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The Estates General

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By — McGraw-Hill Professional
Updated on Feb 3, 2012

The Estates General

The Estates General was a large group of officials divided into three categories by social status. The First Estate was made of clergymen, the Second Estate of hereditary nobles, and the Third Estate of commoners.

The First Estate

Members of the First Estate had two things in common: they were all employed by the Catholic Church, and they were all therefore exempt from paying taxes. Apart from that, however, they were a diverse group of men, from wealthy aristocrats to poor commoners. High-ranking bishops and cardinals lived in style and luxury, while parish priests suffered nearly as much from poverty and hunger as the peasants in their congregations. These poorer priests had a great deal of sympathy with the members of the Third Estate.

The Second Estate

The Second Estate was made up of the hereditary nobility. Like the clergy, the French nobility was tax-exempt. These aristocrats owned most of the land that did not belong to the Church or the state. Only members of the Second Estate were eligible for high government office. Many were nearly bankrupt because of the custom of the times that allowed noblemen to live on credit—to run up enormous debts that tradesmen had little power to compel them to pay. It was quite common for a French aristocrat of the time to have an empty purse but still eat well and dress expensively.

The Third Estate

The Third Estate included all French subjects who were neither aristocrats nor clergymen—a much larger group than the First or Second Estate. This group included a much greater variety of people—peasants, artists, intellectuals, and members of the French middle class, or bourgeoisie. Like the clergy, some members of the Third Estate were very wealthy, others very poor. The most crucial difference was that members of the Third Estate had to pay taxes. In spite of representing the greatest number of people, the Third Estate had the least power and influence over national policy.

Members of the Estates General did not vote individually; each estate received one vote on any question that arose in debate. This of course meant that the Third Estate was usually outvoted by two to one; the clergy and aristocracy were hardly likely to vote to help shoulder the tax burden or to make any other changes to a system that protected their privileges. However, some members of the Third Estate realized that the time for change might have arrived. There were important bonds between many members of the First and Third Estates. First, many of the clergy were commoners, not nobles. Second, many of them were badly off financially; like members of the Third Estate, they were aware of the desperate need for reform.

Practice questions for these concepts can be found at:

The French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars Practice Test

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