June 20, 2012 - Anniversary of the “Tennis Court Oath”

The “Tennis Court Oath” had nothing to do with tennis. Or any other sport, for that matter.

The oath was a 1789 pact made by 576 of the 577 Frenchmen who represented commoners in France's governing body, the Estates-General. These Frenchmen, called the Third Estate, thought that they had been locked out of the Estates-General, which also included the First Estate (priests) and the Second Estate (nobles)—but the hall was probably just locked because the king was mourning the death of his son. Not knowing why they were locked out, the members of the Third Estate made an indoor tennis court into a conference room and made a promise that they would stay assembled together until France had a written constitution.

Can you spot the one guy who disagreed with the oath,
sitting with his head down on the right side of the group?

This was the first time that French citizens had formally opposed their king, Louis XVI. The group called itself the National Assembly, and it put forth the idea that political authority came from the people who were ruled rather than from the king. About a week after the Tennis Court Oath was written and signed, the king called for a meeting of the Estates-General in order to write a constitution.

(However, if you know your French history, you may remember that things didn't go smoothly. The king tried to hold onto his absolute authority, the rebellion against his rule got violent, and not only was Louis XVI executed, but his queen and a whole lot of other people were executed as well! It was a bad scene for a while there...)

Reading about the Tennis Court Oath made me realize once again how often a misunderstanding—in this case, thinking that someone was locking the group out as a power move when it wasn't the case—can make a situation worse. Let's use our words, assume the best (yet prepare for the worst), and investigate non-violent solutions.

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