What Was the 'Third Estate'?

The group that drove the French Revolution

Oath of the Tennis Court etching
Oath of the Tennis Court: the deputies of the third estate meeting in the tennis court at the Château of Versailles, swearing not to disperse until a constitution is assured. Etching by L-F. Couché after J. L. David.

Wellcome Images / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY 4.0

In early modern Europe, the 'Estates' were a theoretical division of a country's population, and the 'Third Estate' referred to the mass of normal, everyday people. They played a vital role in the early days of the French Revolution, which also ended the common use of the division.

The Three Estates

Sometimes, in late medieval and early France, a gathering termed an 'Estates General' was called. This was a representative body designed to rubber-stamp the decisions of the king. It was not a parliament as the English would understand it, and it often didn't do what the monarch was hoping for, and by the late eighteenth century had fallen out of royal favor. This 'Estates General' divided the representatives who came to it into three, and this division was often applied to French society as a whole. The First Estate was comprised of the clergy, the Second Estate the nobility, and the Third Estate everyone else.

Makeup of the Estates

The Third Estate was thus a vastly larger proportion of the population than the other two estates, but in the Estates General, they only had one vote, the same as the other two estates had each. Equally, the representatives who went to the Estates General weren't drawn evenly across all of society: they tended to be the well to do clergy and nobles, such as the middle class. When the Estates General was called in the late 1780s, many of the Third Estates representatives were lawyers and other professionals, rather than anyone in what would be considered in socialist theory 'lower class.'

The Third Estate Makes History

The Third Estate would become a very important early part of the French Revolution. In the aftermath of France's decisive aid to the colonists in the American War of Independence, the French crown found itself in a terrible financial position. Experts on finance came and went, but nothing was resolving the issue, and the French king accepted appeals for an Estates General to be called and for this to rubber-stamp financial reform. However, from a royal point of view, it went terribly wrong.

The Estates was called, the votes were had, and representatives arrived to form the Estates General. But the dramatic inequality in voting—the Third Estate represented more people, but only had the same voting power as the clergy or the nobility—led to the Third Estate demanding more voting power, and as things developed, more rights. The king mishandled events, and so did his advisors, while members of both the clergy and the nobility went over (physically) to the Third Estate to support their demands. In 1789, this led to the creation of a new National Assembly that better represented those not part of the clergy or nobility. In turn, they also effectively started the French Revolution, which would sweep away not just the king and the old laws but the whole Estates system in favor of citizenship. The Third Estate had therefore left a major mark on history when it effectively gained the power to dissolve itself.

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Wilde, Robert. "What Was the 'Third Estate'?" ThoughtCo, May. 3, 2021, thoughtco.com/what-was-the-third-estate-1221471. Wilde, Robert. (2021, May 3). What Was the 'Third Estate'? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-third-estate-1221471 Wilde, Robert. "What Was the 'Third Estate'?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-was-the-third-estate-1221471 (accessed March 30, 2023).