The Key to the Bastille

On May Day, 1790, Tom Paine wrote George Washington.  “Our very good friend, the Marquis de Lafayette, has intrusted to my care the key of the Bastille, and a drawing handsomely framed representing the demolition of that detestable prison.”

The Bastille towered over the Faubourg St. Antoine.  Its walls were one hundred feet high, ten feet thick at the top and thirty to forty feet thick at the base.   The monstrous building functioned as an arsenal, a prison, and a fortress guarding the east of Paris from invasion from without and rebellion from within.

“I feel myself happy,” Paine continued, “in being the person through whom the Marquis has conveyed this early trophy of the spoils of despotism, and the first ripe fruits of American principles transplanted into Europe….”  Tom Paine was the pamphleteer and citizen-soldier of the American Revolution fifteen years earlier.  France helped pay for the American victory and in the process nearly bankrupted its own oppressive, super-exploitative regime which was now facing revolution.  This was the ripe fruit Paine referred to.

What were those principles, those ‘American principles’?  At the time of Paine’s May Day gift France had already passed the Declaration of Man and the Citizen in which popular sovereignty and human equality were leading principles.  At the same time in the U.S.A. the Bill of Rights had been proposed and was being debated prior to ratification.  Here liberty of conscience, freedom of expression, and the right of assembly were recognized, and we see them as sequential steps in the revolutionary actualization of the will of the people: to think, to talk, to listen were the essential accompaniments to action.

“That the principles of America opened the Bastille is not to be doubted; and therefore the key comes to the right place.”  Oh, but we are full of doubt now.  America incarcerates more people than any other nation in the global carceral archipelago.  Bahgram, Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, these are America’s modern Bastilles cast around the world.  Meanwhile, in the “homeland” the prisons, penitentiaries, and jails of such rapid expansion have been joined by immigrant detention facilities, super-maxes, and correctional facilities. The immigrant detention facilities hidden and widespread make Ellis Island appear commodious. Today the key rests uselessly in a glass enclosed gilded container at Mount Vernon.   They bring democracy and build prisons.  They speak of government of, by, and for the people and then hide behind state secrets.  They practice torture and call it intelligence.  Blood-curdling casuists sit on the Federal Appeals Bench.  John

Berger has written, “The present period of history is one of the Wall….  The Wall is the front line of what, long ago, was called the Class War.”

But, hope has made his appearance.  Optimists see in chink in the wall.  Obama has ordered that Guantánamo be closed.  The CIA director has ordered that extraordinary renditions to prisons elsewhere in the world be ended.  Yet the Wall continues to snake its way against Mexico, to divide nations, to rupture Palestine.  The anti-communists croon with satisfaction because “Mr Gorbachev brought down that wall” and then silently acquiesce in the construction of walls all over.  The prisons are welcomed because they bring jobs.  The prisons rise while the schools fall.  In the schools sport, theatre, and music are shut down first; play, song, and make-believe are banished.   Parents no longer can smile as the little ones in Midsummer’s Night’s Dream romp about as the ‘rude mechanicals’:  Snout the Tinker, Starveling the Tailor, and the immortal Bottom the Weaver making a chink in the Wall for the lovers, Pyramus and Thisbe.  (The tragic story of these lovers originated in Babylon, Mesopotamia.)

Tom Paine’s May Day gift to George Washington is on display in the central passageway at the first President’s slave plantation, Mount Vernon on the Potomac River.  Let us demand the release of the political prisoners, the victims of repression from the past, the victims of the Green Scare. Let us renew the discussion: who is a political prisoner?  itself a sign of well-being. I commute to Toledo from Michigan on route 23 I pass daily several prisons, the razor wire glistening in the sun, never a sign of life.  An unpunctuated sign on the highway warns me, “Prison Area Do Not Pick Up Hitchikers.”  Never have I heard of anyone escaping, and never for that matter have I seen a hitchiker, there or anywhere else, along the fifty mile stretch to work.  Yet, the authors of the sign came from an era when both were possible. Who inhabits these lock-ups?  What transpires inside them?

“I have not the least doubt of the final and complete success of the French Revolution.  Little ebbings and flowings, for and against, the natural companions of revolutions, sometimes appear, but the full current of it is, in my opinion, as fixed as the Gulf Stream,” Paine informed Washington.  Indeed, that eastern current conveyed the news of slave risings.

In the spring of 1790 Tom Paine was busy with his invention, a single-spanned iron bridge.  He hoped it would span the Schukyl (Philadelphia), now the Thames (London), later the Seine (Paris).  He lets George Washington know that in the partition in the box containing the key of the Bastille he has placed half a dozen razors “manufactured from cast-steel made at the works where the bridge was constructed.”  Paine, an artisan, was always interested in the materiality of things.  His interest in the substance of things can easily be overlooked as we are generally moved by the force of his ideals.  Just as the gift of razors necessary for that smooth visage of the president of the republic suggests a mundane familiarity, so Tom Paine had once been close to revolutionary power, a whisker away so to speak.

What was the Bastille actually? A gigantic heap of stones. The people of Paris marched upon it particularly in order to obtain gunpowder but of course there were other reasons.  “The stones are saturated with three hundred years of pain,” said Camille Desmoulins one of its assailants.  Voltaire was imprisoned there, and the Marquis de Sade.  “You don’t have a trial.  Just a letter from the king and bang, the doors slam.  Goodbye.” That’s the lettre de cachet in the imaginative paraphrase in Marge Piercy’s novel of the French Revolution.

“History is the essence of innumerable biographies,” said the Victorian historian, Thomas Carlyle, and to emphasize it he capitalized the spelling of the occupations of its anonymous members.  Women were most active, then and now.  Here is Carlyle, “Robust Dames of the Halle, slim Mantua-makers, assiduous, risen with the dawn, ancient Virginity tripping to matins; the Housemaid, with early broom; all must go.  Rouse ye, O women; the laggard men will not act; they say, we ourselves may act.”  And it seems to have been so.  Jules Michelet offers the story of Madam Legros. described and honored as the poor mercer who lived by her sewing, whose husband was a Latin teacher, and whose dogged tenacity over the years on behalf of a single prisoner in the Bastille prefigured the revolutionary journée we celebrate in July. Ruth Gilmore, Alice Lynd, Angela Davis, play the part of Mme. Legros,

An essential part of Rights of Man is the story of the storming of the Bastille and Edmund Burke’s writing “as if he were sorry it is pulled down, and wished it were built up again.”  This has been the lament of conservatives ever since.  People for whom the solution to social oppression is to incarcerate the oppressed, the lock-‘em-up-and-throw-away-the-key brigade.

“The downfall of it included the idea of the downfall of Despotism; and this compounded image has become as figuratively united as Bunyan’s Doubting Castle and giant Despair.”  In Rights of Man Paine explains the compound, how and why the Bastille was united with Despotism.  It is one of his most brilliant insights, and it quickly took fire igniting revolutionary aspirations all over the globe.

John Bunyan wrote an allegory of a ragged poor man, Pilgrim’s Progress, in 1678, at the time of the construction of the fiscal state and the British commercial empire.  Christian was his name and with a companion of the road named Hope they fell asleep exhausted in a field.  Awakened in the morning by the Giant Despair he informed them that they were trespassing on the grounds of Doubting Castle.  He beat them with his cudgel and dragged them to his dungeon.  Bang, the doors slam, goodbye.  It is the story in the U.S.A., certainly at the Big Luke, the Ohio slammer at Lucasville.

Despair’s wife was named Diffidence.  And they advised the pilgrims bereft of food, water, or warmth that it would be best if they put an end to themselves by knife, rope, or poison.  Unable to assist them in this because a ray of sunlight appeared causing Despair to fall into fits, the two pilgrims were left to their misery and discussion of the proposal of Despair.  Hope reminds Christian “that all the law is not in the hand of Giant Despair.” Diffidence says she fears that “they live in hope that some will come to relieve them, or that they have pick-locks about them; by the means of which they hope to escape.”  Despair promises to search them in the morning.  Meanwhile, Christian suddenly remembers something.  He exclaims “I have a Key in my bosom, called Promise that will open any Lock in Doubting Castle.”  So they go about it, opening the doors, and off to the Delectable Mountains.

Bunyan drew on a suppressed popular culture of song, fairy stories, colloquial sayings, and children’s poems.  This dissenting culture has travelled the world too, playing an active role in the anti-imperialist cultures of the third world.  Among the Taiping rebels in China during the 1850s Pilgrim’s Progress was the ‘little red book.’  In Africa Pilgrim’s Progress was adapted to anti-colonial, anti-racist purposes.

By comparing the Bastille to Doubting Castle and by comparing the Giant Despair to the monarchs of France Paine of course was expanding the freedom that was unlocked from the prison to the promise that overcomes despair. For many readers being homeless and sleeping in a field was widespread then, a time of expropriation, as it is now with the disruptions of war, globalization, and foreclosures.  For others both despair and diffidence can be incapacitating, disabling.  The Protestant moralism of Bunyan can be translated into other terms precisely because he is writing from below describing a reality.  He spent twelve years in prison.  Despair and diffidence are interiorizations of despotism.  The structures of our society produce both: the rebel who ‘goes against’ but meets defeat is offered despair, while diffidence is the survival mode for those who ‘get along and go along’.  Despair is for the unemployed, diffidence is for the employed.  This  is why schools close and prisons expand.

As for the allegorical interpretation of the Doubting Castle it corresponds to the total ideological infrastructure that denies active historical agency to the exploited and oppressed.   Action, we know, precedes knowledge.  Forms of diffidence and despair flourish in the Ivory Tower where the ideological infrastructures of ignorance are laid down, brick by brick, agnotology as Iain Boal names it, or the science of ignorance.

Tom Paine came out of this dissenting, non-conformist culture of English Protestantism, though he was by no means fixed in it.  Individual progress was not his theme; it was collective or it was nothing.

“Narrative is linear, Action is solid,” is the dictum from Carlyle, the historian, and Carlyle the admirer of the French revolution.  Surely, here is our key, our promise:  it is collective and it is action.  ¡Si se puede! in deed.

In the gift shop at Mount Vernon you can buy a key chain with replica of the key that opened the Bastille for $10.95.  It is cheap.  If Paine is right that the principles of the American Revolution opened the doors of the prison and crumbled its walls, then the key and its Promise might still remind us of our work – the abolition of slavery, health care for all, open borders, the abolition of prisons.


John Berger, Hold Everything Dear (2007)

Jamie Bissonette et al, When the Prisoners Ran Walpole: A True Story in the Movement for Prison Abolition (2008)

John Bunyan, Pilgrims Progress (1678)

Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (1837)

Angela Y. Davis, Are Prisons Obsolete? (2003)

Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California (2007)

George Lefebvre, The Coming of the French Revolution, translated by R.R. Palmer (1947)

Staughton Lynd, Lucasville: The Untold Story of a Prison Uprising (2004)

Jules Michelet, History of the French Revolution, translated by Charles Cocks and edited by Gordon Wright (1967)

Thomas Paine, Rights of Man, part one (1791)

Marge Piercy, City of Darkness, City of Light (1996)

George Rudé, The Crowd in History 1730-1848 (1964)

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. His latest book is the Magna Carta Manifesto. He can be reached at:

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: