Before the revolution French society was divided into three estates or orders. By far the largest of these was the Third Estate. It contained around 27 million people or 98 percent of the nation. The Third Estate contained every French commoner: those who did not possess a noble title and those not ordained by the church. As might be expected in such a large group, the Third Estate had considerable diversity. It contained many different classes and levels of wealth; many different professions and ideas; rural, provincial and urban residents alike. Members of the Third Estate ranged from lowly beggars and struggling peasants to urban artisans and labourers; from the shopkeepers and commercial middle classes to the nation’s wealthiest merchants and capitalists. Despite its enormous size and economic importance, the Third Estate was politically disregarded and economically exploited by the Ancien Régime. The frustrations, grievances and sufferings of the Third Estate ultimately gave rise to the French Revolution.
Peasants were at the bottom of the Third Estate’s social hierarchy. Peasant farmers comprised between 82 and 88 percent of the population and were the nation’s poorest social class. Though levels of wealth varied, even within the peasantry, it is reasonable to suggest that most French peasants were poor. A very small percentage of peasants owned land in their own right, so were able to live independently as yeoman farmers. The vast majority, however, were either feudal tenants, métayers (tenant sharecroppers who worked someone else’s land) or journaliers (day labourers who sought work wherever they could find it). Whatever their situation, all peasants were heavily taxed by the state. If they were feudal tenants, peasants were also required to pay dues to their local seigneur or lord. If they belonged to a parish, as most did, they were expected to pay an annual tithe to the church. These obligations were seldom relaxed during difficult periods such as poor harvests, so many peasants were pushed to the brink of starvation.
Other members of the Third Estate lived and worked in towns and cities. The 18th century was a period of industrial and urban growth in France, yet most French cities remained relatively small. There were only nine cities with a population exceeding 50,000 people; Paris, with around 650,000 people, was by far the largest. Commoners in towns and cities made their living as either skilled artisans or unskilled workers. Artisans worked in industries like textiles and clothing manufacture, upholstery and furniture, clock making, locksmithing, leather goods, carriage making and repair, carpentry and masonry. A few artisans operated their own business but most worked for large firms or employers. Before doing business or gaining employment, an artisan had to first belong to the guild that managed and regulated his particular industry. Unskilled labourers worked as servants, cleaners, haulers, water carriers, washerwomen, hawkers – anything that did not require training or membership of a guild. Many Parisians, perhaps as many as 80,000 people, had no job at all; they survived by begging, scavenging, petty crime and prostitution.
The lives of urban workers, both skilled and unskilled, became increasingly difficult in the 1780s. Parisian workers toiled for meagre wages: between 30 and 60 sous a day for skilled labourers and between 15 and 20 sous a day for the unskilled. Wages had risen by around 20 percent in the 25 years before 1789, however prices and rents had increased by 60 percent in the same period. The poor harvests of 1788-89 pushed Parisian workers to the brink by driving up bread prices. In early 1789 the price of a four-pound loaf of bread increased from nine sous to 14.5 sous, almost a full day’s pay for most unskilled labourers. Low pay and high prices were compounded by miserable living conditions in Paris. Accommodation in the capital was so scarce that workers and their families crammed into shared attics and dirty tenements, most rented from unscrupulous landlords. With rents running at several sous a day, most workers economised by sharing accommodation. Many rooms housed between six and ten people, though 12 to 15 per room was not unknown. Conditions in these tenements were cramped, unhygienic and uncomfortable. There was no heating, plumbing or common ablutions; the toilet facilities were usually an outside cesspit or open sewer, while water was fetched by hand from communal wells.
Not all members of the Third Estate were impoverished. At the apex of the Third Estate’s social hierarchy was the bourgeoisie, or capitalist middle classes. The bourgeoisie were business owners and professionals who had acquired enough wealth to live comfortably. There was also diversity within their ranks. The so-called petit bourgeoisie (‘petty’ or ‘small bourgeoisie‘) were small-scale traders, landlords, shopkeepers and managers. The haute bourgeoisie (‘high bourgeoisie‘) were wealthy merchants and traders, colonial landholders, industrialists, bankers and financiers, tax farmers and trained professionals like doctors and lawyers. The bourgeoisie flourished during the 1700s, on the back of France’s economic growth, modernisation, increased production, imperial expansion and foreign trade. The haute bourgeoisie rose from the middle classes to become independently wealthy, well educated and ambitious. As their wealth increased, so did their desire for social status and political representation. Many bourgeoisie craved entry into the Second Estate. They had enough money to acquire the costumes, trappings and grand residences of the noble classes, however, they lacked their titles, privileges and prestige. The wealthiest of the bourgeoisie could buy their way into the nobility through venal offices, though by the 1780s this was becoming frightfully expensive.
The thwarted social and political ambitions of the bourgeoisie gave rise to considerable frustration. The haute bourgeoisie had become the economic masters of the nation, yet government and policy were the exclusive domains of the royal court and its noble favourites. Many educated bourgeoisie found solace in Enlightenment tracts, which challenged the foundation of monarchical power and argued that government should be representative, accountable and based on popular sovereignty. When Emmanuel Sieyes published What is the Third Estate? in January 1789, it struck a chord with the self-important bourgeoisie, who believed they were entitled to a hand in government. What is the Third Estate? was not the only expression of this idea; there was a flood of similar pamphlets and essays around the nation in early 1789. When these documents spoke of the Third Estate, however, they referred chiefly to the bourgeoisie – not to France’s 22 million rural peasants, its landless labourers or its urban workers. When the bourgeoisie dreamed of representative government, it was a government that represented the propertied classes only. The peasants and urban workers were politically invisible to the bourgeoisie – just as the bourgeoisie was itself politically invisible to the Ancien Régime.
1. The Third Estate contained around 27 million people or 98 percent of the nation. This included every French person who did not have a noble title or was not ordained in the church.
2. The rural peasantry made up the largest portion of the Third Estate. Most peasants worked the land as feudal tenants or sharecroppers and were required to pay a range of taxes, tithes and feudal dues.
3. A much smaller contingent of the Third Estate were skilled and unskilled urban workers in cities like Paris. They were poorly paid, lived in difficult conditions and were pressured by rising food prices.
4. At the pinnacle of the Third Estate was the bourgeoisie: successful business owners who ranged from the comfortable middle class to extremely wealthy merchants and landowners.
5. Regardless of their property and wealth, members of the Third Estate were subject to inequitable taxation and were politically disregarded by the Ancien Régime. This exclusion contributed to rising revolutionary sentiment in the late 1780s.
This page was written by Jennifer Llewellyn and Steve Thompson. To reference this page, use the following citation:
J. Llewellyn and S. Thompson, “The Third Estate”, Alpha History, accessed [today’s date], http://alphahistory.com/frenchrevolution/third-estate/.
“Revolutions evolve in definite phases. At first they are moderate in scope, then they become radical to excess and finally they are brought to abrupt conclusions by the emergence of a strong man to restore order.” Discuss this statement with specific references to the French Revolution.
The French Revolution brought about great changes in the society and government of France. The revolution, which lasted from 1789 to 1799, also had far-reaching effects on the rest of Europe. “It introduced democratic ideals to France but did not make the nation a democracy. However, it ended supreme rule by French kings and strengthened the middle class.” (Durant, 12) After the revolution began, no European kings, nobles, or other members of the aristocracy could take their powers for granted or ignore the ideals of liberty and equality.
The revolution began with a government financial crisis but quickly became a movement of reform and violent change. In one of the early events, a crowd in Paris captured the Bastille, a royal fortress and hated symbol of oppression. A series of elected legislatures then took control of the government. King Louis XVI and his wife, Marie Antoinette, were executed. Thousands of others met the same fate in a period known as the Reign of Terror. The revolution ended when Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general, took over the government.
At the beginning of the revolution, events seemed minor and proceeded in a logical fashion. One of the reasons the revolution originated was the discontent among the lower and middle classes in France. By law, society was divided in to three groups called estates. The first estate was made of up clergy, nobles comprised the second and the rest of the citizens, the third estate.
The third estate resented certain advantages of the first two estates. The clergy and nobles did not have to pay most taxes. The third estate, especially the peasants, had to provide almost all the country’s tax revenue. Many members of the middle class were also worried by their social status. They were among the most important people in French society but were not recognized as such because they belonged to the third estate.
“Financial crisis developed because the nation had gone deeply into debt to finance the Seven Years War (1756-1763) and the Revolutionary War (1775-1783).” (Durant, 22) The Parliament of Paris insisted that King Louis XVI could borrow more money or raise taxes only by calling a meeting of the States-General. The States-General was made up of representatives of the three estates, and had last met in 1614. Unwillingly, the king called the meeting.
The States-General opened on May 5, 1789, at Versailles. The first two estates wanted each estate to take up matters and vote on them separately by estate. The third estate had has many representatives as the other two combined. It insisted that all the estates be merged into one national assembly and that each representative had one vote. The third estate also wanted the States-General to write a constitution.
The king and the first two estates refused the demands of the third estate. In June 1789, the representatives of the third estate declared themselves the National Assembly of France. Louis the XVI them allowed the three estates to join together as the National Assembly. But he began to gather troops around Paris to break up the Assembly.
Meanwhile, the masses of France also took action. On July 14, 1789, a huge crowd of Parisians rushed to the Bastille. They believed they would find arms and ammunition there for use in defending themselves against the king’s army. The people captured the Bastille and began to tear it down. Massive peasant uprisings were also occurring in the countryside.
The king’s removal led to a new stage in the revolution. The first stage had been a liberal middle-class reform movement based on a constitutional monarchy. The second stage was organized around principles of democracy. The National Convention opened on September 21, 1792, and declared France a republic.
“Louis XVI was placed on trial for betraying the country. The National Convention found him guilty of treason , and a slim majority voted for the death-penalty. The king was beheaded on the guillotine on January 21, 1793. The revolution gradually grew more radical-that is more open to extreme and violent change. Radical leaders came into prominence. In the Convention, they were known as the mountain because they sat on the high benches at the rear of the hall during meetings. Leaders of the Mountain were Maximilien Robespierre, Georges Jacques Danton, and Jean Paul Marat. The Mountain dominated a powerful political club called the Jacobin Club.
“Growing disputes between the Mountain and the Gironde led to a struggle for power, and the Mountain won. In June 1793, the Convention arrested the leading Girondists. In turn, the Girondists’ supporters rebelled against the Convention. One of these supporters assassinated Marat in July 1793.” (Woloch, 526)
This was the most horrific period of the revolution. The Convention’s leaders included Robespierre, Lazare Carnot, and Bertrand Barere. The Convention declared a policy of terror against rebels, supporters of the king, and anyone else who publicly disagreed with official policy. “In time, hundreds of thousands of suspects filled the nation’s jails. Courts handed down about 18,000 death sentences in what was called the Reign of Terror. Paris became accustomed to the rattle of two-wheeled carts called tumbrels as they carried people to the guillotine.” (Woloch, 526)
In time, the radicals began to struggle for power among themselves. Robespierre succeeded in having Danton and other former leaders executed. Many people in France wanted to end the Reign of Terror, the Jacobin dictatorship, and the democratic revolution. Robespierre’s enemies in the Convention finally attacked him as a tyrant on July 29, 1794. He was executed the next day. The Reign of Terror ended with Robespierre’s death.
“The Convention, which had adopted a democratic constitution in 1793, replaced that document with a new one in 1795. The government formed under this new constitution was called the Directory. France was still a republic, but once again only citizens who paid a certain amount of taxes could vote.” (Woloch, 527)
The Directory began meeting in October 1795. In October 1799, a number of political leaders plotted to overthrow the Directory. They needed military support and turned to Napoleon Bonaparte, a French general who had become a hero during a military campaign in Italy in 1796 and 1797. Bonaparte seized control of the government on November 9, 1799, ending the revolution. Napoleon would restore order to the French people with such great achievements as his Code Napoleon.
Filed Under: French Revolution, History