Tennis Court Oath
The Tennis Court Oath (French: Serment du jeu de paume) was a pivotal event during the first days of the French Revolution. The Oath was a pledge signed by 576 of the 577 members from the Third Estate who were locked out of a meeting of the Estates-General on 20 June 1789. The only person who did not sign was Joseph Martin-Dauch, a politician who would not execute decisions not sanctioned by the king. They made a makeshift conference room inside a tennis court located in the Saint-Louis district of the city of Versailles, near the Palace of Versailles.
On 17 June 1789, this group, led by Honoré Gabriel Riqueti, began to call themselves the National Assembly. On the morning of 20 June, the deputies were shocked to discover that the chamber door was locked and guarded by soldiers. Immediately fearing the worst and anxious that a royal attack by King Louis XVI was imminent, the deputies congregated in a nearby indoor tennis (Jeu de paume) court where they took a solemn collective oath "not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established". Some historians have argued that, given political tensions in France at that time, the deputies' fears, even if wrong, were reasonable and that the importance of the oath goes above and beyond its context.
The deputies pledged to continue to meet until the 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 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.
The Oath signified 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 afterwards, 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 order.
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. In terms of his political sympathies, Louis XVI was noticeably more liberal than any of his predecessors or immediate family. However, given personal circumstances and the death of his son, he badly mismanaged the mood of the Assembly.
The Tennis Court Oath, which was taken in June 1789, preceded the 4 August 1789 abolition of feudality (an event which had occurred in England some 129 years previously when Charles II was restored to the throne), and the 26 August 1789 Declaration of the human rights of man and citizen.
As well as bolstering the Left and reformist movement, the Oath also galvanized the French Right. In royalist and conservative circles, the oath was seen as an indicator of the Assembly's commitment to anarchy and it was felt that a more robust form of counter-revolutionary politics were needed to ensure the survival of the monarchy.
In the painting above, Christophe Antoine Gerle is one of the three men in the middle, discussing the balance between state and religion. The only deputy recorded as not taking the oath was Joseph Martin-Dauch from Castelnaudary. He can be seen on the right of David's sketch, seated with his arms crossed and his head bowed. This drawing was originally intended to be a print for a commissioned painting, but the painting was never finished.
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