The Second Estate

The Second Estate consisted of the nobility of France prior to the French Revolution. Although only a small proportion of the population, these aristocrats held vast amounts of wealth and dominated key government posts. The nobility also benefited from a range of privileges, including exemption from some forms of taxation. 

The Second Estate was deeply divided prior to the revolution of 1789, with some members playing leading roles in the revolution’s progression. 

Who comprised the Second Estate?

Estimates of the size of the Second Estate vary, although it’s generally accepted that the nobility comprised about 1 – 1.5% of the French population. Abbe Sieyes states that there were approximately 110,000 nobles in France prior to the revolution (a figure Historian George Lefebvre says is likely undercounting), while Historian Christopher Hibbert places the figure at 400,000. The Second Estate was made up of all members of the nobility who were not members of the First Estate. This included members of the royal family, although not the King himself. The King was considered to be separate from all three estates.  

A drawing from the 18th century depicting members of the Second Estate.
A depiction of French nobles from the mid-18th century. The Second Estate was often depicted in ways that highlighted their perceived wealth and extravagant lifestyles.

Privileges of the Second Estate

The nobility of the old regime enjoyed multiple privileges. Most famously, the nobility was exempt from paying direct taxes. It is untrue to state that the nobility paid no tax, as they were subject to paying indirect taxes on various goods. However, the vast majority of the kingdom’s taxation burden fell upon the Third Estate while the First Estate and Second Estate enjoyed significant exemptions. 

In addition to tax exemptions, the Second Estate enjoyed a large number of non-financial privileges. Only members of the nobility were eligible for certain government posts such as ambassadorships and military commands. Furthermore, the highest positions in the Church and the judicial system were reserved for the aristocracy. 

Finally, many nobles, particularly the rural gentry, had a collection of bespoke rights known as seigneurial rights. These seigneurial rights varied greatly in nature. Examples include the right to a monopoly on the bread oven for the village or on presses to process olives and grapes. Another example includes the ability to enforce levies on marriage or the transferring of property. Seigneurial rights were not exclusively possessed by members of the Second Estate, but it was a privilege that significant numbers of the nobility enjoyed. These rights often caused resentment towards the aristocracy by those members of the Third Estate who were disadvantaged by them.

Joining the Second Estate

Prior to the French Revolution, it was possible to purchase nobility through the process of venality. ‘Venal offices’ were sold by French Kings to members of the Third Estate as a means of raising much-needed income for the state. The practice commenced in the late 16th century and had had the double benefit of not only providing the state immediate revenue but also reducing royal expenditure (the officeholder would be paid only a minimal salary). Those who purchased an office would be rewarded with a range of benefits, possibly including accession to the Second Estate. In addition to joining the nobility, other benefits might include certain privileges or taxation exemptions. 

The sale of venal offices increased throughout the 18th century. As different offices would confer different types of privileges, the cost of each office varied. Some offices could be purchased for 20,000 livres (a substantial sum for the time), while more desirable offices might fetch a price of more than 50,000. Due to the fact that these offices often granted the owner taxation exemptions (and these exemptions could be inherited by their heir), the purchase of these offices could have long-term financial benefits in addition to the social prestige of joining the nobility. 

It is estimated that roughly half the nobility had been ennobled in the previous two centuries prior to the revolution of 1789. A significant proportion of these aristocrats gained their nobility through the purchase of venal offices. Many purchasers were merchants who acquired their wealth by leveraging France’s lucrative trade networks. Others made their fortunes from banking, colonial investments, or tax farming.

Perceptions of the Second Estate

Given the significant wealth and luxurious lifestyles of some members of the nobility, the aristocracy was often seen in a negative light by members of the Third Estate. In particular, many commoners perceived the Second Estate to be indulgent, unproductive, and disconnected from reality. Gossip and libels highlighted the excesses of the court in Versailles, amplifying sexual promiscuity, gambling, and other actions deemed to be immoral in the 18th century. It was perceived by many commoners that the nobility played while the commonfolk worked. 

This perception did not always align with reality, with many members of the rural gentry being almost indistinguishable in lifestyle from their well-off bourgeois neighbors. While the aristocracy of the court may have had the means to focus excessively on pleasure, many nobles lacked the ability or the desire to do so. 

A Divided Aristocracy

The Second Estate was deeply divided on the eve of the French Revolution. Inspired by the ideas of the Enlightenment, some members of the aristocracy sought to reform the existing regime and introduce constitutional government. Seeking to emulate aspects of both the United States and Great Britain, these nobles wished to establish a constitutional monarchy and guarantee the rights of citizens through new laws. Others vehemently disagreed and sought to preserve the status quo (and importantly, the position of the aristocracy within pre-revolutionary French society).

The nobility was also divided along religious lines. While 97% of France was nominally Catholic, the number of practicing Catholics was substantially less. This was also true amongst the nobility. Furthermore, a small proportion of the nobility were protestants or atheists, resulting in further division amongst the nobility due to religious differences.

Finally, the material wealth of the nobility varied dramatically. While the nobles who resided in court were famed for their excessive wealth and lifestyle, many members of the rural nobility were relatively poor. According to Historian Simon Schama, roughly 5,000 noble families couldn’t even afford a horse, a dog, and a sword, the traditional requirements for any self-respecting noble. In fact, approximately 60% of noble families lived in conditions similar to their bourgeois neighbors.

Liberal Nobles and the French Revolution of 1789

Some members of the Second Estate played prominent roles in the revolution of 1789, leading the revolution and the Third Estate at key moments. This included members of the military (Lafayette and the Lameth Brothers), judiciary (Duport), and Church (Talleyrand). It also included other nobles (Mirabeau). These liberal nobles were particularly prominent during the National Assembly (1789-1791) but were less influential during the Legislative Assembly and the Convention. As the revolution radicalized, many liberal nobles who initially championed reforms lost faith in the revolution or began to advocate for its reversal. 

Although a small group, liberal nobles became very powerful in french politics from 1788 to 1791. Several factors contributed to the growth of this small but influential group. These included the entry of former commoners into the nobility, the influence of the Enlightenment, the reduction in censorship, and the proliferation of political and philosophical texts. The growth of these liberal nobles was also encouraged by the success of the United State of America and the broader economic modernization occurring in the French economy. 

Liberal ideas can be seen in many of the cahiers de doléances (‘list of grievance’) that were drafted by the Second Estate for the Estates-General of 1789. More liberal lists called for the establishment of constitutional government and the establishment of taxation equality. However, not all cahiers de doléances were so progressive, and many members of the Second Estate sought to protect their unique privileges in french society. 

Quick Answers for Students

Did the Second Estate pay taxes?

Members of the nobility were exempt from most taxes, but they still paid some indirect taxes on goods and commodities. It is not true to say that they were exempt from all taxes, but they were exempt from the vast majority. 

Why did the Second Estate join the National Assembly?

Delegates representing the Second Estate at the Estates-General only joined the newly formed National Assembly when they saw no other choice. Although the King ordered all three estates to sit separately on the 23rd of June in the Séance Royale (Royal Session), the Third Estate refused to comply. Insisting that it now formed the ‘National Assembly, the Third Estate was joined by a majority of the First Estate the next day (June 24) when a majority of clerics voted to join the National Assembly. On the 25th of June, 47 liberal nobles defected from their own estate and joined the new legislature. With the King admitting defeat, the second estate joined the National Assembly on the 27th of June after the King ordered the three estates to meet as one body. 

How many nobles were there in pre-revolutionary France?

It is generally accepted that the nobility comprised about 1 – 1.5% of the French population in pre-revolutionary France. Upper estimates place the figure at about 400,000 people. 

How many nobles represented the Third Estate in the Estates-General?

58 nobles were elected as representatives of the Third Estate for the Estates-General of 1789. 

Who were the leading nobles of the National Assembly?

Multiple aristocrats took leading positions in the National Assembly. Originally Mirabeau, Lafayette, and Talleyrand played prominent roles. In 1791, during the height of the Feulliant Club’s influence, the Lameth brothers and Duport were also prominent nobles who played leading roles in the revolution. 

Why was Jacques Necker not made a noble?

As Jacques Necker was a foreigner (he was Swiss), King Louis XVI could not make him a member of the nobility. Louis XVI could not make Necker a french citizen because he was a protestant.

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