On this day:
1789 – Deputies of the French Third Estate take the Tennis Court Oath.
On the 20th of June 1789, the members of the French Estates-General for the Third Estate, who had begun to call themselves the National Assembly, took the Tennis Court Oath (French: Serment du Jeu de Paume), vowing “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established.” It was a pivotal event in the early days of the French Revolution.
The Estates-General had been called to address the country’s fiscal and agricultural crisis, but immediately after convening in May 1789, they had become bogged down in issues of representation—particularly, whether they would vote by head (which would increase the power of the Third Estate) or by order.
On 17 June, the Third Estate, led by the comte de Mirabeau, began to call themselves the National Assembly. On the morning of 20 June, the deputies were shocked to discover that the chamber door was locked and guarded by soldiers. Immediately fearing the worst and anxious that a royal attack by King Louis XVI was imminent, the deputies congregated in a nearby indoor jeu de palme court in the Saint-Louis district of the city of Versailles, near the Palace of Versailles.
There, 576 of the 577 members from the Third Estate took a collective oath “not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established”. The only person who did not join was Joseph Martin-Dauch from Castelnaudary, who would only execute decisions made by the king.
This oath would come to have major significance in the revolution as the Third Estate would constantly continue to protest to have more representation. Some historians have argued that, given political tensions in France at that time, the deputies’ fears, even if wrong, were reasonable and that the importance of the oath goes above and beyond its context.
The oath was both a revolutionary act, and an assertion that political authority derived from the people and their representatives rather than from the monarch himself. Their solidarity forced Louis XVI to order the clergy and the nobility to join with the Third Estate in the National Assembly in order to give the illusion that he controlled the National Assembly. This oath would prove vital to the Third Estate as a step of protest that would eventually lead to more power in the Estates General, and every governing body thereafter.
The Oath signified for the first time that French citizens formally stood in opposition to Louis XVI, and the National Assembly’s refusal to back down forced the king to make concessions. It was foreshadowed by, and drew considerably from, the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence, especially the preamble. The Oath also inspired a wide variety of revolutionary activity in the months afterwards, ranging from rioting across the French countryside to renewed calls for a written French constitution. Likewise, it reinforced the Assembly’s strength and forced the King to formally request that voting occur based on head, not power. The Tennis Court Oath, which was taken in June 1789, preceded the 4 August 1789 abolition of feudalism and the 26 August 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.
Born on this day:
1763 – Wolfe Tone, Irish rebel leader (d. 1798)
Theobald Wolfe Tone, posthumously known as Wolfe Tone (20 June 1763 – 19 November 1798), was a leading Irish revolutionary figure and one of the founding members of the United Irishmen, and is regarded as the father of Irish republicanism and leader of the 1798 Irish Rebellion. He was captured at Letterkenny port on 3 November 1798.
Theobald Wolfe Tone was born on 20 June 1763. The Tones were descended from a French Protestant family who fled to England from Gascony in the 16th century to escape religious persecution. A branch of the family settled in Dublin in the 17th century. Theobald’s father Peter Tone was a Church of Ireland coach-maker who had a farm near Sallins, County Kildare. His mother came from a Catholic merchant family who converted to Protestantism after Theobald was born. His maternal grandfather was captain of a vessel in the West India trade.
He was baptised as Theobald Wolfe Tone in honour of his godfather, Theobald Wolfe of Blackhall, County Kildare, a first cousin of Arthur Wolfe, 1st Viscount Kilwarden. However, it was widely believed that Tone was the son of Theobald Wolfe, which if true made him a half-brother of the poet Charles Wolfe.
In 1783, Tone found work as a tutor to Anthony and Robert, younger half-brothers of Richard Martin MP of Galway, a prominent supporter of Catholic Emancipation. Tone fell in love with Martin’s wife, but later wrote that it came to nothing. During this period he briefly considered a career in the theatre as an actor.
He studied law at Trinity College, Dublin, where he became active in the College Historical Society debating club, and was elected its auditor in 1785. He graduated BA in February 1786. He qualified as a barrister in King’s Inns at the age of 26 and attended the Inns of Court in London. As a student, he eloped with Martha Witherington, daughter of William and Catherine Witherington (née Fanning) of Dublin. She would go on to change her name to Matilda, on Wolfe Tone’s request.
Disappointed at finding no support for a plan that he had submitted to William Pitt the Younger, to found a military colony in Hawaii, Tone initially planned to enlist as a soldier in the East India Company, but applied too late in the year, when no more ships would be sent out until the following spring.
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In September 1791 Tone published An Argument on behalf of the Catholics of Ireland, signed “A Northern Whig”. “A Northern Whig” emphasised the growing breach between Whig patriots like Henry Flood and Henry Grattan, who sought Catholic emancipation and parliamentary reform without severing the tie to England, and those who desired an independent Irish Republic. Tone expressed contempt for the constitution Grattan so triumphantly extorted from the British government in 1782; himself an Anglican, Tone urged co-operation between the religions in Ireland as the only means of obtaining redress of Irish grievances.
In October 1791 Tone converted these ideas into practical policy by founding, in conjunction with Thomas Russell (1767–1803), Napper Tandy and others, the Society of the United Irishmen. Until 1794, this society aimed at no more than the formation of a political union between Catholics and Protestants, with a view to obtaining a liberal measure of parliamentary reform. In 1792 he was appointed assistant secretary of the Catholic Committee.
The Catholics involved were not united regarding the steps they were taking, and in December 1791, sixty-eight members withdrew, led by Lord Kenmare, with the support of the higher clergy. When the British government questioned the legality of the Catholic Convention called in December 1792, Tone drew up for the committee a statement of the case on which a favourable opinion of counsel was obtained. A petition was made to King George III early in 1793, and that year the re-enfranchisement of Catholics was enacted – if they owned property as “forty shilling freeholders”. They could not, however, enter parliament or be made state officials above grand jurors. The Convention voted to Tone a sum of £1,500 with a gold medal and voted to dissolve.
Sectarian animosity threatened to undermine the United Irishmen movement: two secret societies in Ulster fought against each other, the agrarian Protestant Peep o’ Day Boys and their Catholic opponents the Defenders.
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