The 14th of July marks the anniversary of an important day in the history of France and the French-speaking diaspora around the world. Bastille Day, as it is commonly known, commemorates the day civilian forces stormed and occupied a notorious Parisian prison holding political dissidents. This event sparked a long series of events that evolved into a full-scale national revolution that lasted for several years and toppled the ancient monarchy.
Today a number of Francophiles in Charleston are celebrating the day with the usual routine of flying the tricolour, singing French patriotic songs, and imbibing strong beverages. Our community is populated with quite a few descendants of French nationals, and today seems a logical occasion to celebrate that heritage. Surely our Franco-American fore-bearers here in Charleston celebrated Bastille Day, one might argue, and it is proper we should continue that long tradition. History tells a different story, however, and it is worth noting that the anniversary of the French Revolution was not always regarded as a joyous occasion in this city.
When news of the storming of the Bastille and the spread of revolution arrived in Charleston in the autumn of 1789, the citizens of Charleston held high hopes for the beginning of peaceful and substantial reforms in France. The success of the American Revolution was still a recent fact, and Charlestonians stood ready to support and encourage our French comrades who helped us shed the yoke of British oppression. Pro-French sentiment spread throughout South Carolina, embraced by both the descendants of refugees who fled French religious persecution in the late 1600s and by Anglo-Americans.
In the early 1790s, the 14th of July was celebrated in Charleston with military parades, fireworks, political speeches, and much civic feasting. Bands routinely played the two tunes most associated with the revolution: “Ça ira“ (loosely translated as “everything’s going to be alright”) and the 1792 hit song that became the French National Anthem, “La Marseillaise.” A number of local citizens formed a Société Patriotique Française, which quickly became the organizing force behind the annual festivities. When revolutionary leaders in Paris announced the creation of the French Republic in late 1792, the Francophiles of Charleston hosted a series of winter celebrations and fêtes.Sentiments began to change in 1793, however. On the first day of February the new French Republic declared war on our principal trading partner, Britain, and Charleston’s mercantile community was forced to re-examine their allegiances. In June a simmering slave revolt in the wealthy French colony of Saint-Domingue, fueled by Revolutionary ideas, overtook the northern port of Cap Français, causing thousands of French-speaking refugees to flee to the United States. A stream of hundreds of destitute creole French men and women arrived in Charleston that summer, and the narrative of their plight further undermined the pro-French sentiment in South Carolina. In October 1793, Charlestonians read the first reports of the violent turn in the French Revolution, a long period of systematic bloodshed that became known as the Reign of Terror (September 1793 to July 1794). Also that fall, French operatives in Charleston were secretly and illegally attempting to solicit assistance in arming privateers to capture British vessels off the coast of South Carolina.
By July 1794, Charleston’s observation of Bastille Day was significantly less enthusiastic. Our national, state, and city governments had adopted a policy of keeping a polite distance from the official representatives of the French Republic, and were actively discouraging the public from causing any harm or insult to our “good friends,” the British. Diplomatic relations with the French Republic further eroded in 1797, and by 1798 the United States had entered a long period of “Quasi-War” with France. Anti-French sentiment reached its zenith in February 1799 when Charleston welcomed home Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, who had ably represented the U.S. in Paris during the notorious the “XYZ Affair” of 1797–98. That winter a newly-built fort in Charleston harbor, Castle Pinckney, was officially named in his honor.
In short, the history of enthusiastic Bastille Day celebrations in Charleston encompasses a period just a few years in the first half of the 1790s. Thereafter French refugees and their supporters living in Charleston became quietly polarized into opposing factions, with once-wealthy planters wishing for a return of the monarchy and radicalized Republicans or Jacobins seeking to carry the Revolution to extremes. After the modest commemoration of 1795, our local newspapers ceased to even acknowledge the anniversary of the day for many years to come.
If you’re looking for further insight into the details of Charleston’s attitudes towards the French Revolution in the 1790s, I would heartily recommend a book by Robert J. Alderson Jr., This Bright Era of Happy Revolutions: French Consul Michel-Ange-Bernard Mangourit and International Republicanism in Charleston, 1792–1794 (University of South Carolina Press, 2008).