Tennis Court Oath and a Legacy of Nationalism

Prior to this semester, I had never heard of Jacque Louis David’s painting Tennis Court Oath. The painting depicts a struggle between the King and his people, and the emergence of a Parliament that would represent the people more fairly than a monarchy.  I first studied it closely in my History 102 class and now in Political Theory 101, and I found that my previous study of it, in a different class and at a slightly different angle, helped me to understand its context and relation to anti-classical conservatism a little bit better.

Tennis Court Oath by Jacques Louis David

My History class looked at this painting in the context of emerging nationalism in Europe.  Although the start of nationalism is a widely contested subject far too lengthy for this short blog post, many subscribers to modern nationalism cite the French Revolution in 1789 as the start of nationalism.  Ernst Renan’s definition of a nation includes the “legacy of memories, and present-day consent to live together.”  The French Revolution and ensuing demand for a Parliament that would represent the desires of the people is an excellent representation of nationalism in this sense.

Also, in History class, we noticed the billowing curtains in the upper lefthand corner of the painting and how they might potentially be referencing a higher power consenting to a more democratic form of a nation.  The ideas of nationalism and religion gave a nice contextual background to analyze the painting in our class.  While our analysis included the fact that Burke’s classical conservatism is antagonistic to the French Revolution and that the king should be respected above all, I think it’s interesting to think more about the nationalism involved.  Burke wants everyone to stay in his or her place and for no one to rock the boat, but he fails to think about how the longevity of a nation may be negatively affected by the maintenance of this social hierarchy. People can only blindly follow for so long until they start to ask, “Why am I a subject instead of a citizen?”  People must have a desire to stay together in a  union in order for a nation to thrive and continue, according to popular ideas of nationalism.  They can only be ordered around for so long in pretense of “tradition” before they start to need something to bind them together and make them want to even be a part of their country.

Also, in class we discussed the two legacies of the French Revolution- those of hope and fear. I would like to think that there’s another legacy left behind by this revolution: one of a deep-rooted nationalism that would inspire heightened levels of community and pride.  I think that the ideas of nationalism I learned about in History class can be connected to change and progressive movements that went against conservative and traditional beliefs of how a nation should function in government and social hierarchy.

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