Sovereignty at Stake in 1789: The French Revolution Begins

By Robert H. Blackman

What do historians mean when they say that sovereignty moved from King Louis XVI of France to the National Assembly on 17 June 1789? That was the date when the deputies of the Third Estate, along with a score of deputies from the clergy, constituted themselves and undertook to nationalize and guarantee the royal debt. Is sovereignty purely symbolic, or is it something political bodies have that can actually do things, i.e. bodies that can both declare policies and put them into action? My book, 1789: The French Revolution Begins, illustrates that a declaration of sovereignty is one thing and the actual embodiment of sovereignty is another. If the deputies of the Third Estate declared the nation sovereign on 17 June 1789 (and I have my doubts that they did), the assembly they founded certainly did not enjoy sovereign power until much later. It took them months of struggle, both with the more conservative deputies of the noble and clerical orders and with Louis XVI and his advisors, to establish the National Assembly as a body that could write a constitution for France and oversee the implementation of the reforms necessary to save France from the terrible threats of anarchy or despotism.

Engraving of the opening of the Estates General of 1789, held in Versailles.
Ouverture des États Généraux à Versailles.
Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque national de France.
Louis XVI opened the Estates General of 1789 on 5 May with a formal ceremony held in the main hall of the Salle des Menus Plaisirs de Roi in Versailles. The Third Estate later met in the same room, with the Nobles and Clergy assigned different rooms nearby.

My work focuses on the early months of the French Revolution, reconstructing vitally important debates in the Estates General and the National Assembly from the time the deputies first met in Versailles on 6 May 1789 to their decision to place the goods of the French Catholic Church at the disposal of the nation on 2 November of that same year. I also discuss the history of the Estates General and the run-up to the first meeting of that body in 175 years, focusing on how perception of that body’s powers had changed in the latter half of the eighteenth century. It was during these first seven months of the Revolution, from May to November 1789, that effective sovereignty transferred from king to nation in a series of stages, each marked by major debates in the Assembly over the extent of its powers and its relationship to the king.

Nevertheless, figuring out what happened on a given day or during a given debate in the Estates General and its successor bodies is no simple task. Historians have tended to use the same incomplete and often inaccurate source for these early debates, in part because the Estates General and the National Assembly did not keep good records during this period. For close to 150 years, historians have relied on the Archives Parlementaires, occasionally supplemented by well-known memoirs written long after the events had occurred.[1] These sources are best used with caution. The Archives Parlementaires is a mid-nineteenth-century attempt to create a parliamentary record, not a record produced by the assemblies themselves. For the first months of the Revolution, the Archives Parlementaires is incomplete at best and misleading at worst. Many important speeches do not appear, or only appear in summary. Entire debates do not appear at all. The deputies spoke in front of a rowdy audience in a room ill-suited for debate. Deputies had great difficulty making themselves heard and understood. In order to understand how their speeches influenced the decisions made in the Estates General and the National Assembly I consulted a broad array of contemporary sources, hoping to recapture the lively give-and-take of the early debates. I relied by preference on seldom used documents to study the deputies’ words and actions: accounts of the debates found in the letters deputies wrote to their friends, families, and constituents, in contemporary deputies’ diaries, in newspaper articles written by deputies, and reports by other eyewitnesses recorded at or near the time of the events described.

Engraving of the Tennis Court Oath. One person stands on a chair to administer the oath, while the crowd listens.
Serment prèté dans le Jeu de paume.
Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
An engraving of the event from 1789. Note the presence of an audience. Jean-Sylvain Bailly stands on a chair to administer the oath.

A careful study of contemporary sources describing the debates shows that throughout the spring, summer, and fall of 1789, moderate deputies routinely pushed back against radical proposals of all kinds and led their colleagues to compromise. A fine example is the debate that followed Louis XVI’s decision to suspend the Estates General on 20 June 1789 so that he could hold a Royal Session at which he would respond to the failure of the Estates to come to order. The dramatic decision of the National Assembly to swear the Tennis Court Oath, declaring that they would never part until a constitution for France had been written, is rightly understood as a revolutionary step. Few historians appreciate, however, that this action represented a middle path among the proposals heard on that day. When the Third Estate deputies had arrived at the hall in which they usually met on 20 June 1789, they found the doors barred and guarded by troops. Infuriated, they moved to a nearby indoor tennis court, where they held a passionate debate over what to do. The radical abbé Emmanuel Sieyès proposed that the deputies move from Versailles to Paris, where their supporters could protect them from the king. Soon after, the conservative deputies Pierre-Victor Malouet and Joseph Martin-Dauch insisted that any action the Assembly took had to be subject to the approval of the king. It was the center-right deputy Jean-Joseph Mounier who proposed that they swear an oath laying out the independent powers of the Assembly, and he refused to amend it to make it subject to the king’s approval. Nevertheless, his motion halted any debate over Sieyès’s proposal that the body decamp to Paris, an action sure to escalate the confrontation between the Third Estate and the king.

Engraving of the National Assembly. Deputies are sitting in a circle, an audience is watching.
Constitution de l’Assemblée nationale.
Image courtesy of the Bibliothèque nationale de France.
Jean-Sylvain Bailly leads the deputies as they declare themselves the National Assembly on 17 June 1789. Note the presence of an audience and the awkward layout of the deputies’ seats, a layout that impeded debate.

When Isaac-René-Guy Le Chapelier, a leader of the radical Breton Club, asked that they append a statement to the oath condemning the king’s ministers for misleading His Majesty, Mounier blocked that motion as well. While he acknowledged that the king had been misled, Mounier stated that the deputies needed to keep such potent weapons for the future, as at the moment they still did not know whether the king would come out in favor of the Third Estate or against it. Declaring that the National Assembly could not be dissolved by the king was certainly an unprecedented and revolutionary step, but we need to pay close attention to the context in which it happened. The radical proposals that the deputies relocate to Paris or denounce the king’s ministers were overwhelmingly defeated, as were conservative attempts to make their actions subject to royal approval. Mounier steered the deputies away from an open confrontation with the king while making it clear that the National Assembly would not fall prey to ministerial or aristocratic plots to dissolve it. Even at this moment of crisis, most Third Estate deputies continued to believe the king supported them. Led by moderates, they opposed moving to far, too fast, hoping instead that the king would come down on their side in the upcoming Royal Session. It would take further action on the king’s part to seriously undermine their trust in his good faith.[2]

Statue of Jean-Sylvain Bailly with one arm in the air to lead the Oath.
Bailly leads the Oath.
Photograph by the author.
Statue of Jean-Sylvain Bailly, president of the National Assembly, administering the Tennis Court Oath on 20 June 1789. Located in the Jeu de Paume, Versailles.

The period from May to November 1789 was also a time in which unrest in Paris, Versailles, and throughout France spread and intensified, caused by food shortages, an economic depression, and the political crisis the king had unleashed through his clumsy attempts at political and fiscal reform. The deputies who met in Versailles quickly found themselves reacting to events rather than driving them. Much of their constitutional agenda in 1789, such as the abolition of the feudal regime on the night of 4 August or the decision of 21 September to grant the king only a suspensive veto over legislation, can be fruitfully reinterpreted as responding to popular unrest and seeking to restore order through constitutional reform. In addition, the actions taken by Louis XVI, his Royal Council, and Court in the summer of 1789 to rein in or thwart reforms originating in the Third Estate pushed otherwise moderate deputies to seek changes that few would have considered wise in the early weeks of the Estates General. Expanding our understanding of the decisions made in the summer of 1789 at the highest level of political representation to include the influence of events and of moderate deputies on the decrees adopted necessitates revision of the political narrative of 1789, overturning claims by historians such as François Furet, Keith Michael Baker, and Paul Friedland that radical deputies drove the agenda of the National Assembly during the early Revolution, creating a constitutional system that necessarily led to the Terror of 1793-94.[3] Far from treating the debates of 1789 as a “prelude to Terror” as Norman Hampson once did, we have to view them as events in their own right, exploring the richness and texture of the deputies’ words and the events that surrounded them.[4] A careful examination of the speeches in the form that they were given as well as the context and outcomes of the debates reveals the rich set of possibilities, compromises, and accidents that stemmed from this unique moment of change.

My method allows for a very different, far more nuanced interpretation of vital debates and events, bringing to the front moments that are easily overlooked if the sources are not carefully interrogated. Examination of the words deputies used and the context of broad public disorder in which they spoke gives us insight into their experience of the Revolution and illustrates the give and take, the possibilities and compromises, the role of personalities, far from the rarified air of ideology that has often informed historians’ accounts. Without access to the vital give-and-take of the debates or a clear understanding of how outside events impacted them, historians have misinterpreted key constitutional debates, leading to an incorrect understanding of the political culture of the deputies during the critical months of the early Revolution. Using a broader source base shows us, for example, that the choice of the name “National Assembly” did not mean the victory for the radical ideas abbé Sieyès had espoused in What is the Third Estate?, but was the result of a compromise between different groups in the Third Estate, the vast majority of whom wished to move forward but not at the cost of permanently excluding noble and clerical deputies from the new body, or at the cost of alienating the king. We find that in the debate over the king’s veto power in the new constitution the conservative Norman lawyer Jacques-Guillaume Thouret made the most important proposal, asking for a suspensive veto that would be hard to overturn but would clearly indicate that the nation had the final say in any dispute between the king and the legislative body. We would never know this from the version of his speech found in the Archives Parlementaires, nor does one find there the spirited, improvised remarks the radical deputy Jêrome Pétion gave in response.[5] 1789: The French Revolution Begins restores the context of speeches made by the deputies in the early Revolution, allowing us to better understand debates over the boundaries of executive, legislative, and constituent power as they unfolded in a period of widespread unrest and royal resistance to reform.

1789: The French Revolution Begins examines how the Estates General of 1789 transformed itself into a National Constituent Assembly intent on defending itself and its prerogatives from royal interference. It would make a wonderful addition to your university library. For a 20% discount at the Cambridge University Press site, use the code TFRB2019.

Robert H. Blackman is Elliott Professor of History at Hampden-Sydney College. He has published articles in French Historical Studies and French History. He regularly presents his research at the annual meetings of the Western Society for French History and the Society for French Historical Studies. You can reach him via email: and on Twitter @RobertHBlackma1.

Title Image: Tennis Court 2018. Photograph by the author. The Jeu de Paume in Versailles where the Tennis Court Oath was sworn is now a museum.

Further Reading:

Harriet Applewhite, Political Alignment in the French National Assembly, 1789-1791 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1998).

Timothy Tackett, Becoming a Revolutionary: The Deputies of the French National Assembly and the Emergence of a Revolutionary Culture (1789-1790) (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996).


[1] J. Madival and E. Laurent, eds., Archives parlementaires de 1787 à 1860, Première série (1787-1799), 82 vols (Paris, 1867-1913). For examples of works that rely mostly or exclusively on the Archives Parlementaires to understand the debates, see Raymond Carré de Malberg, Contributions à la théorie générale de l’État, 2 vols. (Paris, 1920-22); Keith Michael Baker, Inventing the French Revolution (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1990); Ladan Boroumand, La guerre des principes (Paris: École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 1999); Paul Friedland, Political Actors (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2002). Timothy Tackett, Kenneth Margerison, and Michael Fitzsimmons pay much more attention to the context in which the debates took place, though they do not give detailed analysis of deputy speeches in the way Baker and Friedland do. Timothy Tackett, Becoming a Revolutionary (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996); Kenneth Margerison, Pamphlets and Public Opinion (West Lafayette, Indiana: Purdue University Press, 1998); Michael Fitzsimmons, The Remaking of France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) and The Night the Old Regime Ended (University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2003). Barry Shapiro has examined the debates of 1789 in good detail, though our interpretations differ sharply about what motivated the deputies’ behavior. Barry M. Shapiro, Traumatic Politics (University Park, Pennsylvania: Penn State University Press, 2009).

[2] In these two paragraphs I rely primarily on the accounts of witness-participants: Jean-Sylvain Bailly, Mémoires d’un témoin de la Révolution, eds. Berville and Barrière, 3 vols. (Paris, 1821-22), 1:182, 188-9, 192-3; Adrien-Cyprien Duquesnoy, Journal d’Adrien Duquesnoy, ed. R. de Crèvecoeur, 2 vols. (Paris, 1894), 1: 111-12; Jacques-Antoine Creuzé-LaTouche, Journal des États Généraux de début de l’Assemblé nationale, 18 mai-29 juillet 1789, ed. Jean Marchand (Paris 1946), 130-2, 134; Jean-Joseph Mounier, Exposé de ma conduite dans l’Assemblée nationale et Motifs de mon retour en Dauphiné (Paris, 1789), 9; François-René Ménard de la Groye, Correspondance (1789-1791), ed. Florence Mirouse (Le Mans, 1989), 46; Laurent de Visme, Journal des États généraux, Bibliothèque Nantionale de France Nouv. acq. fr. 12938, 47r. See also Archives parlementaires, 8: 137-40; Georges Lefebvre, Coming of the French Revolution, trans. R. R. Palmer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2015. French original published in 1939), 81. Tackett, Becoming a Revolutionary, 152-53; Shapiro, Traumatic Politics, 63; Baker, Inventing the French Revolution, 252-3.

[3] For example, François Furet, Interpreting the French Revolution, trans. Elborg Forster (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981. French original published in 1978); Baker, Inventing the French Revolution. Paul Friedland, Political Actors. See also Harriet Applewhite, Political Alignment in the French National Assembly, 1789-1791 (Baton Rouge, Louisiana: Louisiana State University Press, 1993); Boroumand, La guerre des principes.

[4] Norman Hampson, Prelude to Terror (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1988). Other historians, such as Timothy Tackett, Kenneth Margerison, and Guillaume Glénard have shown the persistence of center-right ideas during the Assembly debates in the second half of 1789, but they have not focused on the debates themselves, showing in detail how ideas evolved over time as the deputies discussed them.

[5] Archives parlementaires, 8: 580-4; Le Courrier de Provence, 2: 399-405; Le Courrier de Versailles, 3: 133-6, 145-8; Le Point du jour, 2: 314-7; Réimpression de l’ancien Moniteur: Le Moniteur universel, 1: 431-6.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s