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Fourth Estate is a term referring to the press. In this sense the term goes back at least to Thomas Carlyle in 1841, who in turn attributed it, possibly erroneously, to a coining by Edmund Burke during a parliamentary debate in 1792 on the opening up of press reporting of the House of Commons. Earlier writers have applied the term to lawyers, to the queen of England, acting on her own account distinct from the power of the king, and to "the mob".


Primary meaning

The term in current use is now appropriated to "the Press",[1] with the earliest use in this sense* found in Thomas Carlyle's book On Heroes and Hero Worship (1841) in which he wrote:

Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament; but, in the Reporters' Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all. [Italics added][2]

Burke's reference would have been to the traditional three estates of Parliament: The Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal and the Commons.[3] If, indeed, Burke did make the statement Carlyle attributes to him, his remark may have been in the back of Carlyle's mind when he wrote in his French Revolution (1837), "A Fourth Estate, of Able Editors, springs up; increases and multiplies, irrepressible, incalculable."[4] In this context, the other three estates are those of the French States-General: the church, the nobility and the townsmen.[3] Carlyle, however, may have mistaken his attribution: Thomas Macknight, writing in 1858, observes that Burke was merely a teller at the "illustrious nativity of the Fourth Estate".[5] Other candidates for coining the term are Henry Brougham speaking in Parliament in 1823 or 1824,[1] and Thomas Macaulay in an essay of 1827,[6] again in the context of the parliamentary press.

  • An earlier use appears in Thomas Babington Macaulay's (1800-1859) essay entitled "Hallam," which was first published in the Edinburgh Review for September, 1828: "The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm." Perhaps Carlyle had this in his mind also when writing The French Revolution.

Author Oscar Wilde wrote:

In old days men had the rack. Now they have the press. That is an improvement certainly. But still it is very bad, and wrong, and demoralizing. Somebody — was it Burke? — called journalism the fourth estate. That was true at the time no doubt. But at the present moment it is the only estate. It has eaten up the other three. The Lords Temporal say nothing, the Lords Spiritual have nothing to say, and the House of Commons has nothing to say and says it. We are dominated by Journalism.[7]

Alternative meanings


The law

The term Fourth Estate was used in the early seventeenth century to propose that a government should hold in check a fourth estate of lawyers selling justice to the rich and denying it to a rightful litigant who cannot buy a verdict:

What is more barbarous than to see a nation [...] where justice is lawfully denied him, that hath not wherewithall to pay for it; and that this merchandize hath so great credit, that in a politicall government there should be set up a fourth estate [tr. Latin: quatriesme estat] of Lawyers, breathsellers and pettifoggers [...].
John Florio , 1603[8]

The proletariat

Il quarto stato (1901): a march of strikers in Turin, Italy

An early citation for this is Henry Fielding in The Covent Garden Journal (1752):

None of our political writers...take notice of any more than three estates, namely, Kings, Lords, and Commons..passing by in silence that very large and powerful body which form the fourth estate in this community...The Mob.[9]

(This is an early use of "mob" to mean the mobile vulgus, the common masses.)

This sense has prevailed in other countries: In Italy, for example, striking workers in 1890s Turin were depicted as Il quarto stato—The Fourth Estate—in a painting by Giuseppe Pellizza da Volpedo.[10] A political journal of the left, Quarto Stato, published in Milan, Italy, in 1926, also reflected this meaning.[11]

The English queen

In a parliamentary debate of 1789 M.P. Thomas Powys demanded of minister William Pitt that he should not allow powers of regency to "a fourth estate: the queen". This account comes to us in the journalism of Burke who, as noted above, apparently was the first to use the phrase in its later meaning of "press".[12]


In his novel The Fourth Estate Jeffrey Archer made the observation: "In May 1789, Louis XVI summoned to Versailles a full meeting of the 'Estates General'. The First Estate consisted of three hundred clergy. The Second Estate, three hundred nobles. The Third Estate, six hundred commoners." The book is a fictionalization from episodes in the lives of two real-life press barons: Robert Maxwell and Rupert Murdoch.

See also


  1. ^ a b "estate, n, 7b". Oxford English Dictionary (2 ed.). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press. 1989. 
  2. ^ Thomas Carlyle (Lecture V, May 19, 1840), "The Hero as Man of Letters. Johnson, Rousseau, Burns", On Heroes and Hero Worship,, retrieved November 18, 2006 
  3. ^ a b OED: "estate, n, 6a"
  4. ^ "CHAPTER V. THE FOURTH ESTATE", The French Revolution, SIXTH, London: Griffith Farrane Browne, pp. 146–148,, retrieved November 12, 2009 
  5. ^ Macknight, Thomas (1858). History of the life and times of Edmund Burke. 1. London: Chapman and Hall. p. 462. OCLC 3565018. 
  6. ^ Splichal, Slavko (2002). Principles of publicity and press freedom. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. p. 44. ISBN 9780742516151. 
  7. ^ Wilde, Oscar, "The Soul of Man under Socialism", in Guy, Josephine M., Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, IV, Oxford University Press, p. 255,, retrieved 2006-04-16 
  8. ^ John Florio (tr.) (1603), Michel de Montaigne, 1, Folio Society (published 2006), p. 104 
  9. ^ Fielding, Henry (13 June 1752). Covent Garden Journal (London) (47). , Quoted in OED "estate, n, 7b".
  10. ^ Paulicelli, Eugenia (2001). Barański, Zygmunt G.; West, Rebecca J.. ed. The Cambridge companion to modern Italian culture. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. p. 248. ISBN 9780521559829.  For his painting, Pellizza transferred the action to his home village of Volpedo.
  11. ^ Pugliese, Stanislao G. (1999). Carlo Rosselli: socialist heretic and antifascist exile. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 67-69. ISBN 9780674000537. 
  12. ^ Edmund Burke, ed (1792). Dodsley's Annual Register for 1789. 31. London: J Dodsley. p. 112. 

External links


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