Tennis Court Oath
On 20 June 1789, the members of the French Third Estate took the Tennis Court Oath (French: Serment du Jeu de Paume), vowing "not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established". It was a pivotal event in the French Revolution. The Estates-General had been called to address the country's fiscal and agricultural crisis, but they had become bogged down in issues of representation immediately after convening in May 1789, particularly whether they would vote by order or by head (which would increase the power of the Third Estate, as they outnumbered the other two estates hugely).
On 17 June, the Third Estate began to call themselves the National Assembly, led by the Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, Comte de Mirabeau. On the morning of 20 June, the deputies were shocked to discover that the chamber door was locked and guarded by soldiers. They immediately feared the worst and were anxious that a royal attack was imminent from King Louis XVI, so the deputies congregated in a nearby indoor jeu de paume court in the Saint-Louis district of the city of Versailles near the Palace of Versailles. There 576 of the 577 members from the Third Estate took a collective oath "not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established". The only person who did not join was Joseph Martin-Dauch from Castelnaudary, who would only execute decisions that were made by the king.
Before the Revolution, French society—aside from royalty—was divided into three estates. The First Estate comprised the clergy; the Second Estate was the nobility. The entire rest of France—some 98% of the population—was the Third Estate, which ranged from very wealthy city merchants to impoverished rural farmers. The three estates met from time to time in the Estates General, a legislative assembly.
Although the Third Estate was the overwhelming majority of the French population, the makeup of the Estates General was such that the Third Estate comprised a bare majority of the delegates. A simple majority was sufficient—as long as the delegates' votes were cast altogether. The First and Second Estates preferred to divide the vote in some way. A proposal might need to receive approval from each Estate, or there might be two "houses" of the Estates General (one for the first two Estates, and one for the Third), and a bill would need to be passed by both houses. Either way, the First and Second Estates could exercise veto power over proposals enjoying widespread support among the Third Estate, such as reforms that threatened the privileges of the nobility and clergy.
In France at that time, the deputies' fears, even if wrong, were reasonable and the importance of the oath goes above and beyond its context.
The oath was both a revolutionary act and an assertion that political authority derived from the people and their representatives rather than from the monarch himself. Their solidarity forced Louis XVI to order the clergy and the nobility to join with the Third Estate in the National Assembly in order to give the illusion that he controlled the National Assembly. This oath would prove vital to the Third Estate as a step of protest that would eventually lead to more power in the Estates General, and every governing body thereafter.
The Oath signified for the first time that French citizens formally stood in opposition to Louis XVI, and the National Assembly's refusal to back down forced the king to make concessions. It was foreshadowed by and drew considerably from, the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence, especially the preamble. The Oath also inspired a wide variety of revolutionary activity in the months afterward, ranging from rioting across the French countryside to renewed calls for a written French constitution. Likewise, it reinforced the Assembly's strength and forced the King to formally request that voting occur based on head, not power. The Tennis Court Oath (June 1789) preceded the abolition of feudalism (4 August 1789) and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (26 August 1789).
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