Revolution in a Tennis Court: June 20, 1789

This text comes from our book, Light to the Nations II: The Making of the Modern World.


The king’s palace of Versailles was the venue for the opening meeting of the Estates- General on May 5, 1789. The first issue the assembly addressed was how the three estates would register their votes. Though apparently only a minor question, it was a momentous one. On it would depend the very future of France.


Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes

The king assumed that the three estates would vote separately, as had been done in the past. That is, each estate would receive one vote. To pass a measure, the Estates-General had first to get two out of the three estates to support it. Though it departed from tradition, the king did allow the Third Estate to have the same number of deputies as the other two estates combined; but this would make no difference if the estates voted separately. No matter how many deputies it had, the Third Estate would finally have only one out of three votes in the Estates-General. The clergy (the bishops and other prelates) and the nobles—the First and Second Estates—would tend to vote alike on measures and so always command the majority of votes in the Estates-General.

The results might be very different, however, if all the estates voted together, in one assembly. Having the same number of deputies as the other two estates combined, the Third Estate could control such an assembly because there were nobles and clergy in the other two estates who would support the commons on many measures. Composed of lawyers and judges, scholars, and parish clergy (only 10 deputies stood for the very poor), the Third Estate had many talented and intelligent men. So it was that the Third Estate, understanding what power it could have, demanded that the three estates sit and vote not as separate houses of nobles, clergy, and commons, but as one assembly.

Some members of the first two estates supported the demand for one assembly, but most nobles and prelates resisted it. They realized that the first two estates would lose all power in such an assembly. The king too favored keeping the three estates separate, but he appeared undecided and weak and so no decision was made. For six weeks, the controversy continued with no sign that any agreement could be reached.

It was a Liberal priest, Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, who came up with a solution. Sitting as a deputy for the Third Estate, Sieyes on June 10 moved that his fellow deputies invite the other two estates to join the Third Estate in its chambers for the official roll call of members. This was essentially a call for all the estates to form one assembly, and the first two estates knew it. So it was that not one nobleman attended the roll call in the commons on June 15, though three members of the clergy did. Two days later, the deputies of the Third Estate took the next decisive step. Alone and without the king’s permission, the Third Estate proclaimed itself the National Assembly of the French people.

In calling itself the National Assembly, the Third Estate proclaimed not only that it alone was the Estates-General but also that only the Third Estate represented the people of France. As the National Assembly, the Third Estate was subject to no other authority. It was sovereign. It alone had the power to make laws and levy taxes. Even the king had to submit to its decisions. The move by the Third Estate was thus nothing less than a revolution, though a peaceful one.


The Oath of the Tennis Court

Upon being confronted with the revolt of the Third Estate, the king did not seek to assert his authority by force. Instead, he called a royal session, or meeting with the deputies of the three estates for June 22. Louis hoped that he might be able to work out a compromise that would be acceptable to all. But on June 20, when the deputies of the Third Estate gathered to meet in the hall reserved for them at Versailles, armed guards blocked their way. The hall, the deputies were told, was undergoing repairs for the royal session. Undaunted, the deputies withdrew to a nearby building that served as both a riding hall and a tennis court. There, with arms raised and outstretched, they swore that they would not part until they had drawn up a constitution for France. Two days later they met in a church, where they were joined by 148 members of the clergy, 134 of whom were parish priests.

Count Mirabeau

Things had taken a desperate turn. The Oath of the Tennis Court had set the revolution in full swing. Still hoping to salvage his authority, the king offered compromises, including support for wide-ranging reforms. But the Third Estate would accept no compromises. They would remain, as Sieyes proclaimed, the sole representative of the French people. Count Mirabeau—who, though a noble, had chosen to sit with the Third Estate—offered his own defiance to the king. A large man, his intense eyes overshadowed by bushy eyebrows, his face pockmarked from the effects of smallpox, Mirabeau expressed the feeling of his fellow revolutionaries. “We are here by the will of the people,” he declared, “and we shall not leave our places except at the point of the bayonet.”

Though urged by some to use “the bayonet” against the assembly, the king did not do so. The cause for which the Third Estate fought was gaining favor. Already a majority of the clergy had joined the National Assembly, and on June 25, forty-seven nobles entered its ranks. The weak and indecisive Louis saw no way out—with every passing day, another door closed. The king knew he could not rely on force, for many of his own soldiers in Paris sympathized with the Third Estate. And now, even the nobles were joining the revolutionaries. So, hoping at least to preserve his own authority, the king capitulated; on June 27 he ordered the three estates to join the Third Estate and sit as one assembly.

The first stage of the revolution had succeeded. By the king’s own decree, the National Assembly was now the legal representative body of the people of France.


Music That Inspired a Revolutionary


Giovanni Battista Viotti (1755-1824) was an Italian composer whose violin concerti inspired Ludwig van Beethoven, who would himself lead a revolution in music that changed the art for ever. Here is a recording of one of these concerti, the Violin Concerto No. 16 in E minor, composed in 1789 -- the year of revolution.



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