Frank R. Dunaway Jr., 32
The keys to the Bastille are symbolic of the freedoms
espoused by our Masonic Fraternity.
At the invitation of Congress, the Marquis de LaFayette arrived in New York on August 15, 1824, for a visit to the United States of America. LaFayette’s party included his son, George Washington LaFayette, his secretary, Colonel Auguste LeVasseur, and one servant. During his tour, which lasted more than a year, he would visit all of the 25 states that were then part of the United States.
Of his visit, William Moseley Brown, Past Grand Master of Virginia, wrote that LaFayette “undoubtedly visited more Masonic bodies and was accorded more honorary memberships than any other Brother in a like period of time, at least as far as our own country is concerned.”
During his tour, LaFayette twice visited Alexandria, Virginia. On the first occasion, October 16, 1824, he entered the city in a grand parade and was feted sumptuously by the City of Alexandria and various civic and military bodies. A grand banquet was held on that evening at the City Hotel (at that time often referred to as Clagett’s Tavern and now Gadsby’s Tavern).
The Masonic Brethren of Alexandria had planned and expected to receive Brother LaFayette in Lodge and at a Masonic banquet during this visit. Regrettably, LaFayette’s schedule did not permit it as he and his entourage departed on the steamboat Petersburg for Mt. Vernon and Yorktown on October 17, 1824. However, late on the evening of October 16, Dr. Thomas Semmes, the Worshipful Master of Alexandria–Washington Lodge No. 22, was able to meet with LaFayette and obtain his promise that he would return to Alexandria at a later date for the Masonic occasion.
Thus it was that LaFayette came back to Alexandria on February 21, 1825. In connection with their celebration of Washington’s birthday, Alexandria–Washington Lodge No. 22, together with Brooke Lodge No. 2 and Evangelical Lodge No. 8 (also of Alexandria) met and received Bro. LaFayette. Following LaFayette’s formal reception in the Lodge, the entire body proceeded across Royal Street to the City Hotel where, as reported in the Alexandria Gazette, “the company sat down about 6 o’clock, and partook of the finest feast we ever saw spread, with all the harmony peculiar to the society. . . .”
At this convocation, the Master of Alexandria–Washington Lodge No. 22 presented LaFayette with his diploma of honorary membership in that Lodge. To the Lodge, LaFayette presented the large key to the Bastille, which is pictured on the facing page and on the cover of this issue. This key is approximately ten inches in length and weighs upward of five pounds; it is on display in the Museum of the George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria.
Visitors to Mount Vernon will also see a key to the Bastille. On display in the Museum at Mount Vernon, this key to the Bastille is approximately six inches long and probably weighs less than a pound. Also, it is somewhat different in shape and, obviously, different in size and weight from the key presented to Alexandria–Washington Lodge.
It is most interesting that both of these keys made their way to this country through the Marquis de LaFayette. First, the key which now reposes at Mount Vernon came into George Washington’s possession in 1790. In a letter to Washington dated March 17, 1790, LaFayette mentions that he is sending Washington a key to the Bastille. Washington’s answer on August 10, 1790, acknowledges receipt of the key. Apparently LaFayette gave this key to Thomas Paine for delivery to Washington, as in a letter to Paine (also dated August 10, 1790), Washington acknowledged receipt of the key and thanked Paine for conveying it to him. Secondly, as noted above, the key on display at the George Washington Masonic National Memorial was personally presented to Alexandria–Washington Lodge No. 22 by the Marquis de LaFayette, our Masonic Brother, and honorary member of that lodge.
In France, the Bastille, a prison in Paris, was symbolic of the repression of freedom. Thus, the keys to the Bastille are symbols of freedom and of escape from repression.
As you visit Mount Vernon and the George Washington Masonic National Memorial, look for these keys and ponder their meaning. A link between us, in the present, to Washington, LaFayette and our Masonic Brethren of two centuries ago, they are symbolic of the freedoms espoused by our Masonic Fraternity.