The Estates General

The French government developed the Estates General to show, at any given time, that they had the support of the French people. However, the way the estates were set up, ‘support of the people’ wasn’t necessarily true. There are three estates in the Estates Generals, and they all had one vote. Therefore two estates could outvote one estate, even if that estate consisted of 97% of the population.

The First estate was the clergy. The higher clergy consisted of nobles, while the lower clergy were basically commoners, and were parish priests. The clergy collected tithes, and owned about 10 percent of France’s land, for which no taxes were paid. The clergy also ran schools, kept records, and supported the poor. The higher clergy often lived in Paris and Versailles; liven extravagantly while parish priests led a hard life, living simply. It would be very reasonably to say that the lower clergy resented the higher clergy, for living better quality lives but doing much less work.

The Second estate was the nobility. Nobles held the highest positions at court, in the church, and in government. Nobles had many privileges, and we as good as exempt from paying taxes. They had the ability to collect taxes from the peasants on their land, including old feudal taxes that should have been irrelevant in the day, but were collected so the noble could live extravagantly. The nobles owned between 20 and 30 percent of the land in France, but consisted of about 1.5 percent of the population. Ironically, it was these nobles who offered their estates as places to hold salons, when the philosophes were the ones who ended up criticizing the nobles. Under nobility there was nobility of the robe and nobility of the sword.

Nobility of the sword are the old and traditional nobility, who have been around since the middle ages. These were the nobles seen at court, extravagantly prominent at Versailles, and these were the nobles who ran the provinces. Thought they held the most prestige, many of these nobles had small incomes, which were spent making them look wealthy.

Nobility of the robe, though they had some prestige, were not nearly as prestigious as those of the sword. Nobles of the robe couldn’t trace their linage back 100s of years, but were nobles because they paid the king to be made so. The monarchy needed money, and the soon-to-be-nobles had money, so kings were glad to give titles and positions for chunks of wealth.

Before I explain the third estate, perhaps read this quote by Abbé Sieyès. Influential people of the revolution will come in later.

1st. What is the third estate? Everything.
2nd. What has it been heretofore in the political order? Nothing.
3rd. What does it demand? To become something therein.

Abbé Sieyès, What is the Third Estate? (1789)

The Third estate was everybody else – 98% of the population, who owned 60-70 percent of the land in France. The third estate could be divided into three groups: the bourgeoisie, the sans culottes, and the peasants.

THE BOURGEOISIE: Being merchants, manufacturers, bankers, doctors, lawyers, etc. the bourgeoisie were the middle class of France and had wealth. However, having wealth did not give the bourgeoisie status, privilege, or any source of power. They were blocked by the aristocracy and the monarchy, who wanted to have everybody maintain the same social standing that they were born with, and tried to ensure no one could rise above their status.

SANS- CULOTTES: As urban workers, the san culottes worked trades in cities such as Paris. Named because they did not wear long pants/ breeches, the sans culottes were artisans but did not make nearly as much money as the bourgeoisie. They suffered the most when food prices rose and their wages did not. It was the sans culottes who pushed for equality in everything, and were the radical revolutionaries.

EVERYBODY ELSE: Peasants who worked on farms for the nobles were the poorest of them all. These people spent their lives struggling to survive, though French peasants were better off than those in the rest of Europe. Burdened by tithes, taxes, and rents, peasants were very suppressed people. They were not allowed to hunt, or even kill animals that hurt their crops.