Episode 10: The National Assembly


Episode 10, ‘The National Assembly’, explores how the Estates General transforms itself into the National Assembly, how the dramatic Tennis Court Oath is undertaken, and how the Court responds to the renegade Third Estate.

Parisian Deputies

On the 3rd of June 1789, a new element was added to the deadlock at Versailles between the Third Estate and the privileged orders. The deputies of Paris finally arrived.  The city elected individuals with unashamedly progressive agendas, and once the Parisian deputies arrived in Versailles they were eager to push on with the revolution.

On the day of their arrival the astronomer Jean-Sylvain Bailly was promptly elected the Dean of the Third Estate, which at this point in time was referring to itself as the Commons. He was accompanied by a man with an international reputation, Abbe Sieyes. Sieyes had penned a pamphlet that would secure his place in history in January 1789. Titled “What is the Third Estate”, it is debatably the most influential and important of all the political pamphlets of 1789. In it, he makes clear that the Third Estate is the nation, and as such, sovereignty lies with its representatives. Upon reading it, Mirabeau claimed, “Ah, so there is at least one man left in France”. It can be summarised with just a key exert, its beginning:

“What is the Third State? Everything.

What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing.

What does it want to be? Something….”

A week after his arrival, Sieyes proposed a way to break the deadlock that had gripped Versailles for a month. His proposal was the very definition of radical. Sieyes proposed that the Commons would inform the other two orders that in two days time, they would begin verification by themselves for the entire Estates General. Should the delegates of the First and Second Estate refuse to attend, they would be marked as absent, and proceedings would continue without them.

The Estates General and the Public Galleries

Sieyes had an all-powerful weapon to help him whip the votes for his controversial idea. Members of the public had been allowed to watch the deadlock unfold for the last month. They sat in the galleries, they loitered outside meeting halls, they walked between and mingled with the deputies when debates were adjourned. What this meant was that the public audience had power. Particularly, the power to shut down debate. When a deputy voiced an unpopular opinion, his opinion was drowned out by disapproving protests from the galleries. When a deputy voiced a popular opinion, he could expect spontaneous cheers and applause.

“The spectators in the galleries are allowed to interfere in the debates by clapping their hands, and other noisy expressions of approbation: this is grossly indecent; it is also dangerous; for, if they are permitted to express approbation, they are, by parity of reason, allowed expressions of dissent; and they may hiss as well as clap; which it is said, they have sometimes done:—this would be, to overrule the debate and influence the deliberations.” – Arthur Young

Historian Hippolyte Taine disagrees with Arthur Young. Taine believes the mob’s ability to shut down debate, and thus empower the radical leadership, was far more significant than Young describes.

“These were not respectful and silent, but active and noisy, mingling with the deputies, raising their hands to vote in all cases, taking part in the deliberations, by their applause and hisses: a collateral Assembly which often imposes its own will on the other. He goes on to say, Owing to this intervention of the galleries the radical minority, numbering about thirty, lead the majority, and they do not allow them to free themselves.” – Historian Hippolyte Taine

Anyone who hoped to stop Sieyes from his illegal verification process had to contend with a vocal and intimidating gallery.

An Unavoidable Conclusion?

Despite the crowd,  it’s worth noting the view of Historian John Dalberg-Acton. Dalberg-Acton argues that the Third Estate had no choice but to follow Sieyes down a radical path anyway. He argues that only a radical solution could have broken the deadlock and allow the Commons to achieve its goal of one unified chamber. Perhaps earlier such radical solution could have been avoided, but the month-long deadlock by mid-June made compromise unobtainable.

“There was nothing more to be done. The arts of peace were exhausted. A deliberate breach with legality could alone fulfil the national decree. The country had grown tired of dilatory tactics and prolonged inaction. Conciliation, tried by the Commons, by the clergy, and by the Government, had been vain. The point was reached where it was necessary to choose between compulsion and surrender, and the Commons must either employ the means at their command to overcome resistance, or go away confessing that the great movement had broken down in their hands, and that the people had elected the wrong men. Inaction and delay had not been a policy, but the preliminary of a policy.” – Historian John Dalberg-Acton

And so, the radical minority, currently led by Sieyes amongst others, began on the 12th of June their illegal, unilateral verification.

Verification Conducted

On the 14th of June, three cures from the Cherigny defected from the First Estate and joined the Third for common verification. The leader of these three holy men, a man named Jallet, initially couldn’t even afford to go to Versailles as a delegate. Only through donations could Jallet manage to attend – and fuel a revolution. The next day six more priests defected, the day after ten. With more defections whispered to be imminent, it was proposed that the Commons make another radical move. It was proposed that they usurp more power, and declare themselves to be the only body that truly held French sovereignty.

The National Assembly

On the 17th of June, in a vote 490 to 90, the Commons officially declared itself “The National Assembly”. The 90 votes in opposition are noteworthy. The vote’s strong majority implies significant support for the Assembly’s declaration. Historian Hippolyte Taine believes otherwise. Taine reminds his readers that the key factor that enabled Sieyes, Mirabeau, and others to push for the National Assembly’s declaration was the public galleries. Taine argues that only because of the intimidation, participation, interruption of the crowd did this vote win by such a convincing margin.

“The night before, Malouet had proposed to ascertain, by a preliminary vote, on which side the majority was.  In an instant all those against had gathered around him to the number of three hundred. “Upon which a mans springs out from the galleries, falls upon him and takes him by the collar exclaiming, ‘Hold your tongue, you false citizen!’ ” Malouet is released and the guard comes forward, “but terror has spread through the hall, threats are uttered against opponents, and the next day [they] were only ninety.” Moreover, the lists of their names had been circulated; some of them, deputies from Paris, went to see Bailly that very evening.  One amongst them, “a very honest man and good patriot,” had been told that his house was to be set on fire.” – Historian Hippolyte Taine

Perhaps the support of the Assembly’s declaration was not as large as it appears. History is grey after all.

On the 18th of June in a letter to Maddison, American Ambassador Thomas Jefferson acknowledged the grim reality: “We shall know I think within a day or two whether the government will risk a bankruptcy and civil war rather than see all distinction of orders done away with which is what the Commons will push for.”

The First Estates responded before the government could. On the 19th, the First Estate voted 149 to 137 to join with the rogue delegates in the Third and unite with the National Assembly.

Tennis Court Oath

On the 20th of June, the deputies of the National Assembly found their meeting hall guarded and locked. According to Jefferson, there was a proclamation posted on the door which stated that all meetings were suspended until the Séance royale on the 22nd. To the deputies, this smelt like a royal coup. At the suggestion of Deputy named Guillotin, the Assembly of some 600 odd deputies gathered in a nearby tennis court, and began to deliberate on how to respond to the situation. Proclaiming the closure of their meeting hall to be the first steps of royal reaction, Abbe Sieyes argued that only Paris could protect the deputies. As a result, he started building support for the Assembly to uproot itself from Versailles and relocate to Paris. Some saw relocation as a step too far, and the moderate Mounier seized the initiative. Mounier proposed, “that all members of this assembly should immediately take a solemn oath never to separate but to gather wherever circumstances required until the constitution of the kingdom was established and set on solid foundations.” So began the Tennis Court Oath. With Bailly standing on a door that had been ripped from its hinges and converted into a table, every deputy but one declared their oath of allegiance.

With the Assembly having sworn its sacred vow, The Tennis Court Oath crystallized the events of the previous days. Arthur Young writes the following the day after the Tennis Court Oath:

“The step the commons have taken of declaring themselves the national assembly, independent of the other orders, and of the king himself, precluding a dissolution, is in fact an assumption of all the authority in the kingdom. They have at one stroke converted themselves into the long parliament of Charles I. It needs not the assistance of much penetration to see that if such a pretension and declaration are not done away, king, lords, and clergy are deprived of their shares in the legislature of France. So bold, and apparently desperate a step, full in the teeth of every other interest in the realm, equally destructive to the royal authority, by parliaments and the army, can never be allowed. If it is not opposed, all other powers will lie in ruins around that of the common.”

Séance Royale

On the 23rd of June, having delayed the event for a day, the séance royale occurred.

Arthur Young describes the situation the morning  before the hotly anticipated meeting:

“In the morning Versailles seemed filled with troops: the streets, about ten o’clock, were lined with the French guards, and some Swiss regiments, : the hall of the states was surrounded, and sentinels fixed in all the passages, and at the doors; and none but deputies admitted. This military preparation was ill-judged, for it seemed admitting the impropriety and unpopularity of the intended measure, and the expectation, perhaps fear of popular commotions. They pronounced, before the king left the chateau, that his plan was adverse to the people, from the military parade with which it was ushered in.”

The King, backed by an armed show of force,  made his will undeniably clear. In the eyes of the King, the National Assembly was both unconstitutional and illegal. Its decrees, including its claims on taxation, were null and void. The Estates must sit as they had done in 1614. To add insult to injury, the King even refused to unconditionally guarantee freedom of the press, the abolishment of taxation exception for the privileged orders, and the retirement of letters de cachet. The King’s will was made known, and if the military presence outside was not enough to intimidate the deputies, his speech ended with a clear threat:

“If, by a fatality far from my mind, you abandon me in such a fine undertaking, I shall act alone for the good of my peoples; I shall alone consider myself their true representative…”

With the King’s orders given, the Grand Master of Ceremonies, taking over from his majesty, ordered the Third to leave the hall. The Third, however, refused to leave their seats. After words were exchanged between the Grand Master and Bailly, Mirabeau took up the mantle after Bailly was done defending their insubordination. In responding to Grand Master of Ceremonies questions about why the Third was not following the orders of the King, Mirabeau, delivered a speech that set the printing presses of Paris into overdrive:

“Yes, Sir, we have heard the intentions that have been suggested to the king, and you who can by no means be his organ in the Estates-General, you who have neither place here, nor vote, nor right to speak, it is not for you to remind us of his words; if you have been instructed to expel us from here, you must ask for orders to use force, as only the power of bayonets can drive us from our seats.”

Unreliable Troops

“On that day the royal authority was lost. The initiative in law and moral power passed from the monarch to the assembly.” – Historian Francois Mignet

With the Third willing to spill blood, the government decided to back down and not follow through on its implied threat of violence. The King lamented, “Let them stay.”

The King’s back down was driven in part by unreliable military forces. Within a couple of days of the Seance Royale, Thomas Jefferson wrote that the troops “began to quit their barracks, to assemble in squads, to declare that they would defend the life of the king, but would not cut the throats of their fellow citizens”? He then stated that there was “no doubt on which side they would be in case of a rupture.”

The Ambassador of Saxony also recorded this disintegration of discipline within the armed forces, who were now loyal to the crowd and their National Assembly:

“On Thursday [25 June] the soldiers of the regiment of gardes-francaises left their barracks and scattered across Paris, bands of them going into all public places and shouting: Long live the king, Long Live the Third. Fearing a general revolt, no one dared to stop them.” He continues “The loyalty of the foreign regiments is also becoming suspect. The bourgeois are seducing them, and the Swiss os Salis-Samade camped at Issy and Vaugirard have assured their hosts that if they were ordered to march they would disable the mechanisms of their muskets.” – The Ambassador of Saxony


With the King’s troops unreliable, and the National Assembly refusing to disavow its oath, there was little the court could do. The monarchy watched helplessly as the 151 members of the First Estate joined the Third on the 24th, the day after the Séance Royal. The following day, the same day that the gardes-francaises abandon their barracks in Paris, 47 liberal nobles join the National Assembly, led by the King’s own cousin, the Duc of Orleans. Another 70 or so liberal nobles, including Lafayette, had desires to join, but wanted to wait until the King gave them permission to do so. Soon afterward he did just that, and on the 27th of June ordered all deputies to sit as one.

“The whole business now seems over, and the revolution complete. The king has been frightened by the mobs into overturning his own act of the seance royale, by writing to the presidents of the orders of the nobility and clergy, requiring them to join the commons,—full in the teeth of what he had ordained before. It was represented to him, that the want of bread was so great in every part of the kingdom, that there was no extremity to which the people might not be driven: that they were nearly starving,  and consequently ready to listen to any suggestions, and on the qui vive for all sorts of mischief: that Paris and Versailles would inevitably be burnt; and in a word, that all sorts of misery and confusion would follow his adherence to the system announced in the seance royale.” – Arthur Young

Grey History