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Tribespeople, Idiots or Citizens?: Religious Liberty and the Reforging of the American Public Philosophy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 April 2015


“There is … evident opportunity in the growing philosophical and cultural awareness that all people live by commitments and ideals, that value-neutrality is impossible in the ordering of society, and that we are on the edge of a promising moment for a fresh assessment of pluralism and liberty.”

— The Williamsburg Charter

George Washington's home, Mount Vernon, is among America's most visited sites. But one of the most fascinating things at Mount Vernon is one of the least noticed — the key to the Bastille, the forbidding Paris fortress whose fall on July 14th, 1789, became the symbol of the French Revolution.

The key hangs in the hall at Mount Vernon, oversized for its classically-proportioned surroundings and often overlooked. But it once spoke eloquently for the highest hopes in both nations. Six weeks after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution in September 1787, Jefferson rejoiced at the meeting of the Estates General and the prospect of applying revolutionary American principles to France. In that same spirit, the Marquis de Lafayette took the key of the Bastille in 1789 and sent it to his good friend Washington as a symbol of their common vision of the future. Their hopes were to be dashed. Sobered by the reign of terror and the revolutionary ugliness from Robespierre and Danton to Napoleon, both Americans and French supporters of the United States revised their views. For example, Gouverneur Morris, the U.S. Ambassador to France, wrote home in disgust: “They want an American Constitution with the exception of a King instead of a President, without reflecting that they have not American citizens to support that constitution.”

I. Commentary on The Williamsburg Charter
Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 1990

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