The French Revolution; Social Classes
Three main social groups coexisted during the French Revolution: Clergy or “First State”, the Nobility or “Second State” and the bourgeoisie and the peasants or “Third State”. No matter that the “Third State” was the majority of the French population, the right of property was unequally distributed since 10% of the total property was owned by 1% of the population and 97% of the population owned only 55% of the total French land. (S6).
Besides, the “Third State” was subject to several taxes benefiting the clergy and the nobility and its members could barely survive because they were also obliged to give for free the products they cultivated from the land. The “First State” wanted to keep the existing “status quo”. That meant to keep its privileges, its possessions and the exemption from taxation. Their reluctance to accept changes generated violence and terror resulting in the beheading of King Louis XVI and many other people (S8).
The “Second State” enjoyed privileges that ranged from ownership of big pieces of land to exemption of taxation and specific taxes established on their benefit (S2). The bourgeoisie was the middle class composed of merchants that was the main thrust behind the French Revolution. The bourgeoisie wanted power and privilege commensurate with their place in business and administration. A severe financial crisis of the monarchy, a lack of food and particularly bread (S3) plus severe limitations posed to their aspirations by the “First and Second States” are the main reasons to explain the French Revolution.
By 1794, the bourgeoisie reasserted its control but could not consolidate itself through representative institutions, so it had to surrender its power to Napoleon Bonaparte (S4). When Bonaparte is defeated by the Russians in 1812 and during the restoration (1814-1815) the bourgeoisie found the regime it most suited its aspirations no matter its limited electorate and constitutional government setting. The Third State was integrated by the peasants. They represented 26 million people – 97% of the French population – and as it was mentioned before, they were the owners of only 55% of the total territory of France.
Without their participation the French Revolution could have not been realized. Their complaints were the most important matters of the National Assembly. However, there were no peasant members in that assembly. When they realized that their demands were neglected no matter that they were the majority of the French population, they decided to give a full strike to the “establishment” causing the French Revolution to crystallize. Peasants wanted equality for everyone (S2 and S5) since they had suffered abuses and exactions that benefited the “First and Second States”(S11 – “Le peuple sous l’ancien regime).
The monarchy called the Estates-General hoping to pacify social unrest and demands but on the contrary it provided the occasion for the bourgeoisie to seize power and reshape social, legal and political institutions according to its own interests (S12). After a long period away from power, during the restoration (1814-1815) they were able to regain power but for a brief period of time. The Third State proposed that a civilized society should be built on liberty, equality and fraternity and that it could attain those objectives through the adoption of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.
Among those principles enshrined in that declaration are : men are born equal in rights; every society should aim at the common wellness; sovereignty resides exclusively on the nation; that law has to be approved as a result of a consent of the majority; freedom of speech and religion; the elimination of the difference between rich and poor people and the establishment the principle according to which every country had to have three independent powers – executive, legislative and judiciary – to run a successful government(S12).
As a result the Clergy and the Nobility lost most of their privileges. Generation of authorities was only possible through democracy and not through autocratic processes (S7 and S10). Responsibility to educate young generations was transferred from the clergy to the civil government (Packet 3, Page 45-46). National Constituent Assembly operated a profound change in every aspect of the French political, legal and judicial systems giving preeminence to the bourgeoisie over the Clergy, Nobility and the Peasants.
However, Peasants also met their aspirations that were to overthrow the monarchy and become equal in social standards with the nobility. In addition, the Directory (1795-1799) transformed the Republic into a Military dictatorship. In the end, the meaning of the words “liberty”, “equality” and “fraternity” that inspired the French Revolution ended up having different meaning for the social classes involved in the French Revolution. Overall, the poverty had the best effect of the French Revolution.