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, nor with any permanency: the French monarchy remained absolute, and the estates general were convened only episiodically.
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.
The Estates General
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
Main article Estates-General of 1789
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 aristocracy still refused to support the effectively bankrupt monarchy, citing immunity from taxation. 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 than by individual representatives, this gave them no immediately meaningful 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 democratic 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 in a position to reorganize the French state as it saw fit, marking the beginning of the first modern revolution the world had ever seen.
- 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 
- Jackson J. Spielvogel, Western Civilization, West Publishing Co. Minneapolis, 1994. for the English-language version of the quote from Abbé Sieyès, quoted at http://www.magnesium.net/~locutus/work/eurohist2.htm.
- http://vdaucourt.free.fr/Mothisto/Sieyes2/Sieyes2.htm for French-language original of this quotation.
Last updated: 05-13-2005 07:56:04