What is the Third Estate

Hello, and welcome to Revolutions.

We left off last time with the de facto bankruptcy of the French monarchy in August 1788. The short term consequences of this bankruptcy was that it forced Principal Minister Brienne to suspend his attempts at financial and judicial reform, officially call for the convening of the Estates General, and then resign from office. 

The longer term consequences are almost incalculable, because this is what leads directly to, you know, the French Revolution. The medium term consequences, though, are really interesting, because, as we’ll see in today’s episode, the state’s bankruptcy represents a pivot point in the political contest that had been waged since 1786, when Controller-General Calonne had first revealed the terrible state of the Royal Treasury. Because up until now, this political contest had been waged among the elite, between the Royal Ministry and the Assembly of Notables, and then, more spectacularly, between the Royal Ministry and the Parlement. But by the end of today’s episode, the aristocracy will cease to be the leading edge of political agitation, giving way, unwillingly, of course, to the rising leadership of the Third Estate, who will today be invited into the political process for the first time. 

But before we can get into that, we need to briefly plot the trajectory of another really big missile that is about to slam into the side of the political crisis. And that is, of all things, the weather. Mother nature decided that just for fun she would ravage French agriculture just as the political structure of the kingdom was teetering on the brink. 

Now, the big picture, climate wise, was that from about 1550 to 1850, the earth, or at least the northern hemisphere, went through something called the Little Ice Age – basically a prolonged period of cooler temperatures. This little Ice Age was punctuated by three especially cold dips. The first beginning in 1650, the last beginning in 1850, and the second one, the one we care about, beginning in 1770. These climate fluctuations played hell with traditional farming expectations and almost certainly played a role in sparking the Flour War that we talked about back in Episode 3.3.

Compounding this problem was the great Laki eruption of 1783 up in Iceland. Unfolding over months, the Laki eruption pumped out enormous clouds of poisonous gas, wreaking havoc with the global atmosphere, killing livestock and crops, and leading to widespread famine. 

But despite these ongoing climate problems, in 1785, France enjoyed a pretty bountiful harvest that once again gave encouragement to the market reformers who followed in Turgot’s footsteps, like, for example, Calonne, Brienne and the Paris Parlement, who all agreed that lifting regulations on the grain trade would help solve the fiscal crisis. And so, as we saw, that’s what they did in 1787. But of course, the harvest of 1787 was not especially good. And so, just as with the Flour War, the market reforms only jacked up the price of bread and set the lower classes to fuming

In normal times, bread used up anywhere from 30% to 50% of an urban worker’s total income. Now it was climbing to the point where it was more like 60% to 90%. And naturally, this bloating of the bread prices reduced everyone’s disposable income, if they had any to begin with, which sent shockwaves through the burgeoning consumer economy and leading to economic slumps in places like Lyon, where soon something like 20,000 to 30,000 silk workers would be left idle. Or, for example, the glove manufacturers of Grenbole who also found themselves equally low on work and thus really, really motivated to keep the Grenoble Parlement off from being dispersed since it was the one stable economic engine the city had left. 

Now, we won’t know whether the harvest of 1788 were shaping up to alleviate the problems caused by the harvest of 1787, because on July 13, 1788, the whole north of the kingdom was ravaged by a devastating hailstorm – like softball sized hailstones that pummeled crops right into the ground. The grain supply was already short and now it was going to get shorter, and all leading into the winter of 1788-89, which everyone was about to find out would be the coldest winter on record

Luckily, with the cost of bread alone now using up the entire household budget, there would be nothing left over for other food, lighting, or heat. So it was into this volatile atmosphere that the King was about to invite the entire kingdom to take part in a mass airing of grievances, because there’s nothing quite like firing someone from their job, starving them for a few days, sticking them in a freezer and then asking “hey, you got any complaints about how things have been going lately?” 

But as much as I love just making that joke, that wasn’t exactly how it went. Because the group that was about to seize the initiative wasn’t the poor urban workers, though their time would come. It would instead be the educated, eloquent and ambitious elite of the Third Estate, the bourgeoisie. 

So, getting back to the story, after Brienne resigned at the end of August 1788, he was replaced by Jacques Necker, the Swiss Protestant banker who had been out in the political wilderness since being driven from the Royal Ministry back in 1781. In the meantime, he had dedicated himself to defending his time in office generally and his Compte Rendu specifically. It was this running defense that torpedoed Brienne’s attempt to bring Necker into the government after the fall of Calonne. 

Ignoring the king’s specific order to keep quiet during the Assembly of Notables, Necker got himself banished from Paris in April 1787. But his public reputation continued to flourish and Brienne actually tried a couple more times to bring Necker into the Ministry, if for no other reason than to mollify the kingdom’s creditors. But the King would have none of it. It was only after the Royal Treasury literally ran out of money that the King was forced to give in and invite Necker back into government. 

As with the announcement to convene the Estates General, the announcement that Necker was returning to power was celebrated by some pretty wild street parties, leading to clashes between overly jubilant crowds in Paris and the local police. But also like the Estates General, Necker had now become something of a mythical figure, capable of righting all wrongs, undoing all injustices, and saving the kingdom from ruin. The situation now was so bad and there was so much hope heaped onto his shoulders that even had he been a once-in-a-generation genius, Necker would have had trouble living up to expectations. But Necker was not a once-in-a-generation genius. He was a pretty decent banker and a really good self promoter but he was not the magical wizard that the public thought him to be. 

The third bit of news to kick off celebrations in the street came in mid September 1788, just a few weeks after Necker’s return to office. That was when it was announced that the Paris Parlement would be coming back from its vacation with all its previous authority restored. The return of the magistrates was greeted by exuberant public demonstrations that sometimes got a bit too exuberant, leading to further clashes with the police. But as I said last week, the magistrates of the Parlement were increasingly uneasy about their alliance with these unruly mobs. And so when they reconvened on September the 24th, they were all about restoring order, not resuming the fight. 

While saying that they would investigate police misconduct, they announced an immediate ban on the kinds of public demonstrations just recently held in their own honor. This was greeted with suspicious murmuring in the streets. Then the very next day, they jumped into the middle of the debate that had swept the country in their absence, and they came down squarely on the totally wrong side. 

Now, as you’ll recall, in announcing the convening of the Estates General, Brienne had invited everyone to weigh in on what form it should take. It had, after all, been 175 years so what do you guys think we should do? Now, it was thoughtful of him to ask, but there was an ulterior motive. He hoped that the resulting debate would divide the nobility from the commoners and, boy, was that starting to work like a charm

When Necker arrived, he encouraged this debate by freeing journalists jailed for their previous works and lifting the ban on private clubs. By inviting public comment on the issue, the Ministry had invited the Third Estate to look at itself and conclude that it was worthy not just of a seat at the table, but a dominant seat at the table. Almost immediately, a broad public consensus formed around the idea of doubling the representation of the Third Estate and then voting by head and not by order. 

With the Dauphiné Estates Provincial now meeting under those very terms, the public was given a visible model to point to and say like that, that is what we want the Estates General to look like, because if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for the whole kingdom. 

But of course, the nobility was concerned about losing control should such a democratic body be convened, and they started working behind the scenes to ensure that the King stayed true to traditional principles. So when the Paris Parlement reconvened, it would be the first public test of the aristocracy’s commitment to the public good. And they failed it badly, fatally. 

On September the 25th, the Parlement announced that it was their considered opinion that when the Estates met, it should be along the traditional lines of 1614, that is, equal representation and vote by order. This brought public support for the Parlement to a tire screeching halt. And right there, that was the ballgame for the Parlement

Since the beginning of the crisis, they had been the center of the action and the leaders of the fight but by coming down on the side of traditional composition of the Estates General, they utterly destroyed their political credibility. It was 1789, not 1614, and the old ways were just not going to cut it and anyone who thought that the old ways were going to cut it, well, they were dinosaurs, fast approaching extinction.

Wanting to move quickly to halt the financial crisis, Necker announced in early October that he was speeding up Brienne’s timetable and that the Estates General would now meet on January 1, 1789. To help wrap up the debate over the body’s composition, he decided to go back to the well that had worked so well for the Ministry the last time around and convene a second Assembly of Notables who would be tasked with sifting through all the arguments floating around out there and making a recommendation to the King about how the Estates General should be constituted. 

But though this Second Assembly would jam up the works just like its predecessor had, it was for the opposite reason. The First Assembly had been more radical than expected or at least less compliant than expected. The Second Assembly, though, was altogether more conservative than Necker had expected. After this new assembly convened on November 6, the first test vote came back a resounding 111 to 33 against doubling the representation of the Third Estate. The matter of voting by head never even made it to the floor. The nobility, it seemed, had come to realize that they probably had more to fear from an increasingly democratic France than an increasingly despotic France

As the latest news of the Assembly’s secret deliberations inevitably leaked into the press, the whole tenor of the political debate changed. Just a few months before, the aristocracy and the commons, for lack of better designations, had fought together against the tyrannical abuses of a Royal Ministry run amok. But now the commons identified their primary enemy not as the King, who began to be cast in the role of fatherly protector, but rather the selfish nobles who clung to their unjust privileges against all reason, justice, and mercy. An alliance between the King and a newly self conscious Third Estate against the aristocracy was now potentially in the making.

Now, as we just noted, the vote against doubling the Third in the second Assembly of Notables was decisive, but it was not unanimous, because, as we’ve seen, there was this thing called a liberal noble. These guys believe that the modernization of France required the nobility to renounce the old forms of prestige: exemption from taxes, the right to collect senior dues, the right to be insanely overrepresented in the Estates General and adopt new ones based on their superior education, experience, and merit. 

This was exactly the path laid out by Adrian Duport. Remember him? He was the young noble in the Paris Parlement who helped lead the resistance to Brienne’s reform package. Well, in November 1788, as the second Assembly of Notables was meeting, Duport took advantage of the unbanning of private clubs and began to host regular meetings at his house of like minded liberal nobles. This small and loose knit group was soon dubbed the Society of Thirty, and its membership roles read like a who’s who list of early revolutionary leaders

I will note some of them here briefly for the record, but we’ll deal with each of them in turn as they move towards the center of the action. There was Lafayette, of course, the hero of two worlds, the prominent lawyer, Target, who had once upon a time been Cardinal de Rohan’s counsel during the diamond necklace affair, the eminent philosopher and mathematician the Marquis de Condorcet, and the popular writer and orator the Comte de Mirabeau, who would turn out to be either a great hero of the people or a money grubbing turncoat, depending on who you talk to. And then two clergymen of note, Abbé Sieyès, who we’ll talk about more in a second and the Bishop of Autun, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand. Talleyrand to those of us in the English speaking world who will in time become the greatest Foreign Minister France has ever seen and I may as well say it right now, one of my all time favorite historical figures ever. We will deal more with Talleyrand much further down the road. 

The Society of Thirty, described by Condorcet as a conspiracy of decent men would help organize and lead the newly awakened Third Estate into political prominence. The Society was engaged in two major activities at this point. First, sponsoring pamphlets arguing the case of the Third Estate, and second, drawing up and distributing model petitions for various guilds and municipalities and clubs to flood Necker with over the winter to force him to accept doubling the Third and voting by head. 

By December 1788, over 800 such petitions had overflowed Necker’s inbox. And with the second Assembly of Notables either recommending the King go in the other direction or suggesting that maybe when the deputies of the Three Estates meet, their first order of business should be deciding for themselves what form their deliberation should take, Necker was forced to abandon his plan to convene the Estates early and go back to the original timetable of spring 1789. 

Before the Second Assembly officially dispersed in mid December, the Paris Parlement, led once again by Duport and d’Epremesnil, made a bid to reclaim some of the court’s lost prestige by issuing a clarification of their previous recommendation that the Estates meet on “traditional lines”. 

All this had meant, they argued with hilariously maintained straight faces, was that the electoral districts should remain the same. We for sure weren’t talking about how many delegates should be elected or how they should vote once they convened. No one bought this transparent revisionism. As for the King, in his considered opinion, the opinions of the Parlement no longer mattered. They had just put him through hell and he didn’t give two figs what they thought about anything. 

But as the Parlement was trying to regain public favor, the Princes of the Blood were about to tell the King to outright ignore it. Accepting the Duke d’Orléans and the Comte de Provence, the other five princes issued a memo to the King recommending, in the strongest possible language, convening the estates on the 1614 model. Once the public got a hold of this memo, as they now got a hold of pretty much everything, there was a sharp backlash against the Princes, leading to further polarization between the nobility and the emerging leadership of the Third Estate

Louis, meanwhile, was fed the heck up with his aristocracy. He was honestly trying to do the right thing, the best thing. And he was irritated by the Prince’s unnecessary poking of his people. And the movement towards an alliance between the King and the Third Estate got a little stronger. Finally, or at least it should have been finally, on December the 27th, Necker released a document called The Result of the King’s Council of State. Now, this should have been the formal declaration of how the Estates would convene and by what rules, putting to bed this particular argument. But instead, it only invited further trouble. 

Though it unequivocally stated that the Third Estate’s representation would be doubled, it was silent on the question of voting and on the electoral process. So gee wiz, thanks for the clarification, I guess, we’ll just go back to our acrimonious little war over the details. 

Now, with so many major questions left unanswered, the Society of Thirty sponsored a pamphlet written by the Abbé Sieyès that was designed to become one of the great documents of the French Revolution. Sieyès was technically a clergyman, but had long been engaged in Enlightenment pursuits. And as a commoner, he had dealt first hand with the nobility’s unenlightened privileges. Intelligent and ambitious, Sieyès had been frustrated by the nobility’s lock on all the top positions within the Church hierarchy. Already skeptical of that hierarchy, this frustration led him naturally towards more radical philosophizing, when the country became consumed with the question of how to convene the Estates General. 

His contribution to the debate was a pamphlet entitled “What is the Third Estate?” In it, he minces no words and pulls no punches. The Third Estate, he says, was not an order. It is instead the nation itself. The other two estates are just parasites sucking the life out of France.

What is the Third Estate? he asks. Everything. What has it been hitherto in the political order? Nothing. What does it desire to be? Something. When the Estates convened, he recommended that the delegates from the Third ignore the other two orders and declare themselves to be the only legitimate National Assembly

“What is the Third Estate?” was hugely influential, and it is impossible to ignore the fact that, though it wasn’t necessarily planned, the early days of the Estates General pretty much went according to Sieyès’ prescription. 

Meanwhile, out in the provinces, everyone got a sneak peek of what was to come when the various Provincial Estates, which had been given permission to convene, started trying to get together. Because right away there were clashes between the nobility and the Third Estate over the number of deputies and how they would vote. This became especially critical because Necker had not yet revealed how the process of selecting delegates to the Estates General would work, and everyone sort of assumed they would be elected from the Estates Provincial. So controlling them meant controlling the Estates General. 

When the estates of Brittany, for example, attempted to convene in January, the inter-Estate fighting got so bitter that a Royal order came down to postpone the meeting for a month. The ticked off nobles went ahead and met anyway. And then the Parlement of Rennes, the region’s capital, declared that all the spontaneous municipal assemblies that were cropping up were in fact illegal, which raised tensions and caused the city’s law students, who had just recently been the street muscle of the pro-Parlement demonstrations, to defect to the cause of the Third Estate. 

On January 26, the Bretton nobles then organized a counter demonstration to support the traditional order, filling a lot of the seats with the further call to lower the price of bread. I wonder which excited the demonstrators more? This counter demonstration was then counter counter demonstrated against street clashes ensued, and the nobles wound up barricaded inside their meeting hall. They would eventually have to fight their way out, literally swords in hand. 

With all of this proceeding in such an orderly manner, Necker decided maybe he should be a little more clear about how the Estates would be elected. Though he once again sidestepped the question of vote by order or vote by head, on January 24, 1789, he did break down the electoral procedure for everyone, and immediately the Provincial Estates stopped being a battleground because they would not, I repeat, not be electing delegates to the Estates General. 

Instead, voting would go by these old divisions, one of those random internal political lines that overlap with everything else. In addition to these regional voting districts, eight of the bigger cities, like Paris and Lyon, would be allowed to elect their own delegates. So in all, there were 234 constituencies of about equal size. Each would convene a separate assembly for each order, the nobles would elect two delegates, the Church would elect delegates, and the Third Estate would elect four delegates. Anyone would be allowed to represent anyone else as long as the electoral assembly selected them. Now, obviously, the nobility and the Church would only allow their own to represent them but this did lead to fears that the nobles would exploit the people’s natural deference to get themselves elected as the Third Estate’s representatives. But this only happened in a handful of cases, and most of those guys were in fact in favor of the Third Estate. 

The January 24 decree also laid down the suffrage requirements, which would wind up having a huge impact on who actually showed up for the Estates General. Participation in the First Estate electoral assemblies was open to all priests and then one representative per monastic order. This rather broad base meant that the vast majority of those participating in the electoral assemblies for the Church were ordinary parish priests rather than high ranking noble bishops. And as we’ll see, the men sent as delegates and the grievances they carried with them very much reflected this reality. 

The Second Estate, meanwhile, was open to only those with a hereditary title, which excluded all recently enabled men whose hereditary rights hadn’t kicked in yet. That meant that the Second Estate’s elections were controlled by decidedly more conservative elements. Even the super noble courtiers were viewed suspiciously when they returned to their quote unquote homes that they had, in many cases, never actually been to, and found election not nearly as automatic as they thought it would be. 

Finally, there was the Third Estate too numerous to handle anything but indirect representation. Male taxpayers 25 years or older were allowed to come to a primary assembly that would elect delegates to go on to a further assembly that would elect the actual delegates to the Estates General. What this meant was that to move on to that further assembly, you had to have the time and the means to afford it. And then, of course, the skill and eloquence to convince the primary voters to send you. Which meant that the one group within the Third Estate who really fit the bill were the lawyers. There would be a lot of lawyers representing the Third Estate

The other major task of these assemblies was to drop a list of grievances called cahiers. Basically, what do you think is wrong, what do you think we should do about it? These cahiers have become justifiably famous in the academic world, because when else does history leave for you a comprehensive accounting of a society’s collective complaints and their collective dreams right on the eve of a major revolution? It is an insanely rich and detailed primary source for just what the French people were thinking about right before the French Revolution broke out.

With every municipality and village allowed to drop their own list, in the end, something like 25,000 of these things were floating around from every corner in the kingdom. Plus, Necker made a conscious decision not to try to influence the process of drawing them up, so they are all pretty unfiltered.

Now, of course, as with the previous round of petitions, so called model cahiers were distributed to make it easier for the inexperienced locals to pick and choose from preselected grievances. But they almost always had particular complaints tacked on about how, hey, that bridge has been out for a while and you keep not doing anything about it. With each delegation from each order, from each constituency tasked with bringing in a cahiers with them to the Estates General. The final list naturally reflected the composition of the various electoral assemblies. 

So the bishops of the First Estate had to watch in horror as the Church’s delegations marched off with lists that included higher stipends for local priests, tithe money going to where tithe money was supposed to go to, and the opening of administrative posts to everyone, noble or not. 

But as anti-noble as these grievances were, even the parish priests wanted to make sure that no one messed with the supremacy of the Catholic Church and its centrality to French community life. And it will be over that issue that the revolutionaries will eventually turn their allies among the lesser clergy into their enemies. 

The cahiers of the Second Estate, meanwhile, was defined by nothing so much as their lack of unity. What the courtiers wanted was not what the poor provincials wanted, and neither of them wanted what the young liberals wanted. The only thing that appears to have been universally agreed upon was that their tax exemption was now indefensible. For the good of France, they were willing to renounce that privilege. But other than that, the nobility was at completely crossed purposes with itself. 

The cahiers of the Third Estate, meanwhile, were the most numerous and by far the most far reaching. But, as with the nobility, there was a great divide within the Third Estate about its aspirations. On the one hand, there were the vast hordes of peasants who asked for things like stable bread prices, less tyrannical tax collection, no more abuses from local lords, and on the other, with the modernizing reformers of the urban bourgeoisie who wanted free markets, individual liberty, both fiscal and civic equality. 

But the funny thing was that though all the rural municipalities took the time to draw up grievance lists and take them to the primary assemblies, when their representatives took them onto the next level, most of the suggestions from the rural peasants were edited out. After all, those secondary assemblies were all filled with merchants and doctors and lawyers. So the official cahiers brought by the delegates of the Third Estate reflected the platform of the bourgeoisie, not the rural peasants

With the elections for the Estates General progressing into March and April 1789, the kingdom continued to be plagued by food shortages and general unrest. In many places, the sheer fact of listing the grievances was believed to impart some de facto legality to the proposed reforms. And the people started refusing to recognize feudal obligations, pay much despised taxes, or put up with long suffered abuses. 

This unrest was spread around pretty equally between the towns and the countryside. But they exploded most violently in Paris itself, with the Réveillon Riot.

In an ill-considered remark, a self made businessman named Réveillon, who owned a major wallpaper factory, said that price controls on bread needed to be ended. This, he said, would lower the cost of bread, permitting workers to be paid less, which would lead to lower cost of goods, leading back around to prosperity for everyone. But all the workers heard was that Réveillon was going to cut their wages at a moment when every livre was going to pay for bread that was just barely sustaining them. The misinterpreted remarks sparked a riot, the sacking of Réveillon’s house, and major street clashes that left at least 25 dead. And I’ve seen estimates that run that number into the hundreds. The battle cry of the rioting workers was the King, the Third, and Necker. So this was the atmosphere in Paris just as the delegates from the provinces began to arrive at Versailles to begin their epoch-making meeting of the Estates General. 

Next week, we will get to dive right into the opening of the Estates General, and this is where things will start to get moving in a big hurry. First up on the docket, that little question of voting by order or voting by head, which had still not yet been resolved and would lead directly to a constitutional crisis right off the bat.

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2 responses to “What is the Third Estate”

  1. I keep reading this, my birthday is July 25 I’m fan

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