The Tennis Court Oath: 20 June 1789The Estates General (May-June 1789) The Tennis Court Oath (17-20 June 1789) The Storming of the Bastille (14 July 1789) The End of Feudalism (4 August 1789) The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (26 August 1789) The Abolition of Slavery (4 February 1794)
We owe Revolutionary France the abolition of feudalism (4 August 1789), the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789), a rather ugly separation of State and Church, the abolition of the tithe (one tenth of one’s yearly income paid to the Church) and a temporary abolition of slavery (4 February 1994). Napoleon revived slavery, but the struggle for the abolition of the slave trade and slavery had acquired a momentum of its own. It could not be stopped. Haiti declared its independence in 1804.
In other words, Revolutionary France adopted John Locke‘s theory of the natural rights of man to life, liberty and property. The Estates General were convened for the first time since 1614. However, one morning, the delegates to the already embattled Estates-General found themselves locked out of the room where the future of France was being discussed.
Undeterred, the delegates regrouped in an indoor jeu de paume: a tennis court, and made an oath that may well have ended Absolute Monarchy. It happened unofficially, but the people of France (peasants and a growing middle-class, i.e. the Third Estate), made an oath that showed genuine resolve.
I rather doubt that the delegates realized the importance of their oath, but they were of a mind that precluded the continuation of absolutism. Never again would l’État be the king’s playground: “l’État, c’est moi” (Louis XIV). Let me tell that story.
The Tennis Court Oath: Jeu de paume (June 1789)Tennis Court Oath Le Serment du Jeu de paume L’Assemblée générale
Church, Nobility and the Third Estate (le tiers-état)
On 20 June 1789, 577 members of the Third Estate, the first and second being the Church (l’Église) and the Nobility (la noblesse), took refuge in an indoor tennis court, a jeu de paume[i] and, fearing the worst, 576 of the 577 delegates to the Estates General constituted a General Assembly and made an oath of solidarity remembered as the Tennis Court Oath. They swore
not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and affirmed on solid foundations. Such was the ‘spirit’[ii] of the Revolution.
(See Tennis Court Oath, Wikipedia)
The Storming of the Bastille, 14 July 1789The Storming of the Bastille (14 July 1789) The Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (26 August 1789) The Abolition of Feudalism (4 August 1789) The Convention (1792 – 1795) The “Terror”
The Revolution had just begun, and it had begun peacefully. This would change. On 14 July 1989, citizens stormed the Bastille in disorderly fashion, but a few weeks later, on 26 August 1789, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was proclaimed, in orderly fashion. The pendulum had swung but it would swing again culminating in the “Terror” (1793 – 1794).
During the “Terror,” heads fell incessantly; approximately 16,000 citizens were guillotined in a period of nine months, in Paris alone. By the summer of 1894, the Revolution had in fact, turned into the tyrant it was pursuing. The Convention (1792-1795) dissolved itself on 26 October 1795 having ended the “Terror.” Some view the execution of Maximilien de Robespierre (6 May 1758 – 28 July 1794 and Louis-Antoine-Léon de Saint-Just (25 August 1767 – 28 July 1794), called Saint-Just, as the end of the Revolution. But France had guillotined Louis XVI, so its Revolution could no longer lead to the constitutional monarchy envisaged by the signatories of the Tennis Court Oath.
The Republic’s next government would be the Directoire, the Directory (1795-1799), which is currently looked upon as the last phase of a revolution that both betrayed and served the ideals of the Enlightenment. France did not have a constitution “established and affirmed on solid foundations,” so the program set forth by the Tennis Court Oath was still unfolding. In fact, the fledgling Republic was at war.
The Levée en masse: Conscription
The Royal family had attempted to flee, but was arrested at Varennes on 21 June 1791. (See Flight to Varennes, Wikipedia.) However, France was being attacked by ‘enemies,’ outside and inside its boundaries. Therefore, on 23 August 1793 a levée en masse (conscription) of some 800,000 men was called. European countries, monarchies, opposed the French Revolution and, particularly, the detention of Louis XVI, Marie-Antoinette and their two children. Marie-Antoinette was the sister of the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold II. Leopold did little for his sister. Yet France was attacked and it was on the attack. Moreover, the Revolution was a civil war.
A levée en masse may have seemed a duty to some, but to others, Royalists, it was an affliction. The people of the Vendée could not be persuaded to betray the monarchy. They therefore opposed levées en masse such as the conscription ordered on 23 August 1793, thereby causing other levées en masse. It is at this point that Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, or Alex Dumas, would be called upon to suppress Monarchist rebellions in the Vendée, Brittany. The War in the Vendée or la Chouannerie is now considered the first modern genocide.
The End of the First RepublicThermidorian Reaction (end of the “Terror”) The Directory (November 1795 – November 1799) 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799; coup d’état) The Consulate
In short, the Revolution played itself out beyond the Thermidorian Reaction (27 July 1794) that ended the Convention (1792-1795). It continued through the Directory, from November 1795 until 10 November 1799, at which point Napoléon’s coup d’état of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799) created the Consulat, with Napoleon as first Consul. So the French Revolution ended officially on 18 Brumaire, or 9 November 1799, except that, in 1804, Napoleon made himself an emperor.
The French Revolution shook Europe profoundly, the “Terror” especially. That was a sin. Yet l’Ancien Régime was deeply flawed. Feudalism alone dictated a new order and the Third Estate had to be heard.
Therefore, although Napoleon made himself an Emperor, the Ancien Régime ended in both 1799 and June 1789, the day 576 delegates, members of the Third Estate, called themselves an Assembly and swore “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established and affirmed on solid foundations.” (See the Tennis Court Oath, Wikipedia.)
On 4 August 1789, the Assembly, called the Constituent National Assembly, “decreed the abolition of the feudal regime and of the tithe.” On 26 August 1789 “it introduced the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, proclaiming liberty, equality, the inviolability of property, and the right to resist oppression.”[iii] Finally, on 4 February 1994, slavery was abolished.
The Tennis Court Oath, was a strong expression of the indomitable “spirit” of Revolutionary France and much had been achieved. But the ideals of the Revolution, i.e. liberté, égalité, fraternité were perhaps too lofty. Or is it that humankind is too imperfect?
Moreover, what of Napoleon who was about to turn himself into an Emperor? Had anything changed? Allow me to close by quoting Britannica:
“The Revolutionary legacy for Napoleon consisted above all in the abolition of the ancien régime’s most archaic features—“feudalism,” seigneurialism, legal privileges, and provincial liberties.”
“Napoleon also accepted the Revolutionary principles of civil equality and equality of opportunity, meaning the recognition of merit.”[iv]
- Fordham University: Levée en masse, 23 August 1793
- F. A. M. Miguet’s History of the French Revolution from 1789 to 1814 is a Project Gutenberg publication [EBook #9602]
[i] The word paume, the palm of the hand, would suggest that tennis had rather humble, and somewhat painful, beginnings.
[iii] “French Revolution.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 07 Feb. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/219315/French-Revolution>.
[iv] “France.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2014. Web. 07 Feb. 2014. <http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/215768/France>.
—ooo—Ludwig van Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat Major, Op. 73 “Emperor”: Adagio un poco mosso” Hélène Grimaud (piano) Paavo Järvi (conductor) Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra © Micheline Walker 8 February 2014 WordPress