Oath of the Tennis Court Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The representatives of the French Third Estate swore to accomplish major governmental reform and not to separate—nor to allow themselves to be separated—until their goals were achieved. Their oath forced King Louis XVI to accept a truly national assembly, thereby precipitating the French Revolution.

Summary of Event

King Louis XVI of France was forced to call the Estates-General (France)[Estates General] Estates-General in 1789 because the nobility and the higher clergy had been unwilling to cooperate with him in an attempt to introduce financial reforms. Although France was one of the most prosperous nations in Europe at the time, the royal government was on the verge of bankruptcy. An inept system of collecting taxes and the inefficient management of royal monopolies contributed to the financial distress of the government, but the real cause was the inequity of the tax system. [kw]Oath of the Tennis Court (June 20, 1789) [kw]Court, Oath of the Tennis (June 20, 1789) [kw]Tennis Court, Oath of the (June 20, 1789) Third Estate (France) French Revolution (1789-1796);beginnings of Oath of the Tennis Court (1789) Tennis Court, Oath of the (1789) [g]France;June 20, 1789: Oath of the Tennis Court[2820] [c]Government and politics;June 20, 1789: Oath of the Tennis Court[2820] Sieyès, Emmanuel-Joseph Mounier, Jean-Joseph Louis XVI Dauch, Martin

Neither the nobility nor the clergy paid taxes to the crown, and exclusion of this substantial portion of the nation’s wealth placed an increased burden on the remainder of the population. Furthermore, the tax structure was such that the wealthy bourgeoisie Bourgeoisie paid a much smaller percentage of their income in taxes than did the peasants. In order to avoid bankruptcy, the government attempted to introduce new taxes that would fall upon the nobility and clergy, hitherto untouched. This attempt led to a struggle between the Crown and the privileged classes in 1787 and 1788. Louis XVI finally gave in to the demands of the Parlement of Paris, which reflected the views of the aristocracy, and announced that the Estates-General would meet in May, 1789.

This body had not been called since 1614. It was an advisory assembly made up of three orders: the First Estate (the clergy), the Second Estate (the nobility), and the Third Estate (the remainder of the population). The three orders had traditionally met separately and voted within their own assemblies. The consensus of the Estates-General was then expressed by the majority vote of two of the three estates. It was the intention of the aristocracy, declared by the Parlement of Paris, that the Estates-General would meet in the traditional manner in 1789. The First and Second Estates could then dominate the Third Estate and outvote it if their privileges were called into question. Furthermore, the aristocracy hoped that by dominating the Estates-General, they could force the king to share some powers of government with them, thereby creating a system similar to that which had been established in Great Britain through the English parliament.

The Third Estate received the news that the Estates-General had been called with even more eager anticipation than the nobility. Louis XVI was asking his loyal people for advice, and the hope was raised that reform to benefit the bourgeoisie and the peasantry would be introduced. During 1788, the Third Estate asked the king to double their numbers so that they would be numerically equal to the First and Second Estates. In December, Louis agreed so that he could secure the support of the Third Estate in the forthcoming assembly. If votes were still to be taken by the three orders acting separately, nothing had really changed, but the Third Estate had never accepted the idea of each order voting separately. To them, the increase of numbers implied the idea of voting by numbers of heads, even though the king in his decree had made no mention of the method of voting. The Estates-General opened its first session on May 5, 1789, without the Third Estate agreeing to the “legal” voting regulation.

In accordance with the king’s instruction, the clergy and the nobility met in their designated halls and began to organize as separate orders. The Third Estate, however, decided to force the three orders to meet as one body and vote as one body, and so it employed the delaying tactic of refusing to organize itself. The nobility ignored the Third Estate and declared themselves organized, but the clergy, displaying sympathy with commoners, postponed its own organization.

During May, the principal means used by the Third Estate to delay its organization was verification of credentials of all members of the Estates-General. It demanded that credentials of all three orders be verified at a joint meeting. The nobility refused to accept this demand, so the Third Estate did not verify its own credentials and therefore could not declare itself organized. Various attempts at compromise failed, and when the clergy began to show increasing sympathy for the Third Estate, the latter became bolder.

The members of the Third Estate swearing the Oath of the Tennis Court.

(Library of Congress)

On June 10, 1789, the Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, leader of the Third Estate, proposed that the Third Estate summon the two privileged orders to join them and that a roll be called of all members of the Estates-General. Those not answering when their names were called would be declared eliminated. This measure was passed by the Third Estate, and the roll call began on June 12. On June 17, after considerable debate, the Third Estate assumed the name National Assembly. National Assembly (France) The issue was being forced, and when many of the clergy voted to join the Third Estate, the king decided to call a royal session on June 23. In order to prevent the Third Estate from continuing to meet until then, the king closed their hall under the pretext of having it prepared for the next meeting. When members of the Third Estate arrived on June 20 for their regular session, they found themselves locked out. As a result, they decided to meet at a nearby indoor tennis court.

There was much excitement at the meeting. The commoners realized that the king was preparing to oppose their recent acts, and when Jean-Joseph Mounier proposed that they bind themselves together in a common oath, they agreed to do so. The oath declared that the National Assembly had been summoned to effect the regeneration of public order and that nothing could prevent it from continuing its deliberations. It went on to assert that where the members gathered they naturally constituted the National Assembly. To give this resolution force, the members of the Third Estate vowed not to separate until their ends had been met and, in language reminiscent of the American Declaration of Independence, bound themselves through their individual signatures.

All members signed the declaration except Martin Dauch. They reaffirmed their determination to stand by their acts of June 12-17. They no longer considered themselves to be merely one order of the Estates-General; instead, they became the National Convention representing the entire French nation. Although he at first resisted, Louis XVI gave way on June 27 and ordered the nobility and clergy to join with the Third Estate in the National Assembly.

Significance

Marking a decisive shift in the events that would eventually be known as the French Revolution, the Oath of the Tennis Court was the first open expression of solidarity by the Third Estate with what might be termed the “general will” of the French people. From that point on, popular opinion, especially as shaped and directed by first tentative reformers and then outright revolutionaries, became a prime mover in domestic affairs. Louis XVI had challenged the Third Estate and had been decisively defeated. The Oath of the Tennis Court was the irreversible first step to the guillotine for Louis and toward a republic for France.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bosher, J. F. The French Revolution. New York: W. W. Norton, 1988. One of the volumes in the “Revolutions in the Modern World” series, this study places the Oath of the Tennis Court in the context of the escalating conflict that developed into the Revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cobb, Richard, ed. Voices of the French Revolution. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1988. Contemporary accounts give an indication of what the participants and outside observers felt the Oath meant and why events unfolded as they did.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Doyle, William. The Oxford History of the French Revolution. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. A sturdy, dependable study of the actions and actors involved in the Oath. Good in placing the event in the context of its times.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. New York: Quill/William Morrow, 1999. Each chapter of this book covers the significant events that occurred on a single day or other designated time period during the French Revolution. Chapter 1 recounts “The Day of the Tennis-Court Oath, 20 June 1789.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Paxton, John. Companion to the French Revolution. New York: Facts On File, 1988. The expanded dictionary entries of this work help the student keep track of the numerous figures involved during the early period of the revolution.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schama, Simon. Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989. An expansive, at times impressionistic view of the tumultuous events of the times, this volume evokes the intense emotions that led to and resulted in the Oath of the Tennis Court.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sutherland, D. M. G. The French Revolution and Empire: The Quest for a Civic Order. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell, 2003. Chapter 1, “The Origins of the Revolution in France,” includes information about the Oath of the Tennis Court.

Louis XVI Calls the Estates-General

Fall of the Bastille

France Adopts the Guillotine

Early Wars of the French Revolution

Execution of Louis XVI

Fall of Robespierre

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