Source Problems on the French Revolution


PROBLEM I.—The Oath of the Tennis Court


THE French Revolution may be characterized in a general way as a struggle against arbitrary government and privilege. As a revolt against arbitrary government, it united all classes in France against the absolute monarchy; as an attack upon privileges, it divided France into two hostile camps—the clergy and nobility, on the one hand, the rest of the nation on the other. Class rivalry did not manifest itself until the united attack of the three orders had forced Louis XVI. to summon the states general.

The parliament of Paris was the leader of the revolt against arbitrary government. The peculiar right it possessed of remonstrating against the inscription upon its register of royal edicts in reality associated it with the king in the work of legislation. The practice of the parliament of amending, and even of vetoing, the royal edicts presented to it was looked upon by the king and his ministers as an encroachment upon royal authority; the king was supposed to be the sole legislator. The parliament refused to subscribe to this political dogma, and, although in no sense a representative body, it aspired to play the rôle of the English parliament, and to limit the power of the crown in the interest of the aristocracy. In June, 1787, posing as a defender of the interests of the common people, it resisted an increase of taxes and refused to register new tax edicts until it had been convinced by a statement of receipts and expenses that it was impossible for the government to escape from the financial straits in which it found itself by a resort to thorough economy. When the government insisted, and its need was evident, the parliament avoided registration and increased taxes by declaring that the states general, composed of the representatives of all France, alone had the right to grant new taxes, and the king was invited to call that body together. The king had no desire to convoke the states general, fearing a limitation of his power; the parliament, it would appear, used the idea of a convocation of the states general as a means of escaping the necessity of registering tax edicts which would have diminished their own revenues. If the parliament really desired the calling of the estates, it was in the old form which would have enabled them to play a leading rô1e in the assembly, and to increase the authority of the privileged classes at the expense of the monarchy. The king enforced the registration of the tax edicts in a lit de justice, but the parliament refused to recognize this act as legal and the whole parliament was exiled to Troyes. This did not give permanent relief to the royal treasury, and a compromise was effected, the parliament agreeing to the continuance of a tax which was about to expire, and the king consenting to recall the new tax edicts. This gave the king breathing space and enabled him to enter into negotiations with some of the members of the parliament for the registration of a large loan, to extend over several years, which would enable the government to put its house in order. In return for the favor of registration the ministry evidently promised to call the states general. In the royal session held for the registration of the loans the government presented a program which contained no satisfactory statement touching the meeting of the states general. Some of the members of the parliament appealed to the king to set an early date for the estates, but he made no response, and the session ended with the registration of the edicts according to the forms of a lit de justice. The parliament protested, and some of its members were exiled or imprisoned.

This was in November, 1787. The parliament had stirred up the nation by its call for the states general, but it showed no desire to press the matter. There was strife between the king and the parliament from November, 1787, to August, 1788; but the point at issue was not the calling of the estates. The parliament presented petition after petition to the king asking the release of its members and protesting against the use of lettres de cachet. The king did not yield; he even prepared to escape from the tutelage of the parliaments by reorganizing them and depriving them of the right to register edicts. This power was to be placed in the hands of a body called the cour plénière the members of which were to be appointed by the king. The reorganization of the parliament was coupled with an excellent program of judicial reform. In May, 1788, the government held lits de justice in all the parliaments of the kingdom for the purpose of registering the reform edicts. The resistance of all classes was so pronounced—the parliaments being looked upon as the last bulwark against despotism—that, although the registration was effected, the reform of the courts was not successfully carried out, nor did the cour plénière ever become active. In the summer of 1788 it was clear to keen observers that Prance was in the midst of a crisis, and that the convocation of the estates, demanded by all classes, could not be avoided. The treasury was almost empty, credit was declining, and the minister of finance, by an unwise measure, precipitated a financial crisis. The king yielded to the inevitable by promising the estates for May, 1789.

With the definite promise of a national assembly for 1789, the struggle against arbitrary power had ended in a great victory; it was said that by yielding to this demand the king had abdicated. But who was to profit by the victory? The organization of the estates would be the answer to that question. France could be reformed, privileges abolished only in a single assembly governed by majority rule, an assembly in which the third estate had a representation equal at least to that of the clergy and nobility combined. The questions of the double representation for the third estate and the vote by head, instead of by order, divided Prance into two hostile camps. They were discussed in the press with ever-growing bitterness, and in some of the provinces the parties even came to blows. What attitude would the government take toward the questions? Necker had been recalled, but showed no inclination to lose his popularity with one group by deciding in favor of its opponents. He hoped to save himself by throwing the responsibility of making a decision upon some one else. The edicts of May were withdrawn, the parliaments recalled in September, and the edict summoning the estates in 1789 was laid before the parliament of Paris for registration. In transcribing it upon its registers the parliament declared itself in favor of estates organized in the form of 1614— that is to say, it opposed double representation for the third estate and vote by head. The other parliaments of France took the same view. Their popularity vanished as if by magic.

The form of 1614 was not satisfactory to Necker. He hoped for a compromise between the views of the third estate and of the two other orders. The estates, he believed, should be made up of representatives of the three orders, with double representation for the third estate. In dealing with questions of finance and of general interest the representatives should sit in a single assembly and the majority should rule; in other cases there should be three assemblies, and each should have the power to veto the acts of the others. Hoping to get support for this view, he summoned, in November, 1788, the old assembly of the nobles called into existence the preceding year by Calonne. The assembly sat for several weeks, and finally decided against double representation and vote by head. Before, however, this decision had been reached the parliament of Paris had attempted to regain its popularity by interpreting its action of September. It declared that the number of representatives of the different orders had never been definitely fixed, and even if double representation were granted to the third estate the constitution would not be changed so long as the three estates sat in different halls and each possessed the veto power. That the double representation without the single assembly was valueless and harmless was understood by the leaders of the third estate from the very outset. The parliament gained nothing by its action. It was asserted that the action of the parliament was due to the influence of Necker, trying to find support in some group for the course he had decided to follow. December 27, 1788, the king in council, on the recommendation of Necker, declared in favor of double representation for the third estate, but left the question of vote by head in suspense. The first bitter struggle of the revolution was to center around this important question.

In the instructions given to the representatives to the estates by their constituents it is easy to see how clearly the deep significance of the issue was understood; a single assembly meant the reformation of France, three assemblies the preservation of the ancien régime. The great mass of the deputies of the third estate were instructed to sit only in a single assembly and vote by head: the great majority of the clergy and nobility were instructed not to sit in a single assembly and not to vote by head. At the opening of the estates on May 5, 1789, neither the king nor his two ministers—one of them Necker—uttered anything definite on the vexed question. Even in the matter of the verification of the credentials of the deputies the government took no action, leaving the whole problem to the deputies themselves. It proved to be an apple of discord.

For more than five weeks the question of how shah the credentials of the estates be verified occupied the attention of France. Why did the discord break out over a matter so trivial in appearance? Both parties, those favoring a single assembly and those advocating the old form with three, looked upon the form of verification as fundamentally important; the settlement of that question might at the same time dispose of the larger question lying back of it. Verification of all the credentials in a single assembly would be a victory for the third estate, and would create a precedent in favor of a permanent single legislative body. If the deputies once sat together in a single hall, it was feared they could not be separated again into three chambers. The question of the verification of credentials, then, meant a preliminary skirmish for position, which might decide the fate of the great battle. The nobility verified its own credentials and organized as a separate body, a chamber of the estates; the clergy began to verify its credentials, but when it learned that the third estate was doing nothing, showed a readiness to negotiate; the third estate did not organize, but waited for the other orders to join them for common verification, even invited them informally to do so. The clergy replied by proposing the appointment of a committee composed of members of the three orders to consider in a conference the matter in dispute. This proposition was finally accepted by both the other orders, although there was little possibility of any good coming from such discussions. The nobility entered the conference insisting that they were organized as an independent chamber; and the commons, as the third estate called themselves, instructed their delegates to discuss nothing but the verification of credentials. The discussion in the conferences, conducted chiefly by the nobility and commons, was fruitless. Both sides realized the greatness of the interests at stake, and would make no concessions. The conferences ended, and the commons appealed to the clergy, "in the name of the God of peace," to bring their credentials into the common hall. The majority of the clergy would doubtless have accepted this invitation had not the king been induced to interfere and to ask for a renewal of the conferences in the presence of his ministers. The conferences were renewed, and after several meetings, in which the nobility and the commons repeated their old arguments, Necker presented a plan for verification which recognized the existence of the separate chambers and paved the way for the adoption of his plan of general and separate assemblies. The plan was accepted by the clergy, but such restrictions were made by the nobility that it was practically nullified. The commons took advantage of this situation to escape the necessity of expressing their opinion. The plan never had any chance of success and was never debated.

For several days before the second series of conferences closed it was evident that the commons were preparing to act. They introduced enough organization into their assembly to make it possible for them to act as a deliberative body. On June 10th they voted to summon the clergy and the nobility to bring their credentials at once into the common hall for verification, and announced their intention of proceeding with the verification if the other deputies did not appear. The summons was delivered on the twelfth—the eleventh being a holiday—and in the afternoon of the same day the roll call of deputies began in the general hall. The names of the clergy and nobility were read, and when they failed to respond they were treated as absent. On the morning of June 15th the roll call had been finished, the credentials had been examined and favorably reported upon.

The next question for the commons to consider was what they should call themselves? Were they the states general? That could hardly be true in the absence of the other two estates. Some expression must be found that would enable the commons to organize as the majority of the deputies representing the nation, but which at the same time would be elastic enough to embrace the deputies of the other two orders when they finally joined the third estate. Several such titles were proposed, and for two days, in the presence of crowded galleries, the commons engaged in one of the most important debates of the early revolution. The title national assembly was proposed, but attracted little attention at the outset. When Sieyès, who had advocated a more conservative title, adopted the shorter and more revolutionary one, its success was assured. On the morning of June 17th the commons declared themselves the national assembly. It was the first revolutionary step. It was a declaration of the existence of a single assembly, made up of the representatives of the French people, without distinction of order, having the right to make a constitution for France, and recognizing the existence of no veto power between it and the king. If this act were allowed to go unchallenged, the old constitution, with its political and civil inequalities, was doomed. The representatives of the middle class would sweep away the ancien régime and create a new France.

The king could not look with unconcern upon tiffs bold act of the commons. The assumption of the power to make a constitution threatened not only the privileges Of the clergy and nobility, but his own unrestricted authority. In the presence of a common danger the monarchy and the privileged classes drew near to each other. Urged on by the court, the parliaments, the clergy, and the nobility, the ministry decided to abandon its policy of inaction, to gather up the reins which were slipping from its grasp, and to save the old constitution. A royal session of the estates should be held, and the king should announce his wishes. But what were these wishes? Should Louis XVI. place himself at the head of the commons and become the king of the revolution? Should he annul the action of the commons and defend the ancien régime as a whole? Or, while annulling the action of June 17th, should he propose a reform program, representing the policy of his reign previous to the meeting of the estates? The plan proposed by Necker was opposed by some of the ministers. On the same day that Necker presented his plan the majority of the clergy voted to verify their credentials in common with the third estate. Unless something were done, the union of the clergy with the commons would take place the next day, and a situation would be created far more difficult for the government to deal with than that resulting from the vote of June 17th. The ministers decided to prevent the union by closing the hall and suspending the estates until the royal session of June 22d. This action on the part of the government led the commons, on June 20th, to take the famous "Oath of the Tennis Court."


1. Procès-verbal de l’assemblée nationale. Paris, 1789. This is the official minutes of the assembly, written by the secretaries of the assembly, read before the assembly for correction, and printed by the official printer. The official manuscript account from which the printed account was taken is in the national archives in Paris. It is in the handwriting of Camus.

2. Le point du jour. This was a daily edited by Barère, a member of the third estate. It contained nothing but an account of the debates of the assembly, an account without comment, full of detail, and remarkably free from prejudice. Barère was born in 1755, was a practising lawyer at the bar of Bordeaux before 1789, and was elected deputy to the national assembly from Bigorre.

3. L’assemblée nationale. This paper was a daily written by Lehodey, a professional journalist. Its name changed several times, the first numbers bearing the title of the États-généraux. It contained little but the debates of the assembly. The accounts of the debates were full, but there was considerable comment, and it was not difficult to tell what the sentiments of Lehodey were.

4. Bailly, Mémoires, 3 vols., Paris, 1804. Bailly was born in Paris in 1736. He was already celebrated as an astronomer and a member of the three French academies when he was elected to the states general by the third estate of Paris. He was president of the national assembly on June 20th. His Mémoires, describing the events of 1789, were written in 1792, between January and June, while he was residing at his country place near Nantes. The original manuscript, in Bailly’s handwriting, is in the library of the chamber of deputies in Paris.

5. Duquesnoy, Journal, 2 vols., Paris, 1894. This work is not a journal, but a series of letters, or bulletins, written by Duquesnoy to his constituents. Duquesnoy, born in 1759, represented the third estate of Bar-le-Duc. The manuscript from which the two volumes were printed—now in the manuscript section of the national library in Paris—was not in the handwriting of Duquesnoy, but there is sufficient internal evidence to prove conclusively that he was the author of the bulletins.

6. Young, Arthur, Travels in France, fourth edition, London, 1892. Arthur Young, the English agriculturist, born in 1741, made three journeys across France, the last in 1789. In June, 1789, he was in Paris, watching the revolution with the deepest interest and making notes in his journal. He was a well-informed man, used the French language well, and was in social touch with all the distinguished Frenchmen of his day.

7. Mounier, Recherches sur les causes qui ont empêché les Français de devenir libres, 2 vols., Geneva, 1792. Mounier was a member of the third estate from Dauphiné. He was born at Grenoble in 1758, was an advocate at the bar of his native city, and later a judge royal. He had been a leader in the revolution in the Dauphiné in 1788. His pamphlets on the organization of the states general made him famous throughout France. When the assembly followed the Icing to Paris in October, Mounier, feeling that the assembly had gone too far in depriving the king of his power, retired to Dauphiné and tried to call the provincial estates together to protest against the action of the national assembly. When this action was prohibited by the assembly, he left France for Switzerland, and there wrote the work from which the extract was taken. It was a description and criticism of the revolution up to the time of writing. In June, 1789, he was one of the most prominent men of the third estate at Versailles.

8. Malouet, Mémoires, 2 vols., Paris, 1868. Malouet was born in 1740, and had passed the most of his life in the government service. He was intendant of marine in 1788. In 1789 he was elected to the national assembly by the third estate of Riom. He was a conservative, and on account of his position as a government official was suspected of acting in the interest of the ministry, and was distrusted by the liberal members of the assembly. Malouet wrote his Mémoires in 1808, six years before his death.

9. Biauzat, Vie et correspondance, 2 vols., Paris, 1890. Gaultier de Biauzat was born in 1739. He was a member of the bar of Clermont-Ferrand, and in 1789 was elected to the states general by the third estate of Clermont. While in Versailles he wrote letters to his constituents. The originals are found in the library of Clermont.

10. Rabaut, Précis historique de la révolution fran-çaise, Paris, 1813. Rabaut de Saint-Étienne was born in 1743. A protestant pastor, leader of the French protestants, he was elected to the states general by the third estate of Nimes. His Précis was written in the latter part of 1791.

11. Dorset, Despatches from Paris, 2 vols., London, 1909, 1910. Dorset was the English ambassador to France in 1789. The original despatches from which this collection was made are found in the Record Office in London.

12. Bailli de Virieu, Correspondance, Paris, 1903. The Bailli de Virieu was the minister of Parma to the court of Versailles. The original of the letters, written in Italian, to his home government, are found in the archives of Parma. They are among the most valuable of the correspondence of the foreign ministers at that time in Paris. The Marquis de Virieu, in 1884, copied the Italian letters in the archives of Parma and made a French translation of them. The English text in the extract given below is, then, a translation of a French translation of an Italian original.


1. How many of the writers of the sources contained in this study were eye-witnesses of the events they described?

2. How many of the sources describing the events of June 20th at Versailles are independent?

3. Upon what sources are the dependent ones dependent?

4. Are all the sources in this study, written by eye-witnesses, equally valuable? Give the reasons for thinking some less valuable than others.

5. Some eye-witnesses reproduce the accounts of other eyewitnesses, thus placing their stamp of approval upon them. Does that increase the value of these accounts? Cite cases and give reasons.

6. Prove that there were two sessions of the national assembly on June 20th.

7. When and where was the Procès-verbal of the first session written?

8. Why did not the first Procès-verbal contain copies of the letters which passed between Bailly and De Brézé?

9. For what hour had the opening of the session of the twentieth been fixed?

10. At what hour did it open?

11. At what time did the deputies begin to gather at the hall?

12. At what hour did the heralds announce the suspension of the session? What two forms did this announcement take?

13. How long was Bailly in conference with the secretaries? What inference would you draw from this?

14. What did Bailly mean by saying he had "received no order from the king," when he had just received orders from the grand master of ceremonies? 15. Why did Bailly not answer the second letter of De Brézé? 16. Where was the first session of the twentieth held, how long did it last, and what was done in the session?

17. Why was the situation in the avenue before the hall a serious one on the morning of the twentieth between nine and ten o’clock?

18. Why were the members of the assembly so disturbed over the closing of their hall?

19. Why did they take an oath?

20. What was the significance of the oath?

21. Why did the members take the oath orally and also sign their names to documents upon which the oath had been transcribed?

22. Why were the deputies so indignant at the action of Martin d’Auch?

23. Is the Assemblée nationale right in saying that Guilhermy retired without signing?

24. What proof do you find in the sources that the deputies and the crowd were very desirous of retaining the good will of the king?

25. How do you reconcile such an attitude with the taking of the oath?

26. Why did the session of June 20th last so long?

27. What other action on June 20th proves that the assembly intended to defend its decree of June 20th even against the king?

28. What did contemporaries think of the action of June 20th and its probable consequences?

29. Was the "Oath of the Tennis Court" really a very important act in the history of the revolution?

30. Establish the facts for June 20th, make a synthesis, citing the proof, and write a narrative with notes.


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Chicago: "Problem I. The Oath of the Tennis Court," Source Problems on the French Revolution in Source Problems on the French Revolution, ed. Fred Morrow Fling and Helene Dresser Fling (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1913), 1–17. Original Sources, accessed December 1, 2023,

MLA: . "Problem I. The Oath of the Tennis Court." Source Problems on the French Revolution, in Source Problems on the French Revolution, edited by Fred Morrow Fling and Helene Dresser Fling, New York, Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1913, pp. 1–17. Original Sources. 1 Dec. 2023.

Harvard: , 'Problem I. The Oath of the Tennis Court' in Source Problems on the French Revolution. cited in 1913, Source Problems on the French Revolution, ed. , Harper & Brothers Publishers, New York, pp.1–17. Original Sources, retrieved 1 December 2023, from