Where does the expression “fourth estate” come from and What does fourth estate mean?

The newspaper press as a distinct power in the state, from the license it exercises, the liberties it enjoys, or the power it wields.

The first three estates, as ultimately represented in the British Parliament, are the Lords Spiritual, the Lords Temporal, and the Commons.

Thomas Carlyle, in Heroes and Hero Worship (1841), credited the expression in this sense to the statesman, Edmund Burke, “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”, but the statement is not recorded anywhere in Burke’s published works.

Moreover, in the Edinburgh Review in 1826, Thomas Macaulay used the phrase in an essay on Henry Hallam’s Constitutional History, in the eighth paragraph from the end: “The gallery in which the reporters sit has become a fourth estate of the realm.”

As Carlyle himself was a Scottish reviewer and wrote for the Edinburgh Review, it is probable that he attributed the thought to the wrong author.

In strict justice, however, the novelist, Henry Fielding, should receive some of the credit.

Seventy-six years earlier, writing for the Covent-Garden Journal, he said: “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.”

And, though erroneously, Lord Lucius Cary Falkland has been similarly credited.

While Richard Cromwell was Lord Protector of England, according to Charles Knight’s Popular History of England, Lord Falkland, in the course of a speech in 1660 in Parliament, said: “You have been a long time talking of the three estates; there is a fourth which, if not well looked to, will turn us all out of doors”, referring to the army.

The army did ultimately turn Cromwell out, but Falkland made no such speech , he died sixteen years before Cromwell’s short-lived tenure of the office his brilliant father, Oliver, had created.

About Karen Hill

Karen Hill is a freelance writer, editor, and columnist. Born in New York, her work has appeared in the Examiner, Yahoo News, Buzzfeed, among others.

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