How did the First, Second, and Third Estates impact the French Revolution?

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In some ways, this question points toward one of the common misunderstandings of the French Revolution. There's a tendency among many to cast the Third Estate as the sole driving force of the French Revolution. The historical reality is significantly more complicated than that picture would attest.

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In some ways, this question points toward one of the common misunderstandings of the French Revolution. There's a tendency among many to cast the Third Estate as the sole driving force of the French Revolution. The historical reality is significantly more complicated than that picture would attest.

Before getting to that point, however, I think you should keep in mind that the Estates System, taken as a whole, represents a social structure. That was the foundation of the Ancien Régime, and ultimately, that structure was what the Revolution dismantled: an entire system of privilege and particularities was swept aside by a more modern political understanding based in equality under the law. From this perspective alone, the Estates are deeply important to the French Revolution.

Ultimately, I think there is a tendency to underestimate the liberalism which existed within the Second Estate, viewing it (along with the First Estate) as a collection of reactionaries, opposed to the Third Estate's call for change. In all fairness, if you were to look at the gridlock of the Estates General (where the representatives from the Estates ultimately came into conflict over matters of procedure—the vote-by-head versus vote-by-order debate), you can see where that perception comes from. The reality is far more complicated. Consider that many of the major leaders to emerge out of the Revolution's early years came from the Nobility. We can count among them Mirabeau (although he was elected by the Third Estate, he was a noble nonetheless), LaFayette, and the Duc d'Orléans, among others. In addition, we should not forget that Sieyès was a priest. To quote one of the twentieth century's leading scholars of the French Revolution, Francois Furet,

Among the clergy, where internal strife had been lively, there were only forty-six bishops out of 300 deputies, and many country priests were being attracted by their Third Estate neighbors. One third of the nobility group had been won over to liberal ideas, and was dominated by the reputation of the parlementaire Du Port and the American prestige of La Fayette. (Francois Furet, The French Revolution: 1770-1814, trans. by Antonia Nevill, Blackwell Publishing, 1996, (paperback): (original French 1988, original English 1992), 60)

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The Third Estate provided the main impetus for the French Revolution. Its members consisted mainly of prosperous, middle-class professionals such as lawyers, doctors, and merchants. Despite their growing wealth and social prominence, they were denied a say in how the country was run and understandably felt this was unfair. They saw the Estates General as their opportunity to change all this—to put their concerns at the top of the political agenda and achieve real and lasting reform.

The Third Estate was well-organized, politically aware, and had definite aims and objectives; so when the Estates General seemed set to end in stalemate, the Third Estate had no hesitation in unilaterally declaring itself the National Assembly. When this happened, the other two Estates found themselves caught on the hop, outmaneuvered by men they regarded as social inferiors. Up until that moment, the First and Second Estates had adopted a strategy of obstructionism designed to stonewall any serious reforms. However, it had backfired on them badly, and now the political initiative lay with the Third Estate, which had been rewarded for its boldness, unity, and strength of purpose.

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At the time of the French Revolution, France had a social system that was broken up into three estates. The First Estate was made up of members of the clergy, the Second Estate consisted of nobilities, and the Third Estate made up the majority of the people. The First and Second Estates, despite owning more land than the Third Estate and thus having greater wealth, were not required to pay taxes. The Third Estate, which was also the poorest, was the only estate required to pay taxes.

The Estates General was traditionally a meeting of the representatives from the three estates to guide policy. Unfortunately for the Third Estate, they could be easily overruled by the other two estates, making reform difficult. In 1789, the Estates General met for the final time as France faced economic and political turmoil. The Third Estate broke away from the other two estates at the meeting and instead formed the National Assembly. This point is considered to be key to the start of the French Revolution.

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The primary effect of the Revolution was the reaction of the Third Estate. The First and Second Estates did not participate other than as a reaction to the activities of the Third. The First Estate, which represented the Church, was comprised of both peasants and nobility who occupied the higher church offices. The Second Estate, the Nobility, were comprised of the Nobility of the Sword--the traditional nobility--and the Nobility of the Robe, those who had purchased titles from the Crown. Neither of the first two Estates paid taxes, which no only caused resentment among the members of the Third Estate; it also decreased substantially the potential tax base for the Crown. So, their failure--or exemption from paying taxes; and their ability to outvote the Third Estate in the Estates General was their only contribution--a contribution largely made by default.

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