The Estates General Meeting and the French Revolution

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  • 0:05 Estates General
  • 0:58 Meeting Purpose
  • 1:21 Third Estate Response
  • 2:23 Road to Revolution
  • 2:51 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

The French Revolution forever changed the face of France and all of Europe. It got its start with a meeting of the Estates General called by King Louis XVI.


Few countries demonstrated the complete power of a monarch like France during the Age of Absolutism, which was a period of European history from the 16th century to the 19th century, where the kings and queens held all the power of the state. Even afterwards, while other nations were developing the political institutions that would eventually allow the people to have more power, the monarchs of France held their political power close. That's not to say that they acted as if they knew everything. In times when they needed to consult the people, they held the Estates General, a gathering of the representatives of the three estates.

The First Estate was composed of the clergy, the Second Estate was comprised of the nobility, and the Third Estate was made up of commoners. During the 17th century, this system worked well. However, by the end of the 18th century, it was woefully out of date.

Meeting Purpose

In 1789, King Louis XVI called for the Estates General to meet and consider how to best handle the French debt. France had supported the United States against the British during The American Revolution, acquiring serious debt as a result. Those debts had to be paid, which meant an increase in taxes. While the French King's rule was absolute, it was still best for him to seek the approval of the people.

Third Estate Response

Even before the meeting of the Estates General started, it was clear that problems existed within its voting system. The First and Second Estates, comprised of the clergy and the nobility, respectively, agreed that each Estate should get one vote. This put the Third Estate at a disadvantage, because it had more representatives at the Estates General, it would effectively be silenced by the other two Estates.

In the past, the people of the Third Estate might have accepted this voting arrangement. But the French commoners, many of whom were now much wealthier, expected more political rights. As a result, the Third Estate rebelled against this state of affairs and effectively negated their own power. This gave more voting power to the nobles and to the Church.

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