Third Estate French Revolution Essay Question

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.

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2.2.1 Sample analysis and discussion of ‘What is the Third Estate?’

Let us take a closer look at part of this document before attempting the exercise below. This preamble should help you to relate to similar exercises in this course. The document is quite long, by far the longest one associated with this course; but you should not find it difficult to read it through fairly quickly and to extract its main points, to grasp Sieyès's ‘message’, and to note how he conveyed it. After you have read it through once, re-read it from the beginning up to ‘a nation within a nation’.

Click to view The Third Estate. [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

The fact of its immediate success and large print run already suggests that What is the Third Estate? was crisply written, had a clear and timely message, and was readily and immediately understood and appreciated. Sieyès is methodical, concise and to the point. He tells us straightaway that ‘we have three questions to ask ourselves’ about the Third Estate. He sets out those three questions in numerical order. To each question he gives a one-word answer. He then states, ‘We shall see if these are the right answers’, and undertakes to provide ‘the supporting evidence’.

This down-to-earth, systematic approach is very much in the style and spirit of the Encyclopédie in its clarity of presentation, its promise of logical argument based on supporting evidence, and its conclusions critical of existing institutions. Sieyès does not express his conclusions as views personal to himself but as demonstrable statements of objective fact (set out under points 4, 5 and 6).

In the next paragraph he asks, ‘What is a nation?’, and proceeds to give a definition. Again, his method and his objective are clear and logical. You will note, however, that this time he does not offer any supporting evidence for his statement. Why not? Presumably, he believed that his definition was self-evident and would be found so by his readers, as indeed it was.

Sieyès's basic idea of a nation was not new. It drew on Enlightenment concepts familiar to any educated reader. Diderot, in his article ‘Political authority’ published in the Encydopédie in 1751, discussed terms and ideas which by 1789 had become the staple of political thought. He argued that sovereignty, or ultimate political power in a state, derives not from the monarch but from the ‘people’ or ‘nation’, that it must be exercised in their interest and for their benefit, that it should be controlled and circumscribed by laws, and that the ruler's tenure of office is in the nature of a trust exercised for the people's benefit and with their consent, underpinned by an implicit agreement or ‘social contract’ (Gendzier, 1967, pp. 185–8).

Against this familiar background, Sieyès takes a further easy and logical step by postulating another characteristic of a nation: namely, that it has an elected, representative legislative (law-making) assembly. This too follows implicitly from ideas popularized in the Encyclopédie, but it received a tremendous additional boost, first from the success of the American Revolution and the summoning of a constitutional convention by the United States in 1787, and now in France by the summoning of the Estates-General. The French people, or nation, were at last to be ‘represented’ in an assembly or, as it was soon to be called, a National Assembly, through which it too would be enabled to express its political will, frame its own laws and shape its own national destiny.

After this definition of a nation, uncontroversial in its Enlightenment borrowings but now suddenly fresh and revolutionary in its immediate relevance in 1789, Sieyès makes a further claim, all the more unexpected because of the equable tone and calm logic employed by him thus far. He suddenly claims that the nobility, by reason of its ‘privileges and exemptions’, is not part of the nation at all, but ‘a nation within a nation’. This, he states rhetorically, ‘is only too clear, isn't it’. The reader will take the implicit point (soon to be made explicit) that not only is this indeed the case, but that such a situation is illogical, unjust and wrong, no longer tenable or tolerable. Sieyès's purpose is to isolate and marginalise the nobility in his readers’ eyes, and to expose it to their critical censure. In the circumstances of 1789, his message took on startling implications about the respective roles of the nobility and the Third Estate in the Estates-General.

Now go to p.72 of the document (from ‘To sum up …’ to ‘… becoming something?’, p. 73). We see here a reference to another Enlightenment touchstone – ‘the rights of man’ – and also to the ‘petitions’ (cahiers de doléances) which the representatives at the Estates-General brought with them from their constituents. In invoking ‘the rights of man’, Sieyès again draws on a common background and strikes a common chord with his readers in his references to the political terminology of the Enlightenment. Again, too, in mentioning the petitions, there is the striking topicality of his comments as the Estates-General assembled to air the nation's grievances.

But Sieyès refers only fleetingly to the rights of man. His main point in this passage relates to something else, though closely related to it: ‘equality’. Equality was another emotive catchword derived from the Enlightenment. In his article on ‘Natural equality’ in the Encyclopédie (1755), de Jaucourt states that ‘natural equality’ is based on ‘the constitution of human nature common to all men … Each person must value and treat other people as so many individuals who are naturally equal to himself’ (Gendzier, 1967, p. 169). True, de Jaucourt then goes on to say that ‘I know too well the necessity of different ranks, grades, honours, distinctions, prerogatives, subordinations that must prevail in all governments’ (Gendzier, 1967, p. 170). De Jaucourt may be being ironic here, or he may be perfectly serious. Be that as it may, Sieyès is certainly serious in his complaint concerning the inequality of representation in the Estates-General of the Third Estate in relation to the other two estates (church and nobility). The Third Estate, he says, demands that the number of its representatives be equal to that of the two other orders put together’ (emphasis added);.

The significance of Sieyès's pamphlet lay in its ‘consciousness-raising’. His defiant radicalism captured the mood of the 648 representatives of the Third Estate and inspired them to thumb their noses at the nobility or ‘aristocrats’, as he also calls them. (By 1789 and thanks partly to Sieyès, the word ‘aristocrat’ had become a term of abuse synonymous with undeserved privilege.)

On 17 June the deputies of the Third Estate unilaterally declared the assembly of their own members to be the true representative voice of the French nation: the ‘National Assembly’. If the clergy and nobility wanted a voice in shaping the future of France, they must sit in the National Assembly as equals with the Third Estate. The pamphlet was both ‘a treatise and a battle-cry’ (Furet, 1996, p.48), a justification of and a summons to revolutionary action. On 20 June, finding itself locked out, the Third Estate, calling itself the National Assembly, withdrew to a nearby indoor tennis court and declared, in the so-called ‘tennis-court oath’, that it would not disperse until it had provided France with a new, written constitution. It deliberately and expressly excluded the nobility and clergy as such from the body politic. The National Assembly had seized power in the name of the French nation. The Revolution had begun.

Exercise 1

Now read from "With regard to its political rights" to "going back in time a bit." Briefly (in about 100 words) (i) explain in your own words what Sieyès has to say about the Third Estate and the nobility, and (ii) describe his tone.


  1. Sieyès makes the revolutionary claim that the Third Estate itself constitutes the nation and should be adequately represented; that the nobility is over-privileged, exclusive, unrepresentative of the nation and over-represented in the Estates-General; and that the Estates-General should sit as a single integrated body, not divided into social orders and meeting in separate venues. Sieyès thus raises to the fore ‘the quintessential revolutionary idea … equality’ (Furet, 1996, p.45).

  2. Sieyès's tone is confident, belligerent, uncompromising and inflammatory. His radical demands on behalf of the Third Estate largely take the form of blunt and open attacks on the nobility as a separate (and self-regarding) estate of the realm.

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