4.1: The Estates: The Geocentrism of Class Systems

France was the largest country in western Europe, both in terms of land and in terms of population. In order for one king to control all that territory and all those people, he needed to exert immense power and authority. As we’ve seen with social contract theory, as long as citizens feel they are getting some rights, they will abide by the social contract, no matter how unfair it might be in some respects.

In the 18th century, however, the population of France continued to grow as the economy became worse and worse. The costly defeat of the French and Indian War meant that France lost massive amounts of territory and, also, was massively in debt. The “perfect storm” for revolution was in place when a 20-year-old king, Louis XVI, took the throne with an unpopular foreign wife, the Austrian Marie Antoinette. The economy was in shambles and, by the late 1780s, the majority of the population was suffering from starvation as France experienced some of the coldest winters on record.

king louis

What did the French monarchy do to provide for its people? Very little. Marie Antoinette, known as “Madame Deficit,” was seen as the cause of the problem: while her citizens were suffering, she spent more and more on luxuries. However, much of this blame was due to the fact that Marie was from the Austrian monarchy (a traditional enemy of France). The real cause for much of the country’s troubles was the very ineffective leadership of Marie’s husband, Louis XVI. A particularly-bad blunder of the king was aiding the Americans in the American Revolution (in the hopes of getting some revenge on Britain and perhaps some territory in the Americas as well). After the war ended in 1783, France was even more in debt. France had supported Enlightenment ideals in the Americas while completely disregarding them at home…

France relied on a Dark Ages class system which, like geocentrism, was sorely in need of improvement by the time of the Enlightenment era. French society was composed of three class brackets, called Estates. As the Estates were originally developed during the spiritual medieval period, the First Estate was actually the Church and not the king. Church officials in France controlled much of the country’s wealth and land, but had to pay very little in taxes. The Second Estate, technically below the authority of the Church though really more powerful, was the nobility. These lords and ladies controlled the wealth of France, and paid no taxes at all. By modern calculations, the First Estate was approximately 1% of the population, and the Second Estate 2%. The Third Estate was therefore the vast majority of the population, yet had to pay a 50% tax rate.


The bigger problem than this was that all members of the Second Estate were born into the upper-class, inheriting wealth and titles from their parents. Therefore, the only way to “break out” of the Third Estate was to become a clergyperson and, therefore, become unable to pass one’s wealth to the next generation. The Estates System kept the Third Estate down, with little hope of improving one family’s condition and with little opportunity to voice complaints to the government.

The Estates-General was a congress that was called, at certain times, to resolve a crisis in France. By 1789, the over-spending of the monarchy, the food shortages, and the debt of the government made Louis call on the Estates-General. For the first time in over a century, the Estates-General met at the palace of Versailles outside of Paris. At last, the Third Estate had a chance to complain about the very unfair system.

However, the Third Estate, though it was 97% of the population, only had 33% of the vote in the Estates-General: all three estates received equal representation. If the First and Second Estate outvoted the Third, there was nothing for it to do… except revolt.

[Estates—classes in traditional French society, in place since the Middle Ages: the Church was the First Estate, the nobility was the Second, and everybody else was the Third]

“The Awakening of the Third Estate.” On the ground, the figure representing the Third Estate awakens from the “nightmare of the Old Regime,” and reaches for arms, while the Nobility and the Clergy retreat in alarm. In the background, the destruction of the Bastille and heads paraded on pikes on 14 July 1789 reaffirms that message that a new order is emerging in which the people in arms will play a central role. After October 1789, there was a shift toward images portraying unity and federation.
“The Awakening of the Third Estate.”

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