Stories of the French Revolution - Walter Montgomery

The Tennis-Court Oath

The Commons, you remember, would not do anything at all, because the Clergy and Nobles refused to sit and debate with them. The king and his council did not wish the Clergy and Nobles to sit and talk with the Commons, for they were afraid the Commons would make them too liberal; and they were the more afraid because one hundred and forty-nine out of the six hundred Clergy joined the Commons. These were mostly clergy of the lower orders, and what we call parish priests. This made the court resolve to do something. Some were for planting cannon opposite the hall of debate, so as to terrify the Commons into obedience. Others were for shutting up the hall and turning them into the street. The king was always a mild man and against doing anything violently, and he did not approve of the cannon business at all. He was therefore persuaded to order the Marquis de Breze to shut the doors of the hall.

On Saturday, June 20, therefore, when the hour of meeting came, the President of the Commons, whose name was Bailly, went, in company with the members, to the hall. Bailly had received a letter from the marquis, which told him that the Commons would not be allowed to use the hall; but this letter Bailly put in his pocket and did not notice. When he and the Commons reached the door, they found it guarded by soldiers, and within carpenters were at work, making the hall ready for some grand court ceremonial. The captain of the guard politely informed Bailly that he could not let the members in, and he showed the king's order. They might send some of their number in, to remove any papers that might belong to them, but nothing more. So Bailly and his secretaries went in, and carried off the papers, with minds full of anger. The members stood some minutes under the shade of a fine avenue of trees, considering what was best to be done. They felt sure that the courtiers were chuckling over their disappointment. The morning was cloudy, and a drizzling rain began to fall. Great was the hubbub of voices under the friendly shelter of the trees; loud were the complaints and cries of shame; many the plans of what to do next. Some were for meeting in a large courtyard called the Place of Arms; others were for going over to Marly, whither it was heard the king had driven; some were for forcing an entrance into Versailles Palace itself. But it was soon rumored that President Bailly had found a convenient place. It was a tennis-court in the street of St. Francis, and thither the disgusted Commons took their way. It was a bare place, enclosed by four naked walls. A table and chair were borrowed of a neighbor, and, the President and his friends having opened their papers, the proceedings began with a solemn oath! A certain Monsieur Mailly proposed that the six hundred members should lift up their right hands to Heaven, and swear they would meet anywhere and under any and every circumstance, until they had made suitable laws for the right government of France. When the oath was sworn, each member took a pen and signed his name. There was only one man who refused,—a member from Languedoc; and him they declared to be "wrong in his head."

When the members had agreed to meet on the Monday following in the Recollets Church, they separated. Bailly had shown himself a worthy leader, and was at that hour the most popular man in France; but the court party were dreadfully vexed. When Monday came, myriads of people flocked into Versailles to see what might turn up. The king, perhaps alarmed, put off his ceremonial; and the Commons, in a solid body, marched to the church, where they found the one hundred and forty-nine Clergy awaiting them. There was a scene of much emotion, men embracing each other and shedding tears. The next day (a very rainy day) the king invited the States-General to enter the hall, where he made a speech. He declared his resolve that the three orders should vote separately. A number of articles were then read aloud, and the king said if they could, not agree upon them he would effect them himself. "Let each order," said he, "now depart, to meet to-morrow in its own place, to dispatch business." Then all filed out, except the Commons and those Clergy who had joined them.

It was now that Mirabeau showed himself as a leader of men. He rose to speak. While on his legs the Marquis de Breze interfered with, "Messieurs, you have heard the king's orders!"

Tennis court oath


"Yes," replied Mirabeau, "we have all heard what the king has been advised to say, but you are not the man to remind us of it. Go, sir, and tell those who sent you that we are here by the will of the people, and nothing but the force of bayonets shall drive us hence!"

It was not thought prudent to send soldiers to expel the audacious Commons; for they seemed inclined to show a mutinous spirit. A ruse was therefore tried. A posse of carpenters was sent into the hall to remove, with much hammering and noise, the platform. It was hoped their clatter would drown the orators, and stop the proceedings. But, lo! the carpenters, when they had worked a few minutes, stood open-mouthed on the platform, listening with wonder to the finest speaker they had ever heard. Mirabeau was now moving that the Commons were a National Assembly, and that any person who dared lay a finger on any member should be guilty of a capital crime. This was put to the meeting, and made a decree. Before the week was out the rest of the Clergy and the Nobles had joined the Commons, the king begging them to oblige him by yielding to what was clearly the popular will. It was the last day of June when the States-General were united in one house; and great was the joy and many the lighted torches carried about everywhere.

But though the king had yielded to the Commons, he had done it very unwillingly; and he still hoped to punish his rebellious subjects by means of the sword, if he could do it in no other way. Suspicion of his purpose was aroused by the marching of regiments and the rumbling of great guns. Cannon were pointed at the Assembly Hall, and the members were alarmed by the tramp of armed men and the never-ceasing tap of the drumstick on the drum. The general, named Broglie, had his headquarters in Versailles, and all the day long aides-de-camp were coming and going. Something was up, without a doubt, and some terrible damage would certainly have been done to the rebellious part of the States-General if it had not been for one fortunate thing, which was this,—the soldiers positively refused to draw trigger when their muskets were to be pointed at their brother Frenchmen! They made a solemn promise to each other in the ranks that they would never act against the National Assembly. In fact, the privates in the French army, having nothing to lose and all to gain, were as eager for change as the citizens, and quite ready to disobey their lordly officers if the orders given did not please them.