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The Tennis Court Oath by James Harvey Robinson
  The Tennis Court OathAuthor(s): James Harvey RobinsonSource: Political Science Quarterly, Vol. 10, No. 3 (Sep., 1895), pp. 460-474Published by: The Academy of Political Science Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2139955 . Accessed: 16/11/2013 15:25 Your use of the JSTOR archive indicates your acceptance of the Terms & Conditions of Use, available at  . http://www.jstor.org/page/info/about/policies/terms.jsp  . JSTOR is a not-for-profit service that helps scholars, researchers, and students discover, use, and build upon a wide range of content in a trusted digital archive. We use information technology and tools to increase productivity and facilitate new formsof scholarship. For more information about JSTOR, please contact support@jstor.org.  . The Academy of Political Science  is collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access to Political Science Quarterly. http://www.jstor.org This content downloaded from on Sat, 16 Nov 2013 15:25:10 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  THE TENNIS COURT OATH.' PROBABLY in no period of history s the temptation o exaggerate the importance of dramatic events by a false isolatfon o great as in the early years of the French Revolu- tion. This tendency renders the reconstruction r reinterpre- tation of the history f this epoch especially necessary. Until Professor H. Morse Stephens published his excellent book, the English-reading public had relied pretty xclusively upon Carlyle's picture of events. Carlyle's account, notwithstand- ing its poetic brilliancy, s in one sense quite conventional. With all his broadmindedness, he makes little effort o re-state events in new relations or from ny other than the traditional standpoint. The Tennis Court oath is to him, as to most other historians, picturesque incident associated with a court intrigue. No attempt has been made, as far as I am aware, to assign to this event its proper place in the great and irre- sistible current of advance. It is, after all, but recently hat writers of history have recognized as their chief task the pains- taking investigation of the often obscure causal relations of events the tracing of gradual and inevitable development where phenomena have previously been treated only as spas- modic and erratic. It is with this in view that I shall try to sketch out the history of the Tennis Court oath of June 20, I789, by which the deputies of the French people bound themselves to give France a constitution, nd shall attempt to show that the incident was not the unpremeditated out- come of an invasion of carpenters, hammering, sawing and operative screeching, but that the events of June 20 consti- tuted in reality only a slight although politically important advance beyond the state of affairs n June i9. During the months of May and June a momentous constitu- 1 This paper is based upon one prepared for the meeting f the American His- torical Association, December, 894. This content downloaded from on Sat, 16 Nov 2013 15:25:10 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  THE TENNIS COURT OA TH. 46I tional change had been taking place in France. The old feudal assembly of the three orders, reassembled after an interval of one hundred and seventy-five ears, was found, n spite of the studiously antiquated dress of its members, to have undergone a significant change since last it met. No royal edict could re-create he spirit of earlier centuries. The inevitable metamorphosis nto a modern representative body took place during the succeeding weeks, notwithstanding he opposition of the conservative elements. It was finally de, cided by the court to suspend the sessions of the three orders, and this, as appeared to the third estate, with disrespectful f not suspicious abruptness. The pretext for the prorogation was that, as the king was to address the estates a day or two later, the spacious general meeting-place of the orders, which the representatives f the third estate had utilized since May 5, must be prepared for the royal session. On finding he place of assembly occupied by the carpen- ters, the representatives of the third estate gathered in the Tennis Court of Versailles and adopted the following esolu- tion: The National Assembly, egarding tself s called upon to estab- lish the constitution f the kingdom, ffect regeneration f the state P'ordre ublic) and maintain he true principles f monarchy, may not be prevented rom ontinuing ts deliberations n whatever place it may be forced o take up its sittings. Maintaining urther, that wherever ts members re assembled, here is the National Assembly, he assembly decrees that all its members hall imme- diately ake a solemn oath never o separate nd to come together wherever ircumstances may dictate until the constitution f the kingdom hall be established nd placed upon a firm oundation.' The importance of this resolution ies in the fact that it was the first distinct and formal assertion of the assembly's mission. A resolution had been passed three days before (June I 7) by which the deputies of the third estate had as- sumed the title of National Assembly. The deputies had, moreover, aken an oath upon this same seventeenth of June I Histoire Parlementaire, ol. ii, p. 3. This content downloaded from on Sat, 16 Nov 2013 15:25:10 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions  462 POLITICAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY. [VOL. X. very ike the Tennis Court oath itself We swear and pledge ourselves to fulfill with zeal and fidelity the duties which devolve upon us. This oath, we are told, taken by six hundred members, urrounded by four thousand spectators the public having gathered in crowds at this session), excited the greatest emotion, and constituted a most imposing specta- cle. 'I Apparently all that is novel in the Tennis Court oath is the clear enunciation that the establishment of the constitution s the essential task of the assembly. No adequate account appears to have been given of the de- velopment of this idea of a constitution. That it was not new on the morning f June 20, I789, is obvious. The unanimous recognition on the part of the deputies that the true object of the assembly was the establishment of a constitution, s quite sufficient o prove that the public mind was ripe for this dec- laration. It is my purpose to indicate in a brief and general way the steps by which the French nation attained to a clear conviction hat the salvation of the country depended upon the distinct formulation f the principles of government a con- viction which received its first official nnouncement in the Tennis Court oath. The motives advanced by the king and ministers or convok- ing the Estates General had been but vaguely conceived and therefore but vaguely indicated in the Letter of Summons, January 4, I789.2 We have, the document relates, need of the counsel of our faithful ubjects to aid us in overcoming all the difficulties n which we are involved respecting the state of our finances, nd to establish according to our wishes a constant and invariable order in the various parts of the government which affect the happiness of our subjects and the prosperity f our kingdom. The phrase fixed and con- stant order in all parts of the administration occurs three times in this brief document as one of the great objects which the Estates General in conjunction with the king are expected to accomplish. Necker's report to the king, 1 Histoire Parlementaire, ol. i, p. 471. 2 Archives Parlementaires, ol. i, pp. 543, 544. This content downloaded from on Sat, 16 Nov 2013 15:25:10 PMAll use subject to JSTOR Terms and Conditions
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