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The Bastille Key on Display at Mount Vernon
Andrew Hyman

When the incumbent President, George Washington, received a key to the recently-destroyed Bastille as a gift from a friend in France during the French Revolution, should Washington have gotten explicit congressional permission to keep it, assuming that Washington was an officer covered by the Foreign Emoluments Clause (FEC)?  Answering that question is not easy; it depends on who the friend in France was, whether the friend was acting on anyone else’s behalf, whether Congress was made aware of the gift, and whether Congress acquiesced either to the President’s conclusion that the gift was not subject to the FEC, or to the President’s assumption that Congress would have no problem with the gift even if it was subject to the FEC.  The FEC says:

No Title of Nobility shall be granted by the United States: And no Person holding any Office of Profit or Trust under them, shall, without the Consent of the Congress, accept of any present, Emolument, Office, or Title, of any kind whatever, from any King, Prince or foreign State.

The friend in France who gave the key to Washington was the Marquis de Lafayette.  According to an old article about the Bastille keys from 1887, “La Fayette secured the key of the main entrance—Porte St. Antoine—and sent it to General Washington, and it is now to be seen at Mount Vernon." During that time, Lafayette headed the Paris militia and then took command of the National Guard of France; there were many other keys to the Bastille, only some of which made their way into Lafayette's possession.  Lafayette was apparently given the key in question during July of 1789 as a gift by Jacques Pierre Brissot.  Eight months later, in March of 1790, Lafayette decided to re-gift the key to George Washington, and I am not aware that anyone urged or commanded Lafayette to do so.

In Lafayette’s letter to Washington, he wrote:

 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 despotism—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.

Washington reported the gift to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and the gift was well-publicized, so the U.S. House and Senate had ample opportunity to explicitly give their permission, or explicitly request that their permission be solicited, or explicitly deny their permission, and Congress chose to do none of those things.  The blockquote above from Lafayette implies that it was purportedly a personal gift not made in an official capacity; Lafayette was not a king, a prince, or a foreign state, and did not purport to be acting on behalf of any king, prince, or foreign state.  The gift by Lafayette apparently took the French government by surprise, according to a report by Louis Otto, Chargé d’ Affaires, on August 4, 1790:

In attending yesterday the public audience of the President, I was surprised by a question from the Chief Magistrate [George Washington], "whether I would like to see the Key of the Bastille?" One of his secretaries showed me at the same moment a large Key, which had been sent to the President by desire of the Marquis de la Fayette.

Given all these facts, Washington’s behavior in this matter strikes me as, at most, a de minimis violation of the FEC, and probably not even that.  Perhaps Jefferson  mentioned the matter to some leaders in Congress who reported back that it was a non-issue, and that was that.