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The Class System in the French Revolution

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  • 0:03 The Three Estates
  • 1:24 Causes of the Revolution
  • 2:40 Liberte, Equalite & Fraternite
  • 3:34 Napoleonic Code
  • 4:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Erin Carroll

Erin has taught English and History. She has a bachelor's degree in History, and a master's degree in International Relations

In this lesson, you'll learn about the social class system in France during the French Revolution. First, you'll find out how the class system worked before the revolution, then you'll learn how the old system changed during the revolution.

The Three Estates

Ancien Régime means 'Old Order.' It was the way that French society was ordered before the French Revolution. At the top of the societal pyramid was the king. The king was an absolute monarch, which meant that he obtained his right to rule from God, and, in theory, could do whatever he wanted. The rest of society was divided up into three estates.

The First Estate was made up of the Catholic clergy. The Catholic Church was very important in France. It was in charge of churches and some government tasks and advising the king. It was also tax exempt.

The Second Estate was made up of the nobility. These were aristocrats who inherited their titles and wealth and paid no taxes. They also had influence with the king.

The Third Estate included everybody else and ranged from peasants to lawyers and wealthy businessmen. They made up about 96% of the French population, which had to shoulder the country's entire tax burden. The third estate was especially interesting because it contained the bourgeoisie, or budding middle class. For most of European history, a time when kings and nobility lorded over the peasants and serfs, the middle class didn't really exist. However, the more educated and increasingly prosperous bourgeoisie wanted - and demanded - more rights and privileges in France.

Causes of the Revolution

Historians disagree about what caused the French Revolution, but one theory is that people in the Third Estate, especially the bourgeoisie, were tired of the Ancien Régime and wanted a more equal society. France was in bad economic shape due to massive debt and food shortages. The common people of France were hungry and angry because while they paid all the taxes, they had no rights - and certainly no food. The Estates-General, which was a meeting of all three estates, was called to try and fix France's problems.

At the Estates-General, things went badly. Although the Third Estate represented the vast majority of the French people, the group only had one vote on the issues. Each estate only got one vote, and more often than not, the First and Second Estates teamed up to outvote the Third Estate. After plenty of fighting and frustration, the Third Estate announced that it was done and left to create the National Assembly, a new government body. Worry spread that the king was going to crack down on the Third Estate and common people. In response, the people of Paris stormed the Bastille, a prison fortress, and grabbed ammunition and weapons to defend themselves. The common people were armed, angry, and ready to upend the whole system: the French Revolution had officially begun.

Liberté, Equalité, Fraternité

The National Assembly was now the de facto government of France. Since most of its members were from the Third Estate, the Assembly took steps to change the class system in France and distribute wealth and influence more equally. The Assembly abolished the Ancien Régime and ended the three-estate system. Then, in 1789, it passed the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen, which affirmed that, 'Men are born free and equal in rights; social distinctions may be based only upon general usefulness.'.

The rallying cry of 'liberté, equalité, fraternité', or 'liberty, equality, and fraternity,' emerged as French revolutionaries demanded a new social order. Aristocrats would now have to pay taxes like everyone else, while peasants would not have to pay dues to use their lands. Additionally, the Catholic Church lost both land and money.

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