Stupid Question ™
March 15, 2001
By John Ruch
Q: If the press is the “fourth estate,” what are the first three estates? Is there a fifth estate?
A: This usage of “estate” dates back to medieval Europe, where it referred to a political class that participated in government.
In the 1200s, the feudal system began to break down under the growing power of urban centers and the new middle class. Kings adapted by allowing themselves to be advised by a council of the various “estates,” or political groups, of the kingdom.
There were usually three estates: the clergy, the nobility and middle-class commoners, in that order. (A couple oddball countries had four estates; Sweden, for instance, had a powerful class of free peasants.) As the estates grew in power, they eventually evolved into modern parliaments and diets.
However, the English Parliament technically retained the estate structure. The Lords Spiritual (Church of England clergy) and Lords Temporal (nobility) sit in the House of Lords, and the commoners in the House of Commons.
The first two estates were rarely referred to numerically, but the commoners were often called the “third estate.” By the 1700s, British humorists and politicians were making jokes about supposed “fourth estates,” with punchlines including “the mob” or an extremely powerful politician of the day.
The idea of the press as a “fourth estate” began as such a joke. Exactly how is foggy. The eccentric historian Thomas Carlyle claimed statesman Edmund Burke had once said that “there were three Estates in Parliament but in the Reporter’s Gallery…there sat a fourth Estate more important far than they all.” But historical evidence suggests it’s more likely that statesman Henry Brougham coined the term in 1823 or 1824.
In any case, Carlyle popularized the expression, which by the 1850s was used exclusively, and without irony, to refer to the press. US journalists took it especially seriously. (A newspaper-business journal called the “Fourth Estate” was founded in 1894.)
This notion was aided by a longstanding popular misunderstanding of the “estate” terminology in England; many people believed the “three estates” were the three branches of the legislature (the Crown, the House of Lords and the House of Commons). This misconception translated neatly to the US, where the Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches could be viewed as three equal “estates,” with the press as a fourth watchdog “estate” enshrined in the First Amendment.
More recently, the term “fifth estate” has sprung up to refer to powerful groups or media of the day, including radio, labor unions and organized crime. (Also, several political watchdog organizations and journals call themselves Fifth Estate.) The term has yet to stick to any single group, but it’s increasingly used in reference to the Internet and the World Wide Web.
While popular usage halts at the fifth estate, I have found a few idiosyncratic references to a “sixth estate” (political lobbyists) and a “seventh estate” (corporate-controlled media), again following the model of denoting powerful private groups.