Power To The People: Abbè Sieyès And The Third Estate

Portrait of Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès by Jacques-Louis David | Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, also known as the Abbè Sieyès, was a major player of the French Revolution. During this period he challenged the ancien régime system of unequal representation in the Estates-General and fought against the traditional privileges held by the aristocracy and clergy. He believed that the members of the third estate were the true foundation of France and that they deserved to play a role in French politics equal to their importance. As a member of the clergy, and therefore of the first estate, he did not let his privileges influence him, and he worked hard to help the third estate rise to the level of its rightful stature.

In the eighteenth century, French society was divided into three traditional estates going back to the middle ages. Representatives from these three estates had traditionally met in something called an Estates-General, which met when the French king would call for it to meet. Once assembled, it would debate on topics and issues of importance to the realm, and give the king their opinion on a matter by voting by estate. However, last time the Estates-General had been called together was 1614. When they were called upon to meet again, in 1789, they did so in the wake of a major shift in understanding the nature of representation. Traditionally, the first estate was made up of members of the clergy, the second estate was made up of the nobility, and the third estate was made up of commoners, or everybody who was not of the clergy or nobility. They were all ruled by a king, who was considered a part of no estate. Traditionally, each estate had one vote when voting at the Estates-General; thus, the nobility and clergy each had one vote, and they often voted together, while the third estate, which was made up of more than 95 percent of the population of France, only had one vote as well. This was a serious problem because the representatives of 95% of France could be outvoted by the 5% minority of the nobility and clergy. Before they met in 1789, this had not been seen as a problem, because the concept of equal or proportional representation only arose in the wake of the French Enlightenment, becoming manifest in the American Revolution. Previously, the Estates-General only met during times of conflict and crisis. During these times, the peasants were the ones most affected, whether with taxes or extreme poverty, and they never had adequate representation to defend their situation.1 But in 1789, as the Estates-General was being called together, with this change in sentiment about representation circulating in intellectual circles, how would that sentiment become manifest as it had in the motto of the American Revolution–“no taxation without representation?” The man who made it manifest was Abbè Sieyès.

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès was born on May 3, 1748, and one would not have thought that he was destined to lead an important, high profile life. He was the son of a postmaster and notary, and while he did not live extravagantly, he lived fairly comfortably. As a child, Sieyès had a private tutor, and then he went to college at the Jesuits’ College at Fréjus where his teachers adored him and thought that he was extremely smart. This was important for him, because some middle-class students were regularly recruited to be trained for the clergy, which could mean a social improvement to their current status. When he was seventeen, he joined the Seminary of Saint-Suplice in Paris and made a good reputation for himself. While he was there, he broadened his knowledge and started learning about things that would become his passion later on in life. He showed an interest in the writings of the French Enlightenment, which would influence his decisions and passions. As a clergyman, he was very popular and moved up its career ladder quite quickly. In 1773, by the time he was twenty-five, he was ordained a priest. Quickly after that he moved up to secretary to the Bishop of Treguier, thanks to connections who knew the Bishop of Fréjus. He stayed an administrative priest after this, but worked on other matters that were closer to his heart.2

During his career as a priest, he wrote several works. Two of his works were anonymous and the third is now considered theory by historians. Before he became well known, he wrote the “Letter to the Physiocrats On Their Political and Moral System.” This work looked at the political side of economic activity that was beneficial to the nation as a whole. With this kind of thinking in mind, Sieyès joined the provincial assembly of Orleans in 1787.3

In 1788, the King of France, Louis XVI, was facing serious financial problems, and he called the meeting of the Estates-General for May 1, 1789. As mentioned earlier, the group had not met since 1614, and so a lot of people were uncertain about the role that this group would have in current French politics. However, it became clear even before the Estates-General met that the first two estates would vote against any of the reforms that the third estate might suggest, especially if those reforms infringed upon their traditional rights and privileges; and this caused a lot of debate and frustration.4

It was during the time between when King Louis XVI called the meeting and when the meeting actually took place that Sieyès published his first pamphlet called, “Essai sur les privileges” or “Essay on privileges.” Sieyès argued that privilege went against natural law, reason, and community. Sieyès did not think that the nobility deserved to have special privileges because it did nothing to earn them. He showed how the nobility were like parasites, just taking advantage of French society and reaping the benefits from the work of others. He argued that the current division of society based on estate privileges was not conducive to a well-functioning society. Shockingly, he stated that the nobility had no place in their modern society that was progressing.5

First page of Joseph Sieyes’s (1748-1836) pamphlet Qu’est ce que le Tiers Etat? 1789/ Courtesy of Wikipedia

In December of 1788, months before the meeting of the Estates-General, he wrote another pamphlet that questioned the constitution of the Estates-General itself. He argued for the importance of making a national assembly to better represent the majority of the population that created the wealth of the nation. Both of these pamphlets built up and led to his third and most famous pamphlet, “Qu’est-ce que le tiers état?” or “What is the third estate?”  This was arguably the most influential pamphlet of its time. The pamphlet argued for a drastic change in political power in the French legislative system. It challenged the inequality of power in the Estates-General and questioned why the largest and most hardworking part of society had the least amount of power, and why they had only one vote compared to the combined votes of the clergy and nobility, who made up only three percent of the entire French population. Traditionally, each of the three estates were to debate among themselves on some important issue and then take a collective vote that would be their final estate vote. Sieyès suggested a method that would replace the vote by estate with a simple head count vote of all representatives of the three estates taken together. This pamphlet was radical for the time, because it questioned the right and legitimacy of the first two estates to represent the nation of France at all.6 Sieyès asked three simple questions that put the entire arrangement of the ancien régime under indictment:

What is the third estate?–Everything.

What, until now, has it been in the existing political order?–Nothing.

What does it want to be?–Something.7

By the time the Estates-General met in May, Sieyès was well-known and well-liked by the general population, even though he was a member of the first estate of the clergy. His theories were at first viewed very favorably by reformers and it earned him a seat at the Estates-General as a representative of the third estate, where people took him seriously and listened to what he had to say.8 King Louis XVI had wanted to tax the nobility, who had always been exempt from paying taxes. Traditionally, taxes were first raised on the peasants, but on this occasion, the peasants simply could not bear to pay more. The king had to call the Estates-General together because the two privileged estates did not want to surrender their tax exemptions. Much to their disappointment, the third estate, led by reformers such as Sieyès, looked to the example that America had provided against the British. Thanks to Sieyès and his pamphlet What is the third estate?, members of the third estate asserted their answer to Sieyès’ third question: What does [the third estate] want to be? Something. They broke away from the Estates-General and formed the National Assembly to be the representative body of France, to vote on matters that concerned the nation of France, and to establish a constitution that would bind all members of society into a social contract, including the king.9 In essence, they turned the absolutist kingdom of France and its subjects into the nation of France governed by a constitutional monarch and its citizens.

Emmanuel Sieyès strongly influenced his time by being bold enough to speak out against the abuse of the upper class on the lower class. Even though he could have just stayed silent and enjoy the privileges of his estate, instead he saw the injustices that so many of his fellow countrymen were facing, and he took his stand against it.

  1. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014, s.v. “Estates-General.”
  2.  Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, “Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès,” by Irwin Halfond.
  3.  Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, “Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès,” by Irwin Halfond.
  4. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2014, s.v. “Estates-General.”
  5. Salem Press Biographical Encyclopedia, 2016, “Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès,” by Irwin Halfond.
  6. Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, What Is the Third Estate? ed. Nicholas Snead (Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), 348.
  7. Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, Qu’est-Ce Que Le Tiers État.
  8. Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès, What Is the Third Estate? ed. Nicholas Snead (Gale, Cengage Learning, 2013), 350-351.
  9. Jerry Bentley, Herbert Ziegler, and Heather Streets-Salter, Traditions & Encounters, 4th ed., vol. 2 (New York: McGraw Hill Education, 2015), 474.

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37 Responses

  1. Interesting article! I really enjoyed reading and learning about the start of the French revolution from this article. I believe Abbe Sieyes should be considered a hero for the French population, especially the minority. He didn’t let his upper class status blind him from what was right. I am actually surprised I didn’t recognize his name. The author did an amazing job writing this article!

  2. I really like the French revolution and all its phases. For me, it is one of the most important moments in history because it is the inspiration of the Latin American colonies rise arms and demanded independence. I know much of the French Revolution, but I did not know about Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes. I thank the author for explained me his work and teach me more about the French Revolution.

  3. Abbe Sieyes was such a key figure for the establishment of the French constitutional monarchy. Being able to topple the Kingdom of France and of its radical leaders is such a big moment in history and I am surprised that I am just learning about him now. The author wrote amazing in that they were able to captivate the readers into the life of Abbe Sieyes and learn about his triumph over the overpowered rulers of France.

  4. This article was very interesting about who Abbe Sieyes was and what he did. I had no idea who this person was until reading about him and really enjoyed learning how he was a power person that helped lower class people who had trouble with paying the French taxes. It surprised me to see that he was also a big figure in starting the French Revolution to help out the lower class citizens. This was a well written article from the author and enjoyed learning from it.

  5. Considering how important Abbe Sieyes was and is, I am surprised I have never heard of him before. I always like to hear about the underdogs who rose up to help others, but it is even more satisfying to hear about those in positions of privilege and power, Who use it to help others whether they know them or not.

  6. I had no knowledge about who Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès was nor the French Revolution until this year in Foundations of Reflection: Civilization. The author did a great job of providing information about who Abbe Sieyes was and what he stood for. It surprises me how the Estates were set up before because I am used to “everyone is created equal” in America. It was interesting to see how someone who knew his estate held so much power, he still wanted to distribute it among the 3rd estate. Abbe Sieyes wanted to make a difference and he did.

  7. I never heard of or learned about Abbe Sieyes so reading this article was very informative. I find it interesting that someone who was from a higher position used their status to help out the poor French people who were suffering from the unfair taxation. It is insane that he would end up becoming one of the major players in the French Revolution and was on the side of them commoners since many of them different care for the poor and only cared for themselves. Overall, it was a great article to read and the author did a great job telling the story of a man who gave power to the people.

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