Politics and Government
French Revolution

What is is the Tennis Court Oath?

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2014-05-30 13:29:51
2014-05-30 13:29:51

The Tennis Court Oath (French: serment du jeu de paume) was a pivotal event during the French Revolution. The Oath was a pledge signed by 576 out of the 577 members from the Third Estate and a few members of the First Estate during a meeting of the Estates-General of June 20 1789 in a tennis court near the Palace of Versailles. They were led by Mirabeau and Abbe Sieyes. As of June 17 1789 this group began to call themselves the National Assembly, which became the name of the primary French legislative body. On the morning of June 20 the deputies were shocked to discover that the doors to their chamber were locked and guarded by soldiers. Immediately fearing the worst and anxious that a royal coup was imminent, the deputies congregated in a nearby indoor real tennis court where they took a solemn collective oath "never to separate, and to meet wherever circumstances demand, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and affirmed on solid foundations".

The deputies pledged to continue to meet until a constitution had been written, despite the royal prohibition. 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 king Louis xvi to order the clergy and the nobility to join with the Third Estate in the National Assembly.

Text of the Assembly's decreeThe Assembly quickly decrees the following:

The National Assembly, considering that it has been called to establish the constitution of the realm, to bring about the regeneration of public order, and to maintain the true principles of monarchy; nothing may prevent it from continuing its deliberations in any place it is forced to establish itself; and, finally, the National Assembly exists wherever its members are gathered.

Decrees that all members of this assembly immediately take an oath never to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the realm is established and fixed upon solid foundations; and that said oath having been sworn, all members and each one individually confirm this unwavering resolution with his signature.

Text of OathWe swear never to separate ourselves from the National Assembly, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the realm is drawn up and fixed upon solid foundations. Significance of the Tennis Court OathThe Oath signified the first time that French citizens formally stood in opposition to Louis XVI, and the refusal by members of the National Assembly to back down forced the king to make concessions. 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.

Moreover, the Oath communicated in unambiguous fashion the idea that the deputies of the National Assembly were declaring themselves the supreme state power. From this point forward, Louis XVI would find the Crown increasingly unable to rest upon monarchical traditions of divine right.
The Estates General was a sort of parliament with three houses (just as the US has two houses in Congress); the First Estate was the Clergy, the Second Estate was the Nobility, and the Third Estate (which in 1789 had as many members as the other two together) was everybody else - what in England we call the Commons. As many nobles supported the Third Estate, they ought to have been able to outvote the rest, but the King decreed that voting would be by Estates, not by head. Obviously, this would mean that the Third Estate was always outvoted by the other two. On top of that, the King closed the hall where the Third Estate was meeting 'for redecoration'. The members of the Third Estate adjourned to the Jeu de Paume, the royal tennis court - tennis was an indoor game in those days - and swore an oath not to disperse until they were recognised as a National Assembly.
The French National Assembly swore the Tennis Court Oath, which was a promise to continue to meet until they had written a French constitution. The French Revolution lasted from 1789 to 1799.

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