July 4th at East Jersey Old Town Village will have Revolutionary War reenactors, cannon fire, a fife and drum band, a patriotic brass band—and the first performance in 240 years of a recently discovered musical tribute to American independence by the French.
On July 4, 1783, dozens of diplomats and former military officers of the American Revolution gathered at the French home of Benjamin Franklin outside Paris after receiving word that the British had agreed to terms for a peace treaty that would formally create the United States of America as an independent democracy.
“The Frenchmen who fought alongside American officers as the new nation’s first allies were as excited as the Americans at the thought of having changed the course of history, toward freedom and self-determination,” explains Dr. Iris de Rode, the scholar who brought the song to the attention of the Washington Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association (W3R-US). The organization is dedicated to telling the stories of the French alliance and the 700-mile-long march to victory at Yorktown, Virginia in 1781.
“It was a grand party at Franklin’s home, attended by the Marquis de Lafayette, General Rochambeau, the Chevalier de Chastellux, John Adams, and John Jay, among many notables of the Revolution,” explains de Rode, who is a fellow of George Washington’s Mount Vernon and of the American Revolution Institute in Washington.
The tribute came in the form of a drinking song of 22 verses, composed by the philosopher Abbé André de Morrelet, and performed after an enormous feast. The second verse, translated to English, sums up the sentiment of the occasion:
“I will never complain
On the Fate that made me a Frenchman.
But at this moment I envy
In this feast,
I make myself American”
The refrain “I make myself American” is repeated at the end of nearly every verse, an expression of solidarity with the nation they helped make possible. During the American Revolution, thousands of French soldiers and sailors played a critical role in defeating the British. Indeed, more French than Americans fought at the Siege of Yorktown, the final, major victory that determined the outcome.
“It will be remarkable to witness the first performance of this tribute to America in 240 years—on the exact anniversary of the occasion for which it was written,” said Brad Fay, a director of W3R-US. “East Jersey Old Town Village is the perfect place for the occasion, because it is an Eighteenth-Century Village recreated on the very trail taken by French and American troops on their way through New Jersey to Yorktown.”
The song will be sung by Tom Avakian of the Mark Heter Band, a brass band that will perform nearly two hours of patriotic music, interspersed with cannon fire, from 3pm to 5pm. The French song was arranged by a local reenactor, Antoine Watts, who uncovered the melody through his research of Eighteenth-Century compositions of the same lyricist. Mr. Watts regularly appears in and around New Jersey as a reenactor of the Black majority Rhode Island Regiment that marched through New Jersey to help achieve victory at Yorktown. On July 4th, George Washington and General von Steuben will be reenacted along with enlisted soldiers.
The entire event, which runs from 10 AM to 5 PM will be capped off by a “Feu de Joie,” which translates to “Fire of Joy,” the term to describe the very first Fourth of July fireworks, held on the same site in 1778 on the nation’s second anniversary. East Jersey Old Town Village has published a series of history books for children, including A Revolutionary Celebration that tells the story of America’s first fireworks.
“Middlesex County played an integral role in the birth of our great country, serving as a pivotal stage where the brave patriots of our nation’s founding fought for freedom and independence” said Middlesex County Commissioner Director Ronald G. Rios. “By shining a spotlight on Middlesex County’s indispensable contributions to the Revolutionary War, the East Jersey Old Town Village and the National Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association have instilled – and continue to instill – a sense of pride, appreciation, and historical awareness within our community.”
The National Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route Association (w3r-us.org) is the national partner of
the Washington-Rochambeau Revolutionary Route National Historic Trail. A 501(c)3 organization, W3R-US
commemorates the alliance between the French and Continental armies during the American Revolution and the
hundreds of miles travelled to the victorious Siege of Yorktown. Its mission is to educate the public about the
American Revolution, the trail, and to collaborate with diverse trail communities and partners in stimulating
economic development and a fuller, more inclusive realization of America’s founding ideals. The organization
has a New Jersey Chapter (w3r-nj.org).