What was the Three Estates system all about?


In the 18th century, the Three Estates system originated in France. In the 18th century, in France, the General states consisted of three estates: the first estate was the clergy, the second – the nobility, and the third one – all the rest of the population.


The majority of the country’s population was representatives of the third estate, including the French bourgeois, employees, urban plebs (sansculots), and the peasantry. The ancient formula determined the role and place of each estate in the economic and social life of the country. Thus, the clergy served the king with prayers, the nobility – with a sword and the third estate – with the property. The first two estates were considered privileged, and one of the most important prerogatives of these estates was an exemption from any taxes. The purpose of this issue is to reveal the details about the Three Estates system in France in the 18th century.

The nobles were appointed exclusively to the highest church posts, usually the youngest sons from honorable families. The bishops led a completely genteel lifestyle and surrounded themselves with exorbitant luxury. It should be noted that the priests were often as poor as their parishioners. The top of the ancestral nobility was the titled aristocracy: dukes, counts, viscounts. The French society presented to the court stood out, especially; they lived on royal pensions. Furthermore, the noble estate was regularly appointed to officer posts. Future officers should have documented their belonging to the nobility in the four previous generations when being admitted to military schools.

However, the third estate was heterogeneous in class terms. Almost 23 million people were peasantry and the urban poor, or plebs (small traders, artisans, workers, apprentices, servants, etc.). In France, they were called sansculottes, that is, wearing long pants, unlike those who wore short knee-length stockings, which was typical of noblemen and wealthy people. The third estate was united by the fact that their representatives had a complete lack of political rights.

On May 5, in 1789, the grand opening of the General states took place in the Palace of Versailles. The clergy and the nobility came to the palace in silver and gold embroidered outfits made of silk and velvet, and the third estate was dressed in modest black suits. The privileged climbed into the palace hall along the main staircase, and the rest were allowed through the back door. When the king sat on the throne and put on his hat, the deputies from the clergy and nobility, according to custom, also put on their hats.

Afterward, there was an unexpected turn of events to everyone’s surprise. The representatives of the third estate, who were supposed to listen to the monarch’s speech, kneeling and with their heads drawn, also put on hats and did not drop to their knees. It was announced that the vote would be carried out by estates, and therefore the privileged could be able to dictate their will. The third estate demanded a joint ballot so that decisions were made not on the majority of estates votes, but the majority of deputies.

The first attempt is considered to be one of the most significant victories of the third estate over the king, clergy, and the nobility. They declared themselves the National Assembly, and the king could not cancel decisions. After a feeble effort to force the National Assembly into obedience, the king yielded and ordered deputies from both the nobility and clergy to join the National Assembly.

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