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Third Estate

In France of the ancien régime and the age of the French Revolution, the term Third Estate (tiers état) indicated the generality of people which were not part of the clergy (the First Estate) nor of the nobility (the Second Estate). From these terms came the name of the medieval French national assembly: the Estates-General (Fr. Etats-Généraux), the analogue to the British Parliament but with no constitutional tradition of vested powers: the French monarchy remained absolute.

The Third Estate comprised all those who were not members of the aristocracy or the clergy, including peasants, working people and the bourgeoisie. In 1789, the Third Estate made up 98% of the population in France. Due in part to a limited franchise, the representatives of the Third Estate actually came from the wealthy upper bourgeoisie; sometimes the term's meaning has been restricted to the middle class, as opposed to the working class.

Table of contents
1 The Estates General
2 1789: End of The Estates General
3 Quote
4 See also
5 References

The Estates General

See main article French States-General.

The first Estates-General was called by Philip IV in 1302, in order to obtain national approval for his anticlerical policy. Philip organized the assembly into three divisions, and every following Estates-General down to 1789 maintained the division.

The Estates-General of France dwindled in importance, and after 1614 it was not called again for 175 years.

1789: End of The Estates General

See main article French Revolution.

In May 1789, Louis XVI convened the Estates-General in order to address the financial crisis of the kingdom, which was effectively bankrupt. By this point, however, the French aristocracy has declined in power and influence, while the bourgeoisie had become much more important and conscious of itself as a class. The Third Estate, containing representatives of the bourgeois, asked for greater share of representation than it had possessed in earlier centuries; they were given twice as many representatives, but since voting was to be by the three Estates rather then by individual representatives, this gave them no immediately meanigful advantage. The Third Estate then asked for all estates to meet together as a single body.

When Louis XVI did not respond, the Third Estate declared itself (June 17, 1789) the National Assembly, invited representatives of the other two estates to join them, and signed the Tennis Court Oath demanding a constitution for France. The Third Estate, along with the support of sympathetic clergy and aristocrats, managed to win support of both the popular mobs of Paris and of much of the national military, and thus found itself itself in a position to reorganize the French state as it saw fit.


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?"("Qu'est-ce que le Tiers-Etat?"), January 1789 [1]

See also

See also: