The Oath of the Tennis Court was a vow taken in June 1789 by opponents of the French government, which was then headed by a king. They agreed to form a representative government called the French national assembly and to write their own constitution (a document that specifies a country's laws). The Oath of the Tennis Court set in motion the series of events that resulted in the French Revolution (1789–99), the movement that led to the overthrow of the monarchy (government headed by a single ruler).
French society had long been divided into three classes called "estates." Members of the clergy were the first estate; the nobility (landowners) comprised the second estate; and everyone else, including the middle class (businessmen) and peasants (farm workers and laborers) belonged to the third estate. Social unrest began when philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712–1778) challenged the supreme authority of King Louis XVI (1754–1793), claiming that the right to rule came from the people and not from God. At that time monarchs claimed they were divinely appointed, or chosen by God, and therefore could not be challenged. Rousseau's idea not only fueled the discontent of downtrodden peasants but also appealed to the prosperous middle class, who were members of the third estate. Although the middle class paid most of the taxes, they were given no voice in running the government because power remained in the hands of the king and the first and second estates.
By 1789 the French government was facing a financial crisis brought on by war expenses. Louis XVI reluctantly convened a meeting of the representatives of all three estates, called the Estates General, on May 5, 1789, at Versailles, the site of the royal government. The Estates General had not been convened since 1614. During the meeting the third estate attempted to seize power from the nobility, the clergy, and the king. They proposed that all three estates be combined into a national assembly in which each member had one vote. The third estate would have an obvious advantage, since it had as many representatives as the other two estates combined. The plan was to give the people a voice. The proposal failed, however, so third-estate representatives met on a Versailles tennis court, where they vowed to change the government. When Louis XVI sent out troops to break up the meeting, an armed resistance movement began forming in defiance of his actions. The situation reached a crisis point on July 14, 1789, when a mob of revolutionaries stormed the Bastille prison in Paris, thus starting the French Revolution and the eventual overthrow of the monarchy.
Further Information: Hardman, John. Louis XVI. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1994; Hardman, John. Louis XVI: The Silent King. New York: Arnold, 2000; "Oath of the Tennis Court." The French Revolution. [Online] Available http://www.woodberry.org/acad/hist/FRWEB/OATH/event_oath.htm, October 25, 2000.