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

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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FOURTH ESTATE. The expression "Fourth Estate" (vierter Stand) was first used in Germany, and in contradistinction to the "Third Estate." The contrast between these two estates was apparent even in the time of the French revolution of 1789, when the Girondists, who represented the third estate, proceeded against the "Mountain," which was supported principally by the lower classes of the people. Nevertheless, the difference was not then entirely clear, as political rather than social causes seemed to separate the masses into parties. The restoration placed the great classes of the people entirely in the background, and only the old estates appeared again to have any political importance The revolution of July, 1830, was principally the work of the third estate. The new king, Louis Philippe, appeared, so to speak, as the personification of the third estate, with which he shared the government of France. The entire fourth estate, during the period of the charter of 1814, was deprived of all right of suffrage and of all participation in public affairs.


—The revolution of February, 1848, now suddenly broke out. A domestic quarrel between the "citizen king" and the liberal friends of reform of the third estate was the occasion of it. But as soon as the revolution commenced, it extended beyond the third estate. The fourth estate made itself for the moment the ruling power. It desired to restore the republic and the democracy, which was the first to guarantee it political rights. But it was at variance with itself. Its lowest strata were the most violent; the communistically disposed proletarians even sought a social transformation, inasmuch as they desired employment and wages guaranteed by the state. All property, all credit, all civilization, seemed now to be threatened by the wild passions of the crowd. In defense of property Gen. Cavaignac ventured a bloody struggle. He conquered in the three days fight of June in the streets of Paris, because he cleverly caused his garde mobile to be recruited from the fourth estate itself. In the legislative assembly, which was newly elected, the greater number of seats fell to the lot of the third estate, which indeed alone had the capacity and leisure to manage the affairs of the state. The fourth estate, which had to devote all its time and energy to daily labor and the earning of bread, saw, that representative democracy, at least in France, necessarily exalted the third estate, which it viewed not without mistrust. Prince Napoleon, who had been elected to the presidency chiefly by the fourth estate, aided by the belief of the masses in the Napoleonic genius and traditions, now undertook a campaign against the third estate, which at the same time was a campaign against representative democracy. Greeted and supported by the acclamation of the great masses of the people, the peasants and the workmen, he ascended the restored imperial throne. But universal suffrage, which put the deciding power in the hands of the masses, was and remained the basis of the imperial power, and the third estate was unable to resist it.


—In Germany also similar differences existed, and led to the idea of a fourth estate, distinct from the third in its social position and its political character. The name is certainly badly chosen, for even German constitutional law of the present day no longer rests on estates, but rather upon classes In Germany the great classes of the people are indeed better educated than in France. They are also, on the whole, more disposed to follow with confidence the guidance of the more cultured middle class. But, at the same time, the authority of the government, of the civil officers and of the church exercises a far stronger influence over them than over the independent and critically inclined third estate.


—In fact, on the contrast between the work of the head and the work of the hand, that is, between intellectual and physical activity, is based the difference, which is of great importance in the organization of states and in their political life. Indeed, the distinction itself is not absolute; the shoemaker and the woodcutter work badly, if they work with no head, and the thinker can not dispense with his hand, which transcribes his thoughts. But, in general, callings are distinguished from one another according as mental or physical activity predominates in them. For the liberal pursuits of the third estate a higher education is an indispensable requisite, and for this reason generally these persons only have the capacity and leisure to use their intellect in the service of the state. The great classes, employed more with the material cultivation of the soil, with hand work, with retail trade and with manufactures, are wanting in the necessary education and leisure to devote themselves to affairs of state. It is of much more importance to them, then, that the administration should be a good one, than that they themselves should be called to take any part in the administration.


—The fourth estate, therefore, embraces also all the great classes of the people, which have not the characteristic marks of the third estate. Its strength lies in the mass of the lower middle class in the cities, of workmen, shopkeepers, petty tradesmen, servants and peasants in the country.


—The proletariat is chiefly only the refuse of the fourth estate, but it may also be of the other estates, and must not be confounded with the former. There is a proletariat of the nobility and of the higher middle class, as well as of the fourth estate. The proletariat is an unavoidable evil, which is connected with all classes and ranks of society. It forms no estate by itself. The expression proletariat is borrowed from the old Roman census-constitution. The undomiciled and poor Romans, those who had less than 1,500 ases of taxable property, were not included in the five classes, and were therefore not liable to taxation nor bound to do duty in war, like the domiciled citizens (assidui), although they were required to perform subordinate duties for the army. Their property consisted chiefly of their children (proles), and hence they obtained the name. Modern proletarians are also people without property, no matter what estate or what class of the people they may belong to through birth, education or profession. But the absence of property is not in itself decisive, and nothing would be more dangerous than to divide the entire population into property owners and non-property owners, and incite them to hostility against each other. The sons of well-to-do parents, when they establish a household of their own, may be entirely without property, but they are by no means proletarians. People without property, then, are only proletarians, if, through isolation and a precarious means of existence, they are in a dangerous position, and when their entire existence in society appears unsafe. The task of politics is to work for this end, that there may be as few proletarians as possible in the land.


—The fourth estate is the foundation of the modern state, and likewise the chief object of its care. It is chiefly from the fourth estate that the state draws its financial and military power. From its obscure ranks start up constantly a multitude of individuals, who acquire for themselves education, a name, and a rank in society. It is the source from which all the other classes are renewed and fed. So long as the fourth estate of a nation is healthy and strong, the life of the nation is safe; it can recover from the worst maladies and losses. But if the fourth estate is seized with decay, there is no salvation for the nation.


—The fourth estate needs the care of the state more than all the other classes, which are in a better condition to help themselves. In individual cases, certainly, the persons of the fourth estate must provide for themselves by their own labor and economy. But it is surely the state's care, that the fundamental conditions of common life and common welfare shall be well established. For this end particularly the country has need of good laws and institutions, and a capable administration. This the fourth estate can not obtain of itself. The better educated classes must work for it.


—The fourth estate has neither the capacity nor the inclination to govern or to take part in the higher branches of civil administration. But it has the desire and the need to be well ruled and governed. That done, it is contented, and entirely free from any desire of innovation or revolution. There is no greater error than that of Stahl, who thinks that the fourth estate is desirous by nature to overthrow the ruling power. Quite the contrary. The aristocracy is naturally inclined to share power with the monarchy: the third estate is from the beginning inclined to exercise criticism and control, and prefers representative democratic forms. The fourth estate has in Europe, on the other hand, a natural bias, not toward the aristocracy, which has too long oppressed, despised and lived on it, nor toward the representative democracy, in whose principal work it can not participate, and whose views are for the greater part not intelligible to it; but toward the monarchy.


—The fourth estate is in no way insensible to the ideal goods of humanity, and it is readier than any other estate to do and dare for these goods. But only high ideas, not medium ones, attract it, and it comprehends only the great outlines of the case, not its detail. The history of the world has irrefutably shown, that these great classes of the people, which think generally only of their daily earnings, and appear exclusively engaged in material pursuits, have defended with self-sacrificing determination, religious interests, and, in more modern times, political ideas and ends, and have often turned the scale by their impetuous onslaught.


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