The smash musical Hamilton has been dominating Broadway for five years, but with its release on Disney+ this month, millions have been tuning in, reviving Hamilton’s place in American zeitgeist—and reminding them of the crucial role of France in the American Revolution. As depicted in the musical, after the Marquis de Lafayette facilitated French military aid and led American soldiers in battle, he headed back to France to lead his own people into revolution.
The French Revolution began in earnest with the storming of the Bastille, a fortress and prison holding political prisoners and representing the Royal authority of King Louis XVI in Paris. On July 14, 1789, a mix of military revolutionaries and ordinary citizens formed a people’s revolt, storming the prison and sparking the first flames of republican government in France. One day later, on July 15, Marquis de Lafayette became the colonel-general of the National Guard of Paris by acclamation.
Lin-Manuel Miranda’s opus mentions the French Revolution in the second act, as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Alexander Hamilton grapple with whether to repay Lafayette and the French for their loyalty by offering military assistance, opting to remain neutral (after a tense rap battle, of course). Miranda might consider a sequel of sorts to his show, as the events following Lafayette’s departure from narrative of Hamilton would make quite the spectacular show on their own (perhaps including a scene where Lafayette gifts his friend George Washington with the Bastille Key).
In the days following the revolt against the Bastille, Lafayette and writer Abbé Sieyès (with an assist from Thomas Jefferson) published The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, drawing from the same influences as the U.S. Declaration of Independence. France was on the path to freedom.
Bastille Day has been celebrated nationwide in France from the day of its very first anniversary—when Lafayette and other leaders celebrated French unity with a parade on the Champ de Mars joined by the National Guard and a quarter million exuberant Parisians. It was not until later in the 19th century, however, that the military parades as we know them today began to take place each year on July 14.
Under normal circumstances, many French-American cultural organizations across the U.S. would be joining the French in celebration, planning galas, festivals, and other events. But as with everything in these truly different times, the novel coronavirus has other ideas. The French government officially cancelled the traditional parade on the Champs-Elysees, and other smaller events have also been cancelled worldwide. So how can we celebrate?
As they say in Hamilton, you can simply “raise a glass to freedom” from the comfort of your home with your favorite French champagne. Wear red, white, and blue, pop the bubbly, serve some delicious French cheeses, and have a French film festival. And don’t forget to exclaim, “Vive la France!”
Recent events have ignited a discussion about the founding of the United States, and this is a good time to acknowledge that the French were our first friends, most exceptionally the Marquis de Lafayette, along with Rochambeau and Marquis de Chastellux. On Bastille Day, we encourage you to take time to learn more about these individuals and their roles in both revolutions.
For a complete list of virtual Bastille Day celebrations, visit the French Embassy in the United States website.