The Tennis Court Oath

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

So here we are, ten episodes into this thing, and we’re finally getting to the start of the French Revolution. With the convening of the Estates General, and then the immediate grinding to a halt of the Estates General, events would begin to slip out of everyone’s control. But those things took a revolutionary turn from day one, or more specifically, day two, there were a couple of things that we need to keep in mind. 

First, even with all the underlying problems with the Ancien Régime, the archaic political structure, the archaic economic structure, the archaic judicial structure, it will take a ton of mistakes, miscalculations, and misunderstandings to push this thing in the direction of revolution. With just a little bit better leadership, the Estates General of 1789 could have been an important point of historical transition for France as it moved towards modernity, but it did not have to spark a full blown revolution. 

Second, as much as that revolution is compressed in the popular imagination, with the fall of the Bastille leading to the execution of the royal family, leading to a general reign of terror, it actually takes years for all of this to unfold. And the various big moments are generally lodged in between months and even years of moderately smooth sailing. So, I like to picture all of this more as a series of tornadoes rather than one big hurricane. So, with that in mind, let’s do this thing. 

We left off last time with the election of delegates to the Estates General and the awakening of the Third Estate as a political force. I want to start this week with a short breakdown of the delegates who would actually show up at Versailles in May 1789. Because, though they did not know it, they were about to conjure up one of those tornadoes. 

The raw numbers look like this. Not counting subs and replacements, there were 295 delegates from the First Estate, 278 delegates from the Second Estate and 604 from the Third Estate. So all told, we’re talking about 1,200 guys. And though as we’re about to see, these 1,200 delegates had wildly different expectations about what was going to happen. One common connection they all shared was that they were all mostly from urban areas. Adding up the delegates from all three orders, about two thirds of them lived in towns of more than 2,000 people, half of those lived in cities of more than 20,000 people, and 211 came from Paris alone. If you take out the parish priests, who are classified as rural by default, nearly three quarters of the delegates were urban dwellers, even as urban dwellers made up just 18% of the total population. 

Another common connection was that most of these delegates were fairly well off. As I mentioned last time, they were paying their own way, so you had to be of some means to afford the trip. Though as the months dragged on, we will get more and more delegates stressing about how they’re going to be able to keep affording this. 

So with the doubling of the Third’s representation, the Estates General of 1789 was a more representative body than France had ever known. But we have to remember that the vast majority of France is poor and rural, and the delegates, for the most part, are well off and urban. This will definitely help explain some of the decisions made by the future revolutionaries and why the unexpected backlashes were so unexpected. 

So, digging into each Estate, as we discussed at the end of last week, the defining feature of the First Estate delegates was the overwhelming presence of the parish priests, as opposed to the high ranking ecclesiastics. But though they formed a numerical minority, those high ranking ecclesiastics were a far more organized clique. They all knew each other, had worked together, and were used to wielding the power, wealth and influences that their offices granted them. They were an imposing force to deal with for the generally strangers-to-each-other common priests who arrived at Versailles. 

The Second Estate, meanwhile, was dominated by the old nobility. If your nobility stretched back no further than the 17th century, you were all but cut out. After some perfunctory resistance, every one of the major courtiers was elected and they were joined mostly by other well off city dwellers. Half of the noble delegates lived in Paris full time. Only about a quarter were true provincials, living in manor houses out in the countryside. So again, we’re talking well off and urban rather than poor and rural.

The one group that really took a bath in the elections, though, were the robe nobility, the guys who were more recently noble, and who filled the ranks of the Parlement. Just a few months earlier, these guys had been the guys, and now only 22 managed to get elected to the Estates General. After winning the battle with Brienne over the reform package, the power and prestige of the Parlement went off a cliff, never to be seen again. 

Finally, the Third Estate delegations were dominated by no one group so much as the lawyers, though merchants, doctors and professional landlords were present. And though these guys are often portrayed as political neophytes, most famously by de Toqueville, who staked one of the causes of the French Revolution to men who had only engaged politics on a theoretical level, not having the tools to engage politics on a practical level, at least a third of the delegates had been involved in some capacity in the political battles of the last few years, so they weren’t completely wide eyed, but it’s true that a lot of them were. 

The delegates began to trickle in at the end of April 1789, usually traveling in provincial groups, forming their first bonds with their new colleagues. Finally, with about 800 delegates having arrived, the King convened the Estates for their first day of official work. After a dedication procession the night before, the Estates General began with a carefully orchestrated ceremony on May 5 in the largest hall of the Palace of Versailles. The nobles were instructed to wear their silk finery, the clergy to wear their full vestments, and the Third Estate was to dress in sober black, which rubbed many of the Third’s delegates the wrong way. It was as if they were being cast as merely a backdrop for the real delegates from the First and Second estates

But no matter. The momentous occasion could not be ruined by a dress code. But what it could be ruined by was some terribly boring and incomprehensible speeches. Remember, this was the moment the Kingdom had been waiting for for years, decades, for nearly two centuries. Surely the oratory would match this historic moment. But the keeper of seals opened with a speech that was literally inaudible to most of the delegates. Okay, bad start. But then along comes the great hero of the people, Jacques Necker. Surely he will seize the day. But instead of grand rhetoric, he treated them to a barely comprehensible and supremely technocratic analysis of the Royal Budget. After his voice gave out, a half an hour in the remainder of his speech was then read by some guy with a shrill and grating voice. 

The delegates had come to renew the kingdom, and what they got instead confused and confounded and irritated them. And there was still no final word on how the voting would go. Vote by head or vote by order. Necker’s speech hinted that maybe a combination of the two would work, but also said that the nobility and the clergy must freely give up their right to vote by Estate, it would not be ordered by the King. So the delegates, especially those from the Third Estate, left the opening ceremony pretty unsatisfied and not a little bewildered about what was going on. 

The day after the opening ceremony, the real work began and the first order of business would be verifying the credentials of all the delegates. This first order of business turned out to also be the last order of business for the, quote, Estates General. It was supposed to be a simple thing. The Three Estates would meet separately to verify their own membership roles. But left to their own devices, without explicit instructions or professional guidance, the members of the Third Estate were left to assume that they were free to plot their own course. And so right away the more prepared delegates started making speeches that separate verification of credentials was unacceptable. Verification must be of everyone, by everyone. Allowing separate verification would simply set the precedent that this was a meeting of three orders rather than 1,200 individuals. 

Among those more prepared delegates were the men from Dauphiné, led by Mounier. These guys had been successfully organizing the movement to vote by head for over a year now and they weren’t about to give it away on day two of the Estates General. But Mounier and his associates were all about conciliation with the other orders rather than confrontation. The Dauphiné Estates had been working well together and indeed, when their delegation arrived, all three orders agreed to meet after hours to discuss today’s proceedings and plot strategy. 

But also present in the Third Estate was another provincial group, fairly unified of purpose, and that was the Bretton delegates, that is, the delegates from Brittany. Now, as you’ll recall from last week, there were some pretty heavy clashes between the nobility and the commoners in Brittany over the winter. There were angry speeches, fierce denunciations, fighting in the street. The Bretton nobility was in fact so incensed at not being able to convene their estate’s provincial on traditional lines and then not having that traditional body elect the delegates to the Estates General, that they boycotted the whole show. No noble delegate from Brittany ever came to Versailles. 

The delegates from Brittany’s Third Estate, meanwhile, were now pretty raucously anti-noble and had definitely come to town spoiling for a fight. They too met routinely after hours and soon invited other like minded delegates to join them. These meetings earned them all the moniker the Bretton Club and after the National Assembly moved out to Paris and took up residence in a convent run by some Dominicans who had been nicknamed the Jacobins, they become the Jacobin Club. So this is where that comes from

But though their ultimate aims were different, both the men from Dauphiné and the men from Brittany agreed that voting by order was unacceptable. And so they got up and started urging their fellow delegates to reject separate verification. With the rhetoric convincing and the crowds cheering, did I mention there were crowds? – there were crowds, unlike the other two orders, the Third Estate opened its door to anyone who could fit in and their daily meetings were well attended

As I said before, the audience will play a big role in all of this. Like, for example, when they’re cheering helps convince the newly arrived delegates to go ahead and pick a fight before even calling the role. Swept up in the moment, the Third Estate decided it would transact no official business whatsoever as a separate order. They would wait until they were joined by their fellows from the other Two Estates before they did anything. So on day two of the estates general, the Third Estate basically went on strike. 

Now, the nobility of the Second Estate, of course, wanted no part of this, and they voted 186 to 46 to proceed as a separate order and got started with their own verification. Conservative elements, including our old friend d’Epremesnil, were not about to let the liberals and the rabble seize the reins of power. And they even went so far as to long delay the admission of the nobles from Dauphiné because of their reputation for playing nice with the Third Estate. 

The First Estate, meanwhile, was divided. The parish priests were sympathetic to the Third Estate and certainly saw themselves more aligned with them than these fancy bishops. But the fancy bishops, as I said, were an impressive bunch to try to wrangle with. And after a lengthy debate, the First Estate narrowly voted 133 to 114 to maintain themselves as a separate order. At the urging of Mounier and over the objection of the Bretton delegates, the Third Estate then sent an unofficial delegation to the clergy on May 7 to try to arrange a little interstate summit to try to work something out. It was unofficial, of course, because the Third Estate couldn’t do anything to acknowledge that it considered itself a separate order. The clergy then went to the nobles and got them to agree to a sit down. It took a week for them to all get together, but when they did, it became clear that the talks were not going to go anywhere. The Third Estate would accept nothing less than vote by head, and the Second Estate, now firmly controlled by the Conservatives, would accept nothing less than vote by order. With the talks so deadlocked, the nobility withdrew on May 26. 

The Estates had now been in session for almost three weeks and literally nothing had been accomplished. The King had, of course, been watching all of this, unfold or not unfold, and by May 29, he was so fed up that he ordered the Estates to get past this quibbling and do something. There is a reason you were called. We are still bankrupt. We do need a plan, remember?

But if they were expecting to bring the Third Estate to heel by rejecting their overtures, the nobility badly misplayed their hand. Aside from the Bretton delegates, most of the men representing the Third Estate were perfectly willing to work with the nobility, they just wanted to do it as one big group. Had the nobility granted that right away, they likely could have swooped in and guided the debate in the direction they wanted it to go. But by isolating the Third Estate and leaving them all alone in a room together, the nobles all but guaranteed that the Third would become more radical because “if you don’t want to work with us, then we’re not going to do anything to try and work with you”. 

Then, of course, just as the nobility was refusing to convene as a single body, the Third Estate was given a further radical injection. When the Paris delegates finally showed up, their elections had taken a while to work out, so it wasn’t until the end of May that the Parisians arrived. And through all of this, the Parisians are not going to be trying to put the brakes on anything. 

On June 3, the more confrontational arguments from the Bretton Club began to carry the day, and the Third Estate started moving towards unilateral action. They would begin transacting business, but not as the Third Estate. Rather, they would declare themselves to be some kind of meeting of the Commons or some kind of national assembly (we’ll work the name out later) and then proceed as if they were the only legitimate body in town

On June 10, Abbé Sieyès, recently arrived from Paris, moved that the other two orders be given a final invitation to join them this past 493 to 41. After waiting two days, no response. The Third Estate delegates proceeded to call the role not as the Third Estate, but as this other self proclaimed comprehensive assembly. Compared to everything else, it seems like a little thing, but this decision to go it alone on their own authority was a revolutionary break with all political precedent. Sieyès noted that this was the moment that the cable was cut

The day after the roll call began, the first little part of the wall separating the Estates began to crumble. When three parish priests crossed over the lines, they were greeted by wild, sustained applause. Over the next few days, 16 more clergymen came over to this thing that was now in session, and guys, we really do need to figure out what to call ourselves. So when the roll call ended, that is the matter they took up. Following his own arguments from What Is The Third Estate, Sieyès reminded everyone that they already were the nation and should act accordingly. 

And so on June 15, he proposed that they be called the Assembly of the Known and Verified Representatives of the French Nation, which was a bit unwieldy, but then sparked a debate that would lead the delegates trying to outdo each other in preposterously long names. Mounier’s suggestion was, and I kid you not, “The Legitimate Assembly of the Representatives of the Larger Part of the Nation, Acting in Absence of the Smaller Part”, which, yeah, that rolled right off the tongue. 

After two days of increasingly absurd suggestions, Sieyès came back to the floor on June 17 and proposed the name he had wanted all along, but didn’t think anyone would go for it: the National Assembly. Maybe it would have been too much at first, but now it was a nice, concise breath of fresh air. By a vote of 491 to 89, the body formerly known as the Third Estate was now called the National Assembly.

Right after they declared themselves to be the National Assembly, the Bretton delegates then seized the moment and pressed for an even more radical pronouncement. They moved for a declaration that all existing taxes would henceforth be considered illegal until approved by the National Assembly. For the moment, they could still be collected, but only because the National Assembly was granting them a provisional sanction until they could be reviewed one by one. If for any reason the National Assembly was forced to stop meeting, that provisional sanction would be revoked, and all Frenchmen everywhere can consider themselves free to stop paying. 

Just a few weeks before, this would have been unthinkable. But after being ignored by the nobility and then locked in a room with each other for over a month, the delegates of the new National Assembly were now prepared to unilaterally claim like all political sovereignty. This insanely provocative declaration passed unanimously. So, boy, that happened fast!

The King, meanwhile, was not processing any of this. Back on June 4, that is, a little over a week before the Third Estate rechristened itself, the National Assembly, the King’s oldest son and the heir to the throne, suddenly died at the age of seven. The poor kid had dealt with pretty severe health issues his whole life and just finally succumbed right now, at this moment. And even though parents of the past seemed to be a little more detached from the death of children because it happened with such unnerving frequency, the death of the prince devastated both Louis and Marie Antoinette. And so, at this critical moment, the centerpiece of the entire political order, the King of France, did not have his head anywhere close to the game. 

On June 19, the plot then thickened even further when the First Estate took another vote and narrowly decided to join the National Assembly. The conservative bishops then rushed to the King and begged him to do something. Necker suggested Louis called everyone together for a Royal session. This session would allow the King to reassert some kind of overarching control and also give him a chance to introduce a reform package drawn up by Necker to mollify the Third Estate delegates, or whatever they were calling themselves, before all of this got out of hand. Louis agreed, but like I said, his head wasn’t really in the game, and I think that helps explain some of why everything is about to be botched so badly. 

Now, what happens next is a matter of some debate. Some say it was obviously the first step in a planned Royal coup. Others say it was just a misunderstanding. Historians are arguing about it to this day. Whichever it was, though, what we do know is that none of the delegates were ever told about the planned Royal session, nor that workers would need to take over the meeting hall of the Third Estate/National Assembly to make preparations. So when the delegates started to arrive for work on the morning of Saturday, June 20, what they found was armed guards standing in front of a locked door

Whether this was really just bad case of miscommunication or something more sinister, the men of the National Assembly really couldn’t possibly see it as anything but sinister. On the day that they were expected to formally welcome all the delegates from the First Estate, the door is locked and guards are telling us we can’t come in? Yeah, I’m sure your intentions are perfectly benign. 

Refusing to be broken up, the delegates then cast about for the nearest unlocked room large enough to hold them all. And some would suggest an indoor tennis court three blocks down the road. So that’s where they went. And they took part in the first great dramatic set piece of the Revolution, written by the lawyer Target and proposed by Mounier, the delegates were presented with the following affirmation:

The National Assembly, considering that it has been summoned to establish the constitution of the Kingdom, to affect the regeneration of public order and to maintain the true principles of monarchy, that nothing can prevent it from continuing its deliberations in whatever place it may be forced to establish itself. And finally, that wheresoever its members are assembled, there is the National Assembly. It decrees that all members of this assembly shall immediately take a solemn oath not to separate and to reassemble wherever circumstances require until the constitution of the Kingdom is established and consolidated upon firm foundations, and that the said oath taken all members and each one individually, shall ratify this steadfast resolution by signature.

And then they all took a mass oath never to be separated. 

I’ve thrown up the very famous drawing by Jacques Louis David of this momentous event at, so you can get a sense not just of what happened, but how it was immediately deployed to begin building the myth of the Revolution. 

After taking Sunday off, the National Assembly then reconvened on Monday, June 22. At which point they were finally joined by most of the clergymen, who were greeted by wild applause, hearty pats on the back and many passionate speeches. That same day, the next little bit of the wall separating the estate crumbled when three nobles from Dauphiné requested admission to the body. For the first time, representatives from all three orders were present in the National Assembly

With preparations for the royal session finally complete, the King now had an opportunity to calm the waters, reassert a little order, and guide everyone away from dramatic revolutionary set pieces. Though he had in hand a 35-point reform plan that the delegates of the Third Estate were going to love, things got off on the wrong foot even before the session started. First of all, you’ve got to wonder where this plan was at the opening ceremony. I mean, seriously, could the Royal Ministry be screwing this up anymore? This is what everyone had wanted on May 5th and now it was six weeks too late. 

Then, the delegates of the Third Estate or National Assembly were forced to mill around in an adjoining room while the clergy and the nobility were let in first and allowed to take their seats. This was a slap in the face that none of them could miss. Then, when they got in and looked around, Jacques Necker was nowhere to be found. Apparently, Necker had been notified the night before that the King had been persuaded to go in a harder line direction, and he decided to just stay away. So instead of leading off with the reforms, the King instead started with a blunt nullification of the declarations of June 17. That is, the Third Estate is not the National Assembly, and you can bet your ass all my taxes are legal. 

With this confrontational posture thus set, it was hard for the delegates to pay attention to the reforms ticked off. Even if it was all stuff they liked, the Estates General would approve all taxes, everyone would get a regular meeting of their state’s provincial, there would be no more arbitrary imprisonment, and a few of the more unpopular taxes would just be immediately abolished. This was all good stuff. But then the King wrapped things up by saying that the estates are still a thing, and though he now personally urged them to join together, any matters directly affecting the nobility or the clergy would be veto-able by those orders. Oh, and one more thing. Absolutely nothing is valid without my approval. Then he ordered everyone to disperse and left the room

But as the nobility and the clergy started to file out, the Third Estate delegates did not. They were ordered to by the King’s men again, whereupon they said, if you want to move us, you’re going to have to bring in the men with the guns. Then they all renewed the Tennis Court Oath and reaffirmed their declarations of June 17 and dared the King to order their dispersal by force

But when someone rushed to tell the King that the Third’s delegates weren’t going anywhere, he just shrugged his shoulders and said, Oh, well, let them stay. And this was the problem with Louis. He could never decide what he was really trying to do. He had just held a Royal Session to reassert his authority, and when that authority was directly challenged, he said, yeah, okay, whatever. The French Revolution did not happen because Louis XVI was an evil tyrant but it was helped along the way by him being a pretty spineless feather in the wind. 

The next little crisis Louis faced after the session was that upon his return, he was greeted by Necker’s resignation. It had become clear to Necker that arch conservative elements inside the Royal Family were intentionally sabotaging all attempts to bring the Estates together. Though he was ultimately persuaded to stay on, news that he had not been at the Royal session led to rumors that he had already been dismissed. 

In Paris, tens of thousands of people gathered around the Palais Royale to vent their frustrations. Then the same thing started happening in Versailles itself. And then a whole mob marched on the palace, pushed their way past the gate and into the courtyard. Necker had to come out to say, no, I have not been dismissed. But back in Paris, the crowds continued to loiter ominously. And then when two guard units were ordered in to break them up, the guard units refused to move. These were common soldiers and they had much more sympathy for the crowds and for their own officers. Coincidentally, these were the same two units that had followed orders to go break up the Réveillon Riots just a few months earlier. So times are changing fast. 

Following the failed Royal Session, all that remained of the walls between the Estates broke down for good. On June 24, all the clergy still holding out came over. And then on June 27, 47 nobles led by the Duke d’Orléan showed up at the door and were welcomed by thunderous applause. Two days later, the King gave it up and ordered everyone to continue as a single body. Anyone who was still holding out because they had instructions from back home to only meet as separate orders was hereby relieved of those instructions, the National Assembly was now truly the National Assembly

Next time we will get into one of the biggest dramatic set pieces of the whole revolution: The Fall of the Bastille. Probably one of the most defining revolutionary moments in the whole history of the world, even if it was pretty well blown out of proportion but we’ll talk about that. I say next time though, because I’m taking the next week off. But keep an eye on the feed because though I won’t be posting an episode, I will be posting something next Sunday night and I’m pretty sure it will be about the next round of tours, which will be launching in spring 2015. So keep an eye out for that because it’s all first come, first serve. And then I will be back to talk about the destruction of the great symbol of tyranny and the freeing of its hordes of political prisoners. And by that I mean a handful of forgers and a couple of lunatics.

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2 responses to “The Tennis Court Oath”

  1. What an amazing amount of research. Eldipo your work is top notch!

    1. Thanks! But all credit to Mike Duncan. I just transcribed the episodes. That podcast is sooo good!

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