Front Page Titles (by Subject) V: The Tennis-Court Oath - Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
V: The Tennis-Court Oath - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Lectures on the French Revolution (LF ed.) 
Lectures on the French Revolution, ed. John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence, with a foreword by Steven J. Tonsor (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
About Liberty Fund:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
The Tennis-Court Oath
We saw last week that much time was spent in fruitless negotiation which ended in a deadlock—the Commons refusing to act except in conjunction with the other orders, and the others insisting on the separate action which had been prescribed by their instructions and by the king.
The Commons altered their policy under the influence of Sieyès, who advised that they should not wait for the others, but should proceed in their absence. In his famous pamphlet he had argued that they were really the nation, and had the right on their side. And his theory was converted into practice, because it now appeared that they had not only the right, but the power. They knew it, because the clergy were wavering. Thursday, June 18, the day after the proclamation of the National Assembly, was a festival. On Friday the clergy divided on the question of joining. The proposal was negatived, but twelve of its opponents stated that they would be on the other side if the vote in common extended only to the verification of returns. The minority at once accepted the condition, and so became the majority. Others thereupon acceded, and by six o’clock in the evening 149 ecclesiastics recorded their votes for the Commons. That 19th of June is a decisive date, for then the priests went over to the Revolution. The Commons, by a questionable and audacious act, had put themselves wrong with everybody when the inferior clergy abandoned the cause of privilege and came to their rescue.
The dauphin had lately died, and the royal family were living in retirement at Marly. At ten o’clock in the evening of the vote, the Archbishops of Paris and Rouen arrived there, described the event to the king, and comforted him by saying that the prelates, all but four, had remained true to their order. They were followed by a very different visitor, whom it behoved the king to hear, for he was a man destined to hold the highest offices of State under many governments, to be the foremost minister of the republic, the empire, and the monarchy, to predominate over European sovereigns at Vienna, over European statesmen in London, and to be universally feared, and hated, and admired, as the most sagacious politician in the world.
Talleyrand came to Marly at dead of night, and begged a secret audience of the king. He was not a favourite at court. He had obtained the see of Autun only at the request of the assembled clergy of France, and when the pope selected him for a cardinal’s hat, Lewis prevented his nomination. He now refused to see him, and sent him to his brother. The Count d’Artois was in bed, but the bishop was his friend, and was admitted. He said it was necessary that the Government should act with vigour. The conduct of the Assembly was illegal and foolish, and would ruin the monarchy unless the States-General were dissolved. Talleyrand would undertake, with his friends, some of whom came with him and were waiting below, to form a new administration. The Assembly, compromised and discredited by the recent outbreak, would be dismissed, a new one would be elected on an altered franchise, and a sufficient display of force would prevent resistance. Talleyrand proposed to reverse the policy of Necker, which he thought feeble and vacillating, and which had thrown France into the hands of Sieyès. With a stronger grasp he meant to restore the royal initiative, in order to carry out the constitutional changes which the nation expected.
The count put on his clothes, and carried the matter to the king. He detested Necker with his concessions, and welcomed the prospect of getting rid of him for a minister of his own making taken from his own circle. He came back with a positive refusal. Then Talleyrand, convinced that it was henceforth vain to serve the king, gave notice that every man must be allowed to shift for himself; and the count admitted that he was right. They remembered that interview after twenty-five years of separation, when one of the two held in his hands the crown of France, which the other, in the name of Lewis XVIII., came to receive from him.
The king repulsed Talleyrand because he had just taken a momentous resolution. The time had arrived which Necker had waited for, the time to interpose with a Constitution so largely conceived, so exactly defined, so faithfully adapted to the deliberate wishes of the people, as to supersede and overshadow the Assembly, with its perilous tumult and its prolonged sterility. He had proposed some such measure early in May, when it was rejected, and he did not insist. But now the policy unwisely postponed was clearly opportune. Secret advice came from liberal public men, urging the danger of the crisis, and the certainty that the Assembly would soon hurry to extremes. Mirabeau himself deplored its action, and Malouet had reason to expect a stouter resistance to the revolutionary argument and the sudden ascendency of Sieyès. The queen in person, and influential men at court, entreated Necker to modify his constitutional scheme; but he was unshaken, and the king stood by him. It was decided that the comprehensive measure intended to distance and annul the Assembly should be proclaimed from the throne on the following Monday.
This was the rock that wrecked the Talleyrand ministry, and it destroyed more solid structures than that unsubstantial phantom. The plan was statesmanlike, and it marks the summit of Necker’s career. But he neglected to communicate with men whom he might well have trusted, and the secret was fatal, for it was kept twelve hours too long. As the princes had refused the use of their riding-school, there were only three buildings dedicated to the States-General, instead of four, and the Commons, by reason of their numbers, occupied the great hall where the opening ceremony was held, and which had now to be made ready for the royal sitting.
Very early in the morning of Saturday, June 20, the president of the Assembly, the astronomer Bailly, received notice from the master of ceremonies that the hall was wanted, in order to be prepared for Monday, and that the meetings of the Commons were meanwhile suspended for that day. Bailly was not taken by surprise, for a friend, who went about with his eyes open, had warned him of what was going on. But the Assembly had formally adjourned to that day, the members were expecting the appointed meeting, and the message came too late. Bailly deemed that it was a studied insult, the angry retort of Government, and the penalty of the recent vote, and he inferred, most erroneously as we know, that the coming speech from the throne would be hostile. Therefore he gave all the solemnity he could to the famous scene that ensued. Appearing at the head of the indignant deputies, he was denied admission. The door was only opened that he might fetch his papers, and the National Assembly that represented France found itself, by royal command, standing outside on the pavement, at the hour fixed for its deliberations.
At that instant the doubts and divisions provoked by the overriding logic of Sieyès disappeared. Moderate and Revolutionist felt the same resentment, and had the same sense of being opposed by a power that was insane. There were some, and Sieyès among them, who proposed that they should adjourn to Paris. But a home was found in the empty Tennis Court hard by. There, with a view to baffle dangerous designs, and also to retrieve his own waning influence, Mounier assumed the lead. He moved that they should bind themselves by oath never to separate until they had given a Constitution to France; and all the deputies immediately swore it, save one, who added “Dissentient” to his name, and who was hustled out by a backdoor, to save him from the fury of his colleagues. This dramatic action added little to that which had been done three days earlier. The deputies understood that a Constituent Assembly must be single, that the legislative power had, for the purpose, been transferred to them, and could not be restrained or recalled. Their authority was not to be limited by an upper house, for both upper houses were absorbed; nor by the king, for they regarded neither his sanction nor his veto; nor by the nation itself, for they refused, by their oath, to be dissolved.
The real event of the Tennis Court was to unite all parties against the crown, and to make them adopt the new policy of radical and indefinite change, outdoing what Sieyès himself had done. The mismanagement of the court drove its friends into the van of the movement. The last Royalist defender of safe measures had vanished through the backdoor.
Malouet had tendered a clause saving the royal power; but it was decided not to put it, lest it should be refused. Mirabeau, in whose eyes the decree of the 17th portended civil war, now voted, reluctantly, with the rest.
Whilst the Assembly held its improvised and informal meeting at Versailles, the king sat in council at Marly on Necker’s magnanimous proposal. After a struggle, and with some damaging concessions, the minister carried his main points. They were gathering their papers, and making ready to disperse, when a private message was brought to the king. He went out, desiring them to wait his return. Montmorin turned to Necker and said, “It is the queen, and all is over.” The king came back, and adjourned the council to Monday at Versailles. And it was in this way that the report of what had happened that morning told upon the Government, and the enthusiasm of the Tennis Court frustrated the pondered measures of the most liberal minister in Europe. For it was, in truth, the queen, and in that brief interval it was decreed that France, so near the goal in that month of June, should wade to it through streams of blood during the twenty-five most terrible years in the history of Christian nations.
The council of ministers, which was adjourned in consequence of the meeting in the Tennis Court, went over to the noblesse, and restored in their interest the principles of the old régime. It resolved that the king should rescind the recent acts of the Assembly; should maintain inviolate the division of orders, allowing the option of debate in common only in cases where neither privilege nor the Constitution were affected; that he should confirm feudal rights and even fiscal immunities, unless voluntarily abandoned, and should deny admission to public employment irrespective of class. Necker’s adversaries prevailed, and the ancient bulwarks were set up again, in favour of the aristocracy.
Still, a portion of the great scheme was preserved, and the concessions on the part of the crown were such that some weeks earlier they would have been hailed with enthusiasm, and the consistent logic of free institutions exercises a coercive virtue that made many think that the King’s Speech of June 23 ought to have been accepted as the greater charter of France. That was the opinion of Arthur Young; of Gouverneur Morris, who had given the final touches to the American Constitution; of Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence; and afterwards even of Sieyès himself.
On this account, Necker wavered to the last moment, and on the Tuesday morning prepared to attend the king. His friends, his family, his daughter, the wonder of the age, made him understand that he could not sanction by his presence, at a solemn crisis, an act which reversed one essential half of his policy. He dismissed his carriage, took off his court suit, and left the vacant place to proclaim his fall. That evening he sent in his resignation. His significant absence; the peremptory language of the king; the abrogation of their decrees, which was effectual and immediate, while the compensating promises were eventual, and not yet equivalent to laws; the avowed resolve to identify the Crown with the nobles, struck the Assembly with consternation. The removal of the constitutional question to the list of matters to be debated separately was, in the existing conditions of antagonism, the end of free government. And indeed the position occupied by the king was untenable, because the division of orders into three Houses had already come to an end. For on Monday the 22nd, in the Church of St. Lewis, 149 ecclesiastical deputies, the Archbishops of Bordeaux and Vienne at their head, had joined the Commons. It was a step which they were legally authorised and competent to take, and the Revolution now had a majority not only of individual votes, but of orders. It was a forlorn hope, therefore, to separate them by compulsion.
Lewis XVI. ended by declaring that he was determined to accomplish the happiness of his people, and that if the deputies refused to co-operate he would accomplish it alone; and he charged them to withdraw. The Commons were in their own House, and, with the majority of the clergy, they resumed their seats, uncertain of the future. Their uncertainty was all at once auspiciously relieved. Dreux Brézé, the master of ceremonies, reappeared, and as he brought a message from the king he wore his plumed hat upon his head. With clamorous outcries he was told to uncover, and he uttered a reply so insolent that his son, describing the scene in public after many years, declined to repeat his words. Therefore, when he asked whether they had heard the king’s order to depart, he received a memorable lesson. Mirabeau exclaimed, “Yes, but if we are to be expelled, we shall yield only to force.” Brézé answered, correctly, that he did not recognise Mirabeau as the organ of the Assembly, and he turned to the president. But Bailly rose above Mirabeau, and said, “The nation is assembled here, and receives no orders.” At these words the master of ceremonies, as if suddenly aware of the presence of majesty, retired, walking backwards to the door. It was at that moment that the old order changed and made place for the new. For Sieyès, who possessed the good gift of putting a keen edge to his thoughts, who had begun his career in Parliament ten days before by saying, “It is time to cut the cables,” now spoke, and with superb simplicity thus defined the position: “What you were yesterday you are now. Let us pass to the order of the day.” In this way the monarchy, as a force distinct from a form, was not assailed, or abolished, or condemned, but passed over. Assault, abolition, condemnation were to follow, and already there were penetrating eyes that caught, in the distance, the first gleam of the axe. “The king,” said Mirabeau, “has taken the road to the scaffold.”
The abdication of prerogative, which the king offered on June 23, went far; but the people demanded surrender in regard to privilege. The Assembly, submitting to the geometrical reasoning of Sieyès and to the surprise of the Tennis Court, had frightened him into an alliance with the nobles, and he linked his cause to theirs. He elected to stand or fall with interests not his own, with an order which was powerless to help him, which could make no return for his sacrifice in their behalf, which was unable for one hour to defend itself, and was about to perish by its own hand. The failure of June 23 was immediately apparent. The Assembly, having dismissed Dreux Brézé, was not molested further. Necker consented to resume office, with greatly increased popularity. Under the influence of the royal declaration forty-seven nobles, being a portion only of the Liberal minority, went over to the Commons, and Talleyrand followed at the head of twenty-five prelates. Then the king gave way. He instructed the resisting magnates to join the National Assembly. In very sincere and solemn terms they warned him that by such a surrender he was putting off his crown. The Count d’Artois rejoined that the king’s life would be in danger if they persisted. There was one young nobleman rising rapidly to fame as a gracious and impressive speaker, whom even this appeal to loyal hearts failed to move. “Perish the monarch,” cried Cazalès, “but not the monarchy!”
Lewis underwent the humiliation of revoking, on June 27, what he had ceremoniously promulgated on the 23rd, because there was a fatal secret. Paris was agitated, and the people promised the deputies to stand by them at their need. But what could they effect at Versailles against the master of so many legions? Just then a mutiny broke out in the French guards, the most disciplined body of troops in the capital, and betrayed the key to the hollow and unstable counsels of the Government. The army could not be trusted. Necker suspected it as early as February. In the last week of June, the English, Prussian, and Venetian envoys report that the crown was disabled because it was disarmed. The regiments at hand would not serve against the national representatives. It was resolved to collect faithful bands of Swiss, Alsatians, and Walloons. Ten foreign regiments, near 30,000 men in all, were hurried to the scene. They were the last hope of royalism. Trusty friends were informed that the surrender was only to last until the frontier garrisons could be brought to Versailles. D’Artois confided to one of them that many heads must fall. And he uttered the sinister proverb which became historic in another tragedy: If you want an omelette you must not be afraid of breaking eggs.