The French Revolution of 1789 ferociously transformed the country from a monarchical state with feudalism, which was characterised by distinct social classes, to a modern state typified by freedom, and shifted greater power into the hands of the Third Estate. This essay aims to explore the economic, political and social situation of France prior to the revolution to discover why such a historic occurrence took place.
An understanding of the socio-political structure of France in the 1700s is of paramount importance to our analysis. The three categories of estate that existed in France formed a hierarchal pyramid, which was a typical formulation in the Western World at this time. What led France, in particular, therefore, to have a revolution? An analysis of this common structure is vital to answering this question.
At the apex was the King and beneath him were the First Estate of the clergy, the Second Estate of the nobility and the Third Estate of the commoners and those from other professions.
The Ancien Régime of the country at the time meant that all citizens were ruled by King Louis XVI ‘absolutely’. Their long subscription to the divine right of the kings, a political and religious doctrine of royal and political legitimacy, meant that the ruler of all three estates, the king, was not accountable to his people, for he was unelected. If citizens cannot scrutinise their ruler, how can they trust them to rule in a just manner? As Thomas Paine highlights; “men holding themselves accountable to nobody, ought not to be trusted by anybody”. Awareness for such plausible scepticism and mistrust flourished in the eighteenth century alongside growing resentment of the countries unequal social order.
The king allowed the first two estates to reap significant privileges, even though they represented a minute proportion of the population. They were the wealthiest and yet they were mostly exempt from taxes. It was the Third Estate at the base of the pyramid that “underwrote the cost of the first two estates through taxes, seigniorial dues and tithes imposed upon them.” Despite constituting the majority of the population, the Third Estate had the fewest representatives in the Estates-General, an assembly of people summoned and chosen by the king to advise him. Inevitably, discontent arose amongst the bourgeoisie, who aimed to take assertive action to overthrow the rigid, unrepresentative and unequal social order.
“the bourgeois aim was civil equality; they wished to destroy the privileges of the nobility and the clergy and establish a regime where all men obeyed the same laws, paid taxes on the same basis”
‘The Enlightenment’ provided the Third Estate with further justification for their criticism of French feudal society. This was a cultural movement in the 18th century. Intellectuals such as Voltaire and Rousseau highlighted reason and individualism as a challenge against ideas which followed tradition and faith. One widely discussed theory was...