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Eighteenth-Century Studies 34.3 (2001) 337-362

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"In Praise of the Third Estate": Religious and Social Imagery in the Early French Revolution

Christopher Hodson


As he satirized the selfish luxury of the Old-Regime aristocracy, the author of the 1789 pamphlet, Le de profundis de la noblesse et du clergé (The De profundis of the Nobility and the Clergy), noted a curious trend in the writings of his peers. "Here, it is a Gloria in excelsis adapted to the alleged prerogatives of the Third Estate," lamented the pamphlet's aristocratic narrator, "there, a Magnificat to be entoned, they say, at the first Vespers of the Estates General." Written during the raging controversy over the composition of the Estates General, these and other religion-inspired pamphlets, the author claimed, sought to "elevate the plebeians at our [the nobility's] expense." 1 Popular works such as these shared a heavy reliance on Christian imagery and scriptural language that propagated the idea of a Manichaean split between the Third Estate and the nobility. When applied to Old-Regime politics, religious rhetoric highlighted the need either to vote by head or to double the Third's representation in the upcoming Estates General.

Le Magnificat du Tiers-État (The Magnificat of the Third Estate), for example, separated the Third from the nobility by extolling the righteousness of workers, which it contrasted with the impiety of the elite. The author described the Third as "the worker, as well as the plowman," as "people who work ceaselessly," while reminding the reader that "the Savior of nations, by living only with men of the third estate . . . made the universe see that we are of preference his people and his cherished children." 2 In contrast, the clergy and nobility had forgotten that "the rich . . . would have [End Page 337] insurmountable difficulties being saved . . . their haughtiness will almost never get on well with Christian humility." 3 Dispirited by the Third's pretensions to equality, the narrator of Le de profundis recalled with nostalgic pleasure that "We [the nobility], from birth, need only to rest," whereas commoners are forced to "subject themselves to work." 4 He decried the social consequences of 1789, especially his forced association with "men of all classes, bourgeois, lawyers, workers, and even peasants," blaming the mess on "The Bible, yes the Bible, which, unfortunately, everyone reads, and which gives no more privilege to the noble than to the artisan." 5 Like the examples above, many pamphlets of 1789 combined two justifications--one based on productivity, the other on divine calling--for the presence of the Third Estate in the Estates General.

This sharp and often humorous rhetoric is not unfamiliar to students of the French Revolution. However, although the pamphlet literature on the Estates General focuses obsessively on social and religious themes, themes of work and religion run counter to many current trends in revolutionary historiography. Current interpretations of the Revolution subordinate the social to the political. If scholars do admit any causal influence of social structure, 1789 most often appears as the work of a highly educated stratum of the bourgeoisie--a collection of lawyers, merchants, and writers who had little to do with the laborers so often described in pamphlets. 6 Traditional religion also fares poorly among current historians, with few attributing much effect on the course of the early Revolution to Christian belief, attitudes, and imagery. 7 It becomes proper, then, to ask why pro-Third Estate pamphleteers consistently had recourse to descriptions of work couched in religious terms. Although several possible explanations exist, this article will argue that the mingling of work with religion in writings of 1789 and 1790 sought to create the distinct impression among readers that the Third Estate was the only social group fit to rule, making thinkable not only the Third's heightened participation in the Estates General, but its June 17, 1789 transformation into the National Assembly.

In order to isolate and examine the imagery designed to mobilize the reading public on behalf of the Third Estate, this article...


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