As one of the seminal social revolutions in human history, the French Revolution holds a unique legacy, especially in the West. The early years of the Revolution were fueled by Enlightenment ideals, seeking the social overthrow of the caste system that gave the royalty and aristocracy decisive advantages over the lower classes. But history remembers the French Revolution in a starkly different way, as the same leaders who sought a more democratic system while out of power devolved into establishing an incredibly repressive tyranny of their own, once they acquired it.
The French Revolution was a turbulent period that lasted several years, and one of the most famous events of the entire revolution came near the beginning with the Tennis Court Oath. By July of 1788, King Louis XVI agreed to call the Estates-General, a large, traditional legislative body, for the first time since 1614. The country’s finances, already quite tenuous, reached a crisis stage in August 1788 as France faced bankruptcy.
In March 1789, the electoral method was set. While the nobility and clergy would hold direct elections, the much larger Third Estate would elect representatives from each district, who would then attend larger assemblies to elect their official representatives to the Third Estate of the Estates-General.
Finally, in the spring of 1789, Louis XVI summoned the Estates-General. They were to convene at Versailles on April 27, but did not do so until May 5. Late elections continued into the summer as conditions around the country delayed many elections. At the same time, bread prices reached an all-time high, leading to riots throughout the country, particularly in Paris.
During the formal ritual that welcomed the Estates-General on May 4, 1789, in a precursor of things to come in the following months, the Third Estate refused to kneel before the king. The deputies of the Third Estate came before the king, walking two at a time, and bowed before Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. Not surprisingly, those witnessing the parade of the Estates-General had hoped for reform, but came to expect that the Estates-General would serve as a tool of the administration.
Unaware of why the National Assembly was closed off and faced with the loss of their usual meeting place, the National Assembly laid claim to an unused indoor tennis court at Versailles for their meetings, which continued throughout the weekend of June 20, 1789. The king’s actions were viewed as an act of despotism, renewing the spirit of the Assembly. Together, all of the deputies of the National Assembly took an oath, commonly referred to as the Tennis Court Oath, in which they vowed to remain in session until “the constitution of the Realm and public regeneration are established and assured”.
On June 22, the Royal Session was postponed, and the Assembly met again in the tennis court. They welcomed the clergy to the National Assembly, as decided on June 19. With some joy, they also greeted three noblemen from the Estates-General who had chosen to join the National Assembly. The stage was set for a confrontation between the king and the National Assembly, and within a month, the Bastille would be stormed, leading to widespread riots. The French Revolution had begun in earnest.
The Tennis Court Oath: The History and Legacy of the National Assembly’s Pivotal Meeting at the Beginning of the French Revolution analyzes the history and legacy of one of the French Revolution’s seminal events.