In late 1788, the French king Louis XVI announced the convocation of the Estates-General, Bourbon France’s closest equivalent to a national parliament. This announcement unleashed a flood of political opinion. Hundreds of essays and political pamphlets were published and circulated. Many speculated about the composition, procedure and possible outcomes of the Estates-General. Some of these documents demanded equality and greater representation for the Third Estate, France’s common people.
What is the Third Estate? inflamed these political aspirations more than any other. It struck a chord with France’s disgruntled lower classes. Asking three rhetorical questions and employing clear but forceful language, What is the Third Estate? seemed as rational and logical as it was compelling. It challenged traditional conceptions of nation and government while urging its readers not to accept hollow promises or compromises. What is the Third Estate? proved enormously popular and became what one historian calls “a script for revolution”.