The Tennis Court Oath was an event that foreshadowed the coming revolution in France in 1789.
While this was not seen so clearly when the Oath was taken, the fact that the Tennis Court Oath had to be agreed upon by the Third Estate outside of their normal meeting location in Versailles was an indicator of what was to come.
The Tennis Court Oath and the French Revolution resulted from years of abuse of the lower classes by the upper classes in the three-estate system.
This estate system no longer served the will of the people of France, and the instability and unrest brewing beneath the surface of the French social castes was revealing itself clearly for the first time.
The Tennis Court Oath was a warning of what was to come, and it showed the steadfast belief of the lower classes in a change of government and social structure in France.
What Was the Estate System?
The Estate system was a class system that divided the French government into houses before the revolution. The monarchy was above the estates and held power over all three.
The first Estate was the clergy, and the Second Estate was the nobility. The rest of France, about 97% of the population in 1789, was represented by the Third Estate.
Feeling bitter about their lack of a voice in the decision-making process, the Third Estate began to call themselves the National Assembly shortly before the Tennis Court Oath.
This did not sit well with the Estates above the Third Estate, and they decided to just send the rebellious Third Estate home to their families and farms. When the newly-minted National Assembly appeared at Versailles on June 20th to continue to work, they were locked out of their meeting hall.
The Third Estate feared the worst and quickly relocated to the Tennis Court within Versailles. The 576 members of the new National Assembly quickly agreed to sign an oath that they should not disband until they had written a new constitution for France. The Crown saw this as a revolutionary act, but they took no action at first against the rebels.
This gave them time to meet at a Versailles church with two nobles and 150 clergymen and plan the next steps toward an independent France.
The Tennis Court Oath would prove to be the first step leading to the complete unraveling of the French government and, eventually, the Reign of Terror.
Without the 576 signatures on the Tennis Court Oath, it is possible that there would not have been enough organization amongst the former Third Estate to solidify into a true rebellion.
The Significance of the Oath
It is immediately clear why the Tennis Court Oath was so meaningful and had such an impact on the political situation at this time in France. The Oath indicated, for the first time, that the French citizenry was not interested in adhering to the current model of government and that the common people opposed Louis XVI.
When it became common knowledge, the Oath immediately led to civil unrest, which quickly escalated across Paris and even spread into the French countryside. The French citizenry had chafed under the iron fist of the monarchy and the nobility for generations.
The Oath was like the spark to the tinderbox that was the French government at this time.
The Tennis Court Oath also stands alone as one of the more reasonable actions that the National Assembly took throughout its existence.
The increasingly radical bent of the National Assembly’s policies was behind most of the highly questionable and inflammatory actions that culminated in the Reign of Terror.
While the Oath promised to make a new constitution to govern France, the National Assembly quickly jumped from this more noble enterprise to the rabid killing and theft of riches and property, which would later become the hallmark of the Reign of Terror.
The King’s Response to the Tennis Court Oath
King Louis XVI attempted to make some form of concession to the people, aware that the hostility toward the monarchy was at an all-time high.
The king stated that the Estates could continue to deliberate separately, and he would work on reforms that they could review and comment upon.
Louis also promised some degree of representative government with regular sessions of the Estates-General. Before the Tennis Court Oath, the Estates-General had not been called since their creation in 1614.
To attempt to make peace with the rebels further, Louis said that the taxation system would be overhauled and corrected, the legal system would be improved, and the lettres de cachet abolished. The offensive lettres de cachet had been abused during the period leading up to the Oath, with the king and those who were in his cabinet signing government orders without even submitting to the due process.
King Louis continued throughout the early days of what would become the revolutionary period to thwart the actions that the National Assembly took.
He would eventually have to relent to the pressure being placed upon him by the Third Estate and the growing threat of violence throughout France. On June 27th, Louis requested a formal vote based on headcount and not the power of the Estates.
This paved the way for the abolition of feudalism and the Declaration of the Rights of man and of the Citizen, which drew heavily from the concepts laid out in the US Declaration of Independence.
These acts by the National Assembly would prove the final nail in the coffin for the French monarchy as it had stood before the Tennis Court Oath. After that, there was no turning back, and the die had been cast, for better or worse.
The Impact of the Tennis Court Oath
The Tennis Court Oath is one of the small moments in history which can now be seen to have spawned significant events that no one present for the signing of the Oath could have foreseen.
No one present in that tennis court in Versailles could have foreseen that there would be a bloody and terrible social uprising. One which led to the complete dissolution of the French government, the French class system, and the feudal order and even had a lasting impact on the church in France.
The Tennis Court Oath was an action taken to defend the rights of the ordinary citizen in France, which spawned a much greater discussion and then a much greater uprising.
Many what-ifs and well-maybes can be associated with the Tennis Court Oath and the French Revolution. As so often happens with social upheaval, the deep and lasting resentment felt by the common citizens of France against their oppressors in the nobility changed a primarily governmental conflict into an all-out revolution.
The Lasting Legacy of the Oath
From the perspective of today’s people, it is hard to imagine how a monarchy could have existed for so long without being contested.
However, the very fabric of government and everything the citizenry had been taught to think of the king and queen in France was built upon the concept that God ordained the monarchy.
Such an argument can be difficult to counter, and it took many generations of slow-growing resentment for the common people to rise up against their oppression.
The Tennis Court Oath was a very orderly step along a road dotted with dissension, civil unrest, kangaroo courts and executions, and the complete transformation of France.
The France which exists today would not have been created were it not for the actions of the Third Estate when they signed the Tennis Court Oath.
No matter what other negative outcomes arose from the Tennis Court Oath, it was the first and possibly most crucial step along the path to a French constitution and a modern French government.
Joseph Cataliotti. “The Tennis Court Oath and the French Revolution.” https://study.com/learn/lesson/tennis-court-oath-history-significance.html.
Purdue.edu. “Some Key Moments in the French Revolution, 1789- 1794.” https://web.ics.purdue.edu/~wggray/Teaching/His104/Lectures/Revln-Timeline.html. Accessed January 9th 2023.
Britannica.com. “Lettre de Cachet.” https://www.britannica.com/topic/lettre-de-cachet. Accessed 9 Jan. 2023.
Columbia College. “Historical Context for the French Revolution.” https://www.college.columbia.edu/core/content/french-revolution/context.