille by Étienne-Louis-Denis Cathala was entrusted by Lafayette to Thomas Paine who was considering returning to the United States at this time. Since Paine’s departure was delayed, the key and the drawing apparently were turned over to John Rutledge, Jr., who had been traveling in Europe and now planned to return home (see Paine to GW, 31 May 1790). The two gifts, together with letters from Lafayette and Paine, arrived in New York in August 1790 (GW to Paine, 10 Aug. 1790, and to Lafayette, 11 Aug. 1790). The key and the drawing apparently remained in New York and Philadelphia during GW’s presidential years and were sent to Mount Vernon shortly before his retirement. Upon GW’s return the key was hung in the passage in a “kind of small crystal lantern,” and the drawing was hung beneath it (Niemcewicz, Vine and Fig Tree, description begins Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz. Under Their Vine and Fig Tree: Travels through America in 1797–1799, 1805, with Some Further Account of Life in New Jersey. Translated and edited by Metchie J. E. Budka. Elizabeth, N.J., 1965. description ends 96).

GW acknowledged receipt of the two items in a letter to Lafayette of 11 Aug. 1790 as the “token of victory gained by Liberty over Despotism.” That the souvenirs of the attack on the Bastille were not always viewed with such reverence is indicated by the not unbiased comments of the vicomte de Chateaubriand, who had observed the attack on 14 July 1789 and saw GW’s key in Philadelphia: “The keys of the Bastille multiplied; they were sent to all the important simpletons in the four quarters of the world.” These keys, Chateaubriand continued, “were rather silly toys which passed from hand to hand at that time. The consigners of locksmiths’ wares might, three years later, have sent to the President of the United States the bolt of the prison of the monarch who bestowed liberty upon France and America. If Washington had seen the ‘victors of the Bastille’ disporting themselves in the gutters of Paris, he would have felt less respect for his relic” (Chateaubriand, Memoirs, description begins The Memoirs of François René, vicomte de Chateaubriand, Sometime Ambassador to England. Translated by Alexander Teixeira de Mattos. 6 vols. New York, 1902. description ends 1:158, 211).

When Col. John A. Washington sold Mount Vernon to the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association in 1858, he also presented the key to the Bastille to the association, but his family retained the drawing until its sale in 1891. For many years the sketch of the Bastille was represented in its place beneath the key by a photograph of the original drawing. In 1987 the original drawing was returned to Mount Vernon where it is now (1994) on loan from the Masonic Charity Foundation of Connecticut (the Connecticut Corporation) and the Shriners Hospitals for Crippled Children (the Colorado Corporation). For the history of the drawing, see the Annual Report of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association for 1987, 26–36, 49.

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