French Connections for Bastille Day

This weekend in D.C. had a decidedly French flavor, and that’s before I even realized that today was Bastille Day.

On Saturday I visited the Society of the Cincinnati, an organization founded at the close of the Revolutionary War by French and American officers to preserve the bonds forged during that long struggle. George Washington, the general who helped unify the Continental Army and the colonies, served as its first president.

Among its ranks, there were two founding French members who would be well known to future Washingtonians – the Marquis de Lafayette and Pierre Charles L’Enfant.

A mural in the sumptuous Anderson House showing Washington and Lafayette and the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati.
A mural in sumptuous Anderson House showing Washington and Lafayette and the founding of the Society of the Cincinnati.

Lafayette was the young French aristocrat who ending up playing a key role in both the American and French Revolutions, and whose name and statue grace the park on the north side of the White House.

And L’Enfant of course was the talented but difficult engineer and artist who served General Washington during the war, and was later selected by him during peacetime to design our first capitol – Federal Hall in New York City – and then the capital, the District of Columbia.

The Society to which they both belonged is headquartered in the Dupont Circle mansion known as the Anderson House. This Massachusetts Avenue landmark has its own unique history from the Gilded Age, when Embassy Row was known as Millionaire’s Row. Its original owner, Larz Anderson, was a noted American diplomat with his own French connection (he was born in Paris), and the great grandson of one of the Society’s charter members.

There are free guided tours of the mansion (Tues-Sat, 1-4 PM), and there is even an exhibit on L’Enfant running through Saturday, July 20. It focuses on his designs and plans for America – which included creating the emblem and symbols for the Society, various monuments and buildings in the new Federal style, and the layout of our capital city.

Today I found myself in Old Town Alexandria – which technically falls into the ten mile square diamond that L’Enfant laid out for the District (the city of Alexandria was at its southernmost tip), and remained part of the capital until Congress gave it back to Virginia in 1846.

It wasn’t until I arrived at the Fontaine Caffe & Creperie for brunch and saw the festive red, white, and blue banners – and the line waiting outside – that I realized it was Bastille Day.

Brunch included an impromptu French trivia contest, and mimosas for $7 – signifying the scant number of prisoners who were actually freed from the near empty Bastille prison when it was stormed by a Parisian mob on July 14, 1789.

I was also oblivious to the fact that throughout brunch, I was sitting within close proximity to two keys from the notorious Bastille itself.

A key to the Bastille hanging in Mt. Vernon. (Photo: Mount Vernon Ladies' Association)
A key to the Bastille hanging in Mt. Vernon. (Photo: Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association)

One lies in the hallway of Mount Vernon, George Washington’s plantation home just eight miles down the Potomac River.

Lafayette sent the key to President Washington in 1790 as a symbol of freedom and hope for the French Revolution (we all know how that turned out).

Lafayette had become leader of the Paris National Guard, and ordered the destruction of the Bastille, which had symbolized the absolute power of the monarchy over the French people.

Another key was even closer – resting just a mile away as part of the collection of the George Washington Masonic Memorial, the tall lighthouse-like structure that dominates the Old Town skyline.

Lafayette presented this key in person to Alexandria’s local Masonic lodge in 1825, when he made his triumphant return to America and visited the nation’s capital for the first time.

One of the great things about wandering through and around D.C. is that you can always stumble into historic connections – including French ones – without even knowing it.

Vive La France!

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