In 1792, in France even men without property were enfranchised.

How was it before exactly? What is meant by ‘without property’? Only those who didn’t own a home or a piece of land? Or any kind of property? Could other kind of property, like owning a couple of horses, give the right to vote?

1 Answer 1


The French Revolution took place in 1789. Prior to that France was an absolute monarchy and no one could vote in the modern sense of an election of governmental officials. There was a constitutional monarchy prior to 1792 when the First Republic commenced. The window for the French Revolution arose when the King sought input from the public from three "estates" in an effort to raise taxes which got out of control, and also had some aspects of a general election:

The Estates-General was divided into three parts: the First for members of the clergy; Second for the nobility; and Third for the "commons". Each sat separately, enabling the First and Second Estates to outvote the Third, despite representing less than 5% of the population, while both were largely exempt from tax.

In the 1789 elections, the First Estate returned 303 deputies, representing 100,000 Catholic clergy; nearly 10% of French lands were owned directly by individual bishops and monasteries, in addition to tithes paid by peasants. More than two-thirds of the clergy lived on less than 500 livres per year, and were often closer to the urban and rural poor than those elected for the Third Estate, where voting was restricted to male French taxpayers, aged 25 or over. As a result, half of the 610 deputies elected to the Third Estate in 1789 were lawyers or local officials, nearly a third businessmen, while fifty-one were wealthy land owners.

The Second Estate elected 291 deputies, representing about 400,000 men and women, who owned about 25% of the land and collected seigneurial dues and rents from their tenants. Like the clergy, this was not a uniform body, and was divided into the noblesse d'épée, or traditional aristocracy, and the noblesse de robe. The latter derived rank from judicial or administrative posts and tended to be hard-working professionals, who dominated the regional parlements and were often intensely socially conservative.

To assist delegates, each region completed a list of grievances, known as Cahiers de doléances. Although they contained ideas that would have seemed radical only months before, most supported the monarchy, and assumed the Estates-General would agree to financial reforms, rather than fundamental constitutional change. The lifting of press censorship allowed widespread distribution of political writings, mostly written by liberal members of the aristocracy and upper middle-class. Abbé Sieyès, a political theorist and priest elected to the Third Estate, argued it should take precedence over the other two as it represented 95% of the population.

The Estates-General convened in the Menus-Plaisirs du Roi on 5 May 1789, near the Palace of Versailles rather than in Paris; the choice of location was interpreted as an attempt to control their debates. As was customary, each Estate assembled in separate rooms, whose furnishings and opening ceremonies deliberately emphasised the superiority of the First and Second Estates. They also insisted on enforcing the rule that only those who owned land could sit as deputies for the Second Estate, and thus excluded the immensely popular Comte de Mirabeau.

Meeting of the Estates General on 5 May 1789 at Versailles As separate assemblies meant the Third Estate could always be outvoted by the other two, Sieyès sought to combine all three. His method was to require all deputies be approved by the Estates-General as a whole, instead of each Estate verifying its own members. Since this meant the legitimacy of deputies derived from the Estates-General, they would have to continue sitting as one body. After an extended stalemate, on 10 June the Third Estate proceeded to verify its own deputies, a process completed on 17 June; two days later, they were joined by over 100 members of the First Estate, and declared themselves the National Assembly. The remaining deputies from the other two Estates were invited to join, but the Assembly made it clear they intended to legislate with or without their support.

In an attempt to prevent the Assembly from convening, Louis XVI ordered the Salle des États closed down, claiming it needed to be prepared for a royal speech. On 20 June, the Assembly met in a tennis court outside Versailles and swore not to disperse until a new constitution had been agreed. Messages of support poured in from Paris and other cities; by 27 June, they had been joined by the majority of the First Estate, plus forty-seven members of the Second, and Louis backed down.

In addition to referencing the selection of the Estates-General, the reference to "without property" also considered people who weren't land owners and was in reference to the practice in England and its colonies and in the newly independent United States of America, where real property ownership was often a requirement to be eligible to vote, as those were pretty much the only other major countries that had a widespread right of the public to vote for elected officials in government at the time. (There were small city state exceptions and perhaps Iceland as well, but British and former British colonies were the main model).

  • So the property ownership means, exclusively, land ownership. Right?
    – Sasan
    Sep 21, 2022 at 11:28
  • @Sasan The concern and reason for the rule was restrictions based upon real property ownership. So far as I know, no Western democratic political system has ever required ownership of personal property to vote. So, while it would be unconstitutional under French law to require you to own a cow as a condition to your right to vote, in practice, requirements like that were never imposed in France or the U.K. before or after 1792. (Some British Commonwealth jurisdictions did limit the political rights of bankrupts, although I don't think that France ever did.)
    – ohwilleke
    Sep 21, 2022 at 18:12
  • 1
    So, whatever it was, it was only about real property ownership, not personal ownership. Got it. Many thanks.
    – Sasan
    Sep 22, 2022 at 5:41

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