The Tennis Court Oath by Jacques-Louis David.

The Tennis Court Oath by Jacques-Louis David.

In the spring of 1789, France was crippled by financial crisis.

King Louis XVI called for a meeting of the Estates General – equal numbers of representatives from the nobility, clergy, and Third Estate (that is to say, everyone else) – to help him resolve the situation.

No French King had convened the Estates General for over 150 years.  So, new delegates to the counseling body had to be selected from all corners of the country. 

In June, 12,000 delegates to the Estates General arrived at Versailles, each sporting the dress of their social class:

The Third Estate wore plain black suits and three corner hats. The nobility were bedecked in silks and plumes. The clergy shouldered their traditional violet vestments. 

They came to help resolve France’s financial problems. They came to usher in a new, golden age for France. They carried with them the hope and optimism of the entire French nation. 

Confidence reigned.

But it quickly soured.

The Third Estate demanded more voting power. They did, after all, represent 96% of the French population. But they had only as many votes as the clergy and nobility, and these two always voted with the monarchy. 

The demand of the Third Estate did not sit well with the King. On 20 June, he locked them out of the meeting.

With the hopes and dreams of the entire nation weighing heavily on their shoulders, the Third Estate refused to leave Versailles. They held their own meeting in the king’s indoor games court, the Jeu de Paume, the only place big enough to accommodate their numbers and shelter them from the storm that raged like their fury with the old regime.

They proclaimed themselves “the true representatives of the French people.” They named themselves The National Assembly, an assembly not of the Estates, but of “The People”: France’s new government.

Forty-seven nobles and many clergy as well left the king’s meeting to join the National Assembly, among them Louis-Philippe Joseph II, Duc d’Orleans. They pledged an oath to write France her first constitution. 

It seemed the Revolution was won.

But King Louis XVI was not so quick to recognize France’s new, self-proclaimed government. Where did it put him? Where did it leave his son, the dauphin, the future King of France?  As he awaited the new constitution, he grew anxious of the rumble back in Paris. He sent troops to surround the city.

Parisians grew scared of the weapons now pointing at them.

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