Beware the Wealthy Bourgeoisie

The term "bourgeoisie" had many meanings in eighteenth–century France, from the most literal sense of "citizens of a city" to a more sociological meaning of talented and cultivated members of the Third Estate. Some eighteenth–century writers also used the term to refer to merchants. However, it did not yet connote upper–middle–class status or adherence to certain dominant social norms, as the term would suggest today. In this passage, from the newspaper Révolutions de Paris, the journalist distinguishes between the "bonne bourgeoisie," who he says are "aristocratic" and "monarchist by instinct" and who fear that any political change will cost money, and the "petite bourgeoisie," who are allied with "the people" and have shown themselves to be patriotic supporters of the Revolution.


In Paris and the large cities of France, there is a class of citizens that did not receive much attention during the Revolution. Holed up because of cowardice or by lack of emulation, only unwillingly did they take part in what was happening around them. They made their little calculations, resigned to their fate, yet [were] happy because they would not be the ones who would lose the most. Occupied with details, they could almost never see the big picture. They only live in the present and are too shortsighted to see into the depths of the future. Most of them have integrity, but being deeply concerned with their financial situation, they cannot always refrain from hoping that they might somehow make even a modest profit. Great passions, heightened feelings, anything that takes energy, strength, and a certain pride of spirit, is alien to them. They can be seen shrugging their shoulders, or looking stupidly at you. When being told about some patriotic sacrifice, they act as if they are hearing a foreign language. For the rest, they are egotistical, but this is not systemic. Rather, it is due to the fact that their hearts, compressed in the narrow scope of their education and their habits, could never find the room to grow.

This is how the Paris bourgeois were before the Revolution, and how they are still, or very nearly.

The bourgeois is not a democrat, or barely. He is a royalist by instinct. Sheep also look to a single leader. Nothing can make them stop following their shepherd, even though he shaves them so closely they bleed, sells them to the butcher when they're fattened up, or slits their throats for his own dinner. But sheep all alone, without a sheepdog or shepherd, would be confused and wouldn't know what to do with their freedom. The bourgeois is the same way. In the order of species he would be situated halfway between man and mule, and serve as the link between the two. He often has the straightforwardness of the latter and sometimes tries to think like the former . . . but at this he often doesn't succeed.

Before the Revolution, several different types of bourgeois could be identified in Paris: the low, the high, and the moral [bonne.] Sometimes these last two are confused, and it might seem that they were one and the same. But that would be a big mistake.

The high bourgeois is an aristocrat in the full sense of the word, but he does not have the energy or loyalty of the nobles. He is, however, proud to walk immediately behind them. This was the class from which municipal magistrates and other city officials were normally chosen.

The good bourgeois was a lot healthier. This fairly large class included several families of strict magistrates and laudable attorneys, several businesses that deserved to be proud of themselves for never having failed to meet a commitment, even in the most difficult of times. There are also several influential men of letters, a few talented artists, several doctors, and a few good priests that belong to this class. Among the good bourgeois we find Voltaire, Hélvetius, Buffon, de Troyes, Coypel, Boulogne, etc.

The petite bourgeoisie are in the middle, between the two previous kinds and the People. There were many of them, among whom were the lower clergy and retail merchants, bosses of small workshops, well-off artisans, clerks, and, especially lately, many writers. The Revolution has the biggest obligations to the small bourgeoisie, who were constantly and everywhere in evidence. It was they who contributed most effectively to containing the hordes of brigands that the Minister had let loose on us in the capital to try to make us abort the upcoming birth of French Freedom. One-third of the guard regiment was made up of small bourgeois.

They have always sided with the people, who have not always treated them fairly. The high bourgeois never missed a chance to back the nobles, and every day they whisper how sorry they are that they are now extinct.

Source: Révolutions de Paris, no. 87 (12 March 1791), 453–60.