For the book, see The Tennis Court Oath.
For David’s painting, see The Tennis Court Oath.
The Tennis Court Oath 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 from
Castelnaudary, who would not execute decisions not decided 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 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 not to stop the meetings 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. Significance
The Oath signified for 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. The Tennis Court Oath, which was
taken in June 1789, preceded the 4 August 1789 abolition of feudality and
the 26 August 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
Painting In the painting above, Christophe
Antoine Gerle is one of the three men in the middle, discussing the balance
between state and religion. Joseph Martin-Dauch 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. References

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Dennis Veasley

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