Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
155 of 1105



BOURGEOISIE. The history of the bourgeoisie is mixed up in its origin with the history of the renaissance of towns. The middle ages had founded two classes of society: the one dominant and idle, warlike, and in possession of the soil; the other subject and laborious, under the protection of the proprietors of fiefs, and excluded from all share in the sovereignty. The first protest against this order of things showed itself in the opposition of the cities against the feudal system in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. In Italy and in the south of France the political movement was the consequence of Roman reminiscences; in the north of France and in Germanic countries the sworn commune came from German customs. It is the municipality formed by association and by mutual assurance on the faith of an oath. These two origins led to the same end. Whether it be under Roman or Germanic influence this restoration of the cities and of their civil and political liberties laid the foundation of modern society.


—The history of the bourgeoisie, or of what is known in France as the third estate, is the history of evolution which by degrees acquired for the lower and oppressed classes of society the fullness of political rights and abolished all unjust inequality among the people. This is not the place to write the history of communal life in the middle ages; but it must be at least mentioned since it was the cradle of the bourgeoisie. The bourgeoisie was from the first opposed to the feudal principle. Nevertheless, it found the means of winning, by degrees, a regular place in the society of the middle ages. In France he third estate was the soul of the states general. By its alliance with royalty it modified feudal society up to the very point of the dissolution of that society, and when the municipal spirit of the towns commenced to grow weak, and the king to do away with the privileges of the lords, the third estate remained none the less powerful. Offices of justice and administration, which demanded long study, became the property of the third estate. The nobility rather retired of its own as accord from these offices than was removed from them. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the third estate was everywhere. It was in vain that Sully wished to attract the nobility to the council of state. The nobility limited itself to retaining the command of the army, the government of the provinces and the offices of the king's household. But the council of state, the intendants created in 1635, and the parliaments, were recruited mainly from the third estate, from what is called to-day the upper bourgeoisie. The parliaments, especially after the suppression of the states general, represented the third estate. The parliaments thus became an inferior kind of aristocracy, and in the last two centuries of the ancient French royalty the development of the third estate was rather a social than a political fact. The lower classes rose silently to power, and in 1789, at the time of the convocation of the states general, the third estate endeavored to take advantage of its numerical superiority and to represent the entire nation. Hence the saying of Sieyès: "What is the third estate? Nothing What should it be? Everything." This statement defined the culminating point of the development of the bourgeoisie at the opening of the French revolution, and at the same time put an end to it. From the twelfth century the third estate had tended toward the suppression of privileges, even when it had itself granted them, to guarantee its own liberties. Its rôle of emancipation terminated the moment that the revolution made liberty and equality before the law its fundamental principle, applicable to all without distinction. The word bourgeoisie from that time forth changed its meaning. A man is no longer a bourgeois because he belongs to such and such a town, but because he fulfills certain social conditions. By the bourgeoisie is now understood that part of society which represents property acquired, or in course of acquisition, through industry or commerce, and that which follows the liberal professions. In this sense the expression third estate is not sufficient to define it; for the third estate was not the bourgeoisie, but the nation minus the nobility and the clergy. To-day, on the contrary, the bourgeoisie is not a close caste. It has a character of universality such that by the finest shades of difference it is lost in the nobility above and touches the proletariat below. In a state of society in which fortunes are made and lost with a rapidity unknown to our fathers, the passage from one class to another is so frequent that it is hard to find lines of demarcation between them. Nevertheless, the word bourgeoisie has a more special meaning when it serves to express the distinction between the bourgeois and the peasant and workman. In this sense the bourgeoisie has pretended to a political rôle independent of the two latter classes. Taking the saying of Sieyès literally, it wished to assume the entire government of society. It has manifested in this attempt qualities and defects which are easily described. These qualities consist in a reasonable conduct of affairs, in a taste for self-government, in the want it experiences of controlling the government; in a word, in the practice of constitutional government in monarchies and of representative democracy in republics. Its defects consist in too great an attachment to its own interests, and, generally, in a too great timidity. It exhibits more adroitness in petty than in great affairs, more aptitude for a temporary than for a permanent policy. It may be said that the defects and qualities of the French bourgeoisie were manifest during the reign of Louis Philippe. What contributed most, then, to put an end to the rule of the bourgeoisie was its neglect of the interests of the lower classes. It forgot that it should not be a distinct class, but simply the medium in which all should meet. The endeavor, therefore, to found a government on the middle classes alone, or even to consider them as a class apart, is an undertaking that has no chance of success. M. Guizot, in an able article, entitled Nos méscomptes et nos espérances, denies that the middle classes have good political judgment, the political sense; and he requires, as a counterpoise to their changeable disposition, the political influence of a nobility or of great landed proprietors. It is impossible to find such a counterpoise in France in our day, for the reason that well defined classes no longer exist there. The nobility is dead, socially; large landed estates are not permanent. Neither the one nor the other, therefore, could serve as a counterpoise to the alleged inconstancy of the bourgeoisie. The salvation of the latter will depend on its solicitude for all the interests of the nation even when they are not its own. It should open its ranks to all, and take into them all who are not as yet a part of it. There is no better way to attain this end than to disseminate public instruction and favor the creation of public wealth, by the proper application of sound principles of political economy. By the development of public instruction the social strata, which have not yet taken part in the intellectual life of the nation, and which consequently contribute but little to the formation of public opinion, will do their part in the formation of that opinion, and free it from the narrowness inherent in opinions born of special interests. By the application of sound principles of political economy, which is a corollary to the diffusion of education, the opposition between the interests of classes would be made to disappear. The social rôle of the bourgeoisie before the revolution was to elevate the lower classes. This is its rôle to-day. It is the only one which can guarantee it enduring influence. It is also the only one which has a meaning. The bourgeoisie commenced as a solvent of feudal society. It prepared the way for democracy. It would poorly understand its interests were it to oppose that which it contributed to establish. It has better work to do. After its negative and dissolving labors come positive work and the work of organization. This remains to be accomplished, and the expression bourgeoisie should have no meaning but that of an educated and intelligent democracy.


155 of 1105

Return to top