History: Three Estates in France

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October 19, 2010
Dr. Kirkland
HIST 101-003
There were three estates that made up the population of France. The First Estate was made up of the Clergy, the Second of Nobility, and the Third of Commoners. Of these estates, it was the Third that constituted the majority of the population. The commoners of the Third Estate included the bourgeoisie (middle class), the peasants (about 80 percent of the total population of France), and the working poor, who were surprisingly quite influential. It is evident in the way that the population was separated that the monarchy had based its society on wealth and education, but the Third estate was not happy with this setup.

On the eve of the French Revolution, there were hundreds of grievances among the Third Estate. King Louis XVI was bombarded by a list of these grievances, or Cahier de Doleances. All grievances, no matter how absurd some may have seemed, had to be dealt with if the Monarch wanted to prevent the revolution. While Third Estate consisted mostly of peasants and merchants, it was the bourgeoisie that are credited with getting the grievances of the estate recognized.

The bourgeoisie consisted of many wealthy and educated people. Many were lawyers or bankers, and landowners. At this point in history peasants were free, but lived in poverty and had to obey the remaining laws, such as state labor, and payment to the lords, but most of the peasants had owned their own land. The urban or working poor consisted of shopkeepers, and skilled laborers. The working poor were ofter referred to as sans culottes, without pants, or breeches. Some members of the bourgeoisie were allied with the sans culottes, and helped to get their voices heard.

Though there were many grievances, the Third Estate had some very specific problems they wanted fixed. They wanted to eliminate noble and clerical privilege, they wanted protection from the nobility, and they wanted their political and civil right to be put into consideration. When they approached the monarch with their grievances, Louis XVI summoned an Estates General to meet at Versailles in may and June of 1789. The Estates were to pick representatives to attend this meeting. The Third Estate had picked members from the bourgeoisie to represent them.

The monarch did recognize that the Third Estate was significantly larger than the other two, so he granted them with larger representation, but when it was time to vote, all three estates had equal votes. Being that the First and Second Estates consisted of the Clergy and the Nobility, having equal votes made it impossible for the Third Estate to make any gain politically or economically. Whenever the Third Estate made an attempt to pass a law that did not directly benefit the upper First or Second Estates, it was voted against. The bourgeoisie wanted to be recognized by King Louis XVI the same way the nobility was. Through this grievance they had gone to Louis XVI to seek justice, and were angered when he made them wait for hours while he was checking the credentials of the other Estates.

After their aide in the Seven Year War, France faced an economic downfall. To make up for the money they had lost Louis XVI placed a ridiculous tax on the population of France. Because the Clergy was the Catholic Church, they were exempt from all forms of taxation, and the nobles, being noble, were also exempt from taxation, leaving all of the tax on the back of the Third Estate. They resented the other two estates because of the advantage they had over them. The bourgeoisie, being educated, believed in equality, before the law, and for opportunity. The peasants, already being poor, were sent into a further downfall because of this tax.

In the 1780s there was a series of bad harvest, so there was less food to go along with the instability of the economy. Because of this tax and the payments the peasants had to give to the lords, most...
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