Question: What was the wealth distribution between social classes in France, and how did it affect the French Revolution?

Wealth Distribution Between Social Classes in France (18th Century)

The Three Estates

In the late 1700s, before the French Revolution, France’s social and political system was called the Old Regime. Under this system, people in France were divided up into three main social classes, called estates. The First Estate was made up of the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church. It made up only 1% of France’s total population, yet it owned 10% of the land in France. About 2% of its income was used to pay taxes to the government. The Second Estate consisted of rich nobles; it made up 2% of France’s population and owned about 20% of French land. These nobles paid almost no taxes. The Third Estate made up 97% of France’s population. This estate consisted of the bourgeoisie and urban workers such as tradespeople, apprentices, laborers, and domestic servants.

Rioting members of the third estate

The Revolt

Despite the fact that the Third Estate did all working of the land and created common objects, it was subject to heavy taxes and received poor treatment from the higher estates. It did not have equal government representation and had little influence in voting procedures. In addition, it reaped little or no benefits from the work it did as it lost half of its income to taxes. This caused many people in the lower classes to resent those in the higher estates.

The Oath of the Tennis Court
This led to the Third Estate joining a union and rose up against the French government. In a radical attempt to change the government, they vowed not to separate until a constitution was created and put into effect for France. Eventually, a document was created that asserted the Third Estate’s allegiance to the government, gave it influence in votes, and that lifted the heavy taxes it had. However this document was an important step in starting the French revolution; it was the basis of a greater revolt against the French monarchy, which had decreased France’s economy through extravagant spending and large debts. In addition, bad weather in the 1780s caused crop failures, which resulted in a shortage of grain. These occurrences left France open for change - a change that the French Revolution would bring.


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