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Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, 1817, by Jacques-Louis David

Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (3 March 1748 – 20 June 1836) or Abbey Sieyes was a French Roman Catholic abbé and clergyman, one of the chief theorists of the French Revolution, French Consulate, and First French Empire. His liberal 1789 pamphlet What is the Third Estate? became the manifesto of the Revolution that helped transform the Estates-General into the National Assembly in June of 1789. In 1799, he was the instigator of the coup d'état of 18 Brumaire (9 November 1799), which brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power. He was also the first to coin the term "sociologie" (French for "sociology") in an unpublished manuscript.


Early life

Sieyès was born on March 3, 1748 as the fifth child of Honoré and Annabelle Sieyès at the town of Fréjus in southern France.[1] Sieyès' father was a local tax collector who made a humble income, and while the family had some noble blood, they were commoners.[2] Sieyès' first education came by way of tutors and of the Jesuits. He also spent some time at the collège of the Doctrinaires of Draguignan.[3] Sieyès originally wanted to join the military and become a soldier, but his frail health combined with his parents' piety lead him to onto a religious career path. The vicar-general of Fréjus offered aid to Sieyès because he felt like he was obliged to his father.[4]


The product of this was ten years at the seminary of Saint Sulpice in Paris. There, Sieyès studied theology and engineering all to prepare himself to enter priesthood.[5] He quickly became known around the school because of his aptitude and interest in the sciences combined with his obsession over the "new philosophic principles" and dislike for conventional theology.[6] Sieyès was educated for priesthood in the Catholic Church at the Sorbonne. While there, he became influenced by the teachings of John Locke, Étienne Bonnot de Condillac, the Encyclopédistes, Quesnay, Mirabeau, Turgot,and other political thinkers, all in preference to theology. In 1770, he obtained his first theology diploma ranking at the bottom of the list of passing candidates, a reflection of his antipathy towards his religious education. In 1772, he was ordained as a priest, and two years later he obtained his theology license.[7]

Religious Career

Regardless of Sieyès' embrace of Enlightenment thinking, he was ordained to the priesthood in 1773.[8] In spite of this, he was not hired immediately. He spent this time researching philosophy and developing music until about a year later in October of 1774 when, as the result of demands by powerful friends, he was promised a canonry in Brittany.[9] Unfortunately, this canonry went into effect only when the preceding holder died. At the end of 1775, Sieyès acquired his first real position as secretary to the bishop of Tréguier where he spent two years as deputy of the diocese. It is here that he sat in the Estates of Brittany and became disgusted with the immense power the privileged classes held.[10] In 1780 the bishop of Tréguier was transferred to the bishopric of Chartres. He became aware of how easy it was for nobles to advance in ecclesiastical offices compared to commoners. Sieyes was an ambitious man; therefore, he resented the privileges granted to the nobles within the Church system and thought the patronage system was a humiliation for commoners. [11] Sieyès accompanied him there as his vicar general where he eventually became a canon of the cathedral and chancellor of the diocese of Chartres.

While remaining in ecclesiastical offices, Sieyès maintained a religious cynicism at odds with his position. By the time he took his orders to enter priesthood, Sieyès had "freed himself from all superstitious sentiments and ideas."[12] Even when corresponding with his deeply religious father, Sieyès showed a severe lack of piety for the man who diocese of Chartres.[13]

Sieyes accepted a religious career not because he had any sort of religious vocation, but because he considered it the only means to advance his career as a political writer. [14]

What Is the Third Estate?

In 1788, Louis XVI of France proposed convocation of the Estates-General of France after the interval of more than a century and a half, and the invitation of Jacques Necker to writers to state their views as to the organization of the Estates, enabled Sieyès to publish his celebrated January 1789 pamphlet, Qu’est-ce que le tiers état? ("What Is the Third Estate?") He begins his answer:

"What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been hitherto in the political order? Nothing. What does it desire? To be something."

This phrase, which was to remain famous, is said to have been inspired by Nicolas Chamfort. The pamphlet was very successful, and its author, despite his clerical vocation (which made him part of the First Estate), was elected as the last (the twentieth) of the deputies the Third Estate of Paris to the Estates-General. He played his main role in the opening years of the Revolution, drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, expanding on the theory of national sovereignty, popular sovereignty, and representation implied in his pamphlet, with a distinction between active and passive citizens that justified suffrage limited to male owners of property.

Sieyes' language in the pamphlet fueled a radical reaction from its audience because it involved the “political issues of the day and twisted them in a more revolutionary direction”. [15] In the third chapter of the pamphlet, Sieyes proposed that the Third Estate wanted to be ‘something’. But, it also states that in allowing the privileged orders to exist, they are asking to become ‘the least thing possible’. The usage of rhetorical language in his pamphlet appealed to common causes to unite the audience. At the same time it influenced them to move beyond simple demands and take a more radical position on the nature of government. In this case, the radical position taken by the Third Estate created a sense of awareness that the problems of France were not simply a matter of addressing "royal tyrrany," that that unequal privileges under the law had divided the nation. It was from this point that the Revolution’s struggle for fair distribution of power and equal rights began in earnest.

Impact on the Revolution

The contributions of Sieyès’s pamphlet were indispensable to the revolutionary thought that projected France towards the French Revolution. In his pamphlet he outlined the desires and frustrations of the alienated class of people that made up the third estate. In many senses of the expression, he was the force that tore apart the Ancien Régime in France by arguing the nobility to be fraudulent and preying on an overburdened and despondent bourgeoisie. The pamphlet was essentially the rallying cry that united a hitherto neglectable class into an unheard-of political force outlining and stating grievances that for the first time were not to be overlooked in the convocation of the Estates General.

Whereas the aristocracy defined themselves as an élite ruling class charged with maintaining the social order in France, Sieyès saw the Third estate as the primary mechanism of public service. Expression of radical thought at its best, the pamphlet placed sovereignty not in the hands of aristocrats but instead defined the nation of France by its productive orders composed of those who would generate services and produce goods for the benefit of the entire society. These included not only those involved in agricultural labor and craftsmanship, but also merchants, brokers, lawyers, financiers and others providing services. Sieyes challenged the hierarchical order of society by redefining who represented the nation. In his pamphlet, he condemns the privileged orders by saying their members were enjoying the best products of society without contributing to their production.

In perhaps the most daunting of his rhetorical repertoire, Sieyès essentially argued from the nobility's privileges that to establish the aristocracy as an alien body acting outside of the nation of France and deemed noble privilege “treason to the commonwealth”. As a consequence, the resulting conflict between the orders inspired the proper political sphere from which the revolution grew. The French Revolution could not have been what it was without this patriotic and radical message which was so so eagerly distributed through a developing language of revolutionary politics within the third estate.

Perhaps most significant was the influence of Sieyès’s pamphlet on the structural concerns that arose surrounding the convocation of the Estates general. Specifically, the third estate demanded that the number of deputies for their order be equal to that of the two privileged orders combined, and most controversially “that the States General Vote, Not by Orders, but by Heads”. The pamphlet took these issues to the masses and their partial appeasement was met with revolutionary reaction. By addressing the issues of representation directly, Sieyès inspired resentment and agitation that united the third estate against the feudalistic traditions of the Ancien Régime. As a result, the Third Estate demanded the reorganization of the Estates General, but the two other orders proved unable or unwilling to provide a solution. Sieyes proposed that the members of the First and Second order join the Third Estate and become a united body to represent the nation as a whole. He not only suggested an invitation, however, but also stated that the Third Estate had the right to consider those who denied this invitation to be in default of their national responsibility. [16] The Third Estate adopted this measure on June 5, 1789 and by doing so, they assumed the power and position to represent the nation. This radical action was confirmed when they decided to change the name of the Estates General to the National Assembly, indicating the separation of orders no longer existed.

Assemblies, Convention, and Terror

Although not noted as a speaker (he spoke rarely and briefly), Sieyès had major influence, and he recommended the decision of the Estates to reunite its chamber as the National Assembly, although he opposed the abolition of tithes and the confiscation of Church lands.His opposition to the abolition of tithes discredited him in the National Assembly, and he was never able to regain his authority. [17] Elected to the special committee on the constitution, he opposed the right of "absolute veto" for the King of France, which Honoré Mirabeau unsuccessfully supported. He had considerable influence on the framing of the departmental system, but, after the spring of 1790, he was eclipsed by other politicians, and was elected only once to the post of fortnightly president of the Constituent Assembly.

Like all other members of the Constituent Assembly, he was excluded from the Legislative Assembly by the ordinance, initially proposed by Maximilien Robespierre, that decreed that none of its members should be eligible for the next legislature. He reappeared in the third national Assembly, known as the National Convention of the French Republic (September 1792 - September 1795). He voted for the death of Louis XVI, but not in the contemptuous terms sometimes ascribed to him.[18] Menaced by the Reign of Terror and offended by its character, Sieyès even abjured his faith at the time of the installation of the Cult of Reason, and afterwards he characterized his conduct during the period in the ironic phrase, J'ai vécu ("I survived").

Ultimately, Sieyès failed to establish the kind of bourgeois revolution he had hoped for, one of representative order "devoted to the peaceful pursuit of material comfort."[19]

The shape the Revolution took was beyond what Sieyes wanted it to be. His initial purpose was to persuade changes in a more passive way and to establish a constitutional monarchy. His pamphlet in a sense set “the tone and direction of The French Revolution…but its author could hardly control the Revolution’s course over the long run”.[20] Even after 1791 when the monarchy seemed to many to be doomed, Sieyes “continued to assert his belief in the monarchy” which indicated he did not intend for the Revolution to take the course it did. [21] During the period he served in the National Assembly, he wanted to establish a constitution that would establish the rights of French men and would establish equality under the law as the social goal of the Revolution. In the end, he was unable accomplish his goal.

Directory and Intrigue

After the execution of Robespierre, Sieyès reemerged as an important political player during the constitutional debates that follwed.[22] In 1795 he went on a diplomatic mission to The Hague, and was instrumental in drawing up a treaty between the French and Batavian republics. He resented the constitution of 1795 (that of the Directory), and refused to serve as a Director of the Republic. In May 1798 he went as the plenipotentiary of France to the court of Berlin, in order to try to induce Prussia to ally with France against the Second Coalition; despite his efforts, this was not to happen. His prestige grew, and he was Director of France in place of Jean-François Rewbell in May 1799.

Nevertheless, Sieyès was considering ways to overthrow the Directory, and is said to have taken in view the replacement of the government with unlikely rulers such as Archduke Charles of Austria and Karl Wilhelm Ferdinand of Brunswick (a major enemy of the Revolution). He attempted to undermine the constitution, and thus caused the revived Jacobin Club to be closed while making offers to General Joubert for a coup d'état.

Brumaire, Empire, and Later Life

The death of Joubert at the Battle of Novi, and the return of Napoleon Bonaparte from the Egypt campaign put an end to this project, but Sieyès resumed it by reaching a new understanding with Bonaparte. Sieyes was a theorist who sought to put his plans of political organization into action. His alliance with Bonaparte, a man of action, was seen by Sieyes as a means of putting his theories into practice. After 18 Brumaire, Sieyès produced the constitution which he had long been planning, only to have it completely remodelled by Bonaparte, who thereby achieved a coup within the coup - the Constitution of the Year VIII favored by the latter became the basis of the Consulate.

Sieyès soon retired from the post of provisional Consul, which he had accepted after Brumaire, and became one of the first members of the Sénat conservateur (acting as its president in 1799); pasquinades at the time linked this concession to the large estate at Crosne that he received from Napoleon.[23] After the plot of the Rue Saint-Nicaise in late December 1800, Sieyès the senator defended the arbitrary and illegal proceedings whereby Bonaparte rid himself of the leading Jacobins.

During the Empire (1804-1814) Sieyès rarely emerged from his retirement. When Napoleon briefly returned to power in 1815 he was named to the Chamber of Peers. After the Second Restoration Sieyès was expelled from the Academy in 1816 by Louis XVIII. He then moved to Brussels, but returned to France after the July Revolution of 1830. He died in Paris in 1836.

Sieyès and the Social Sciences

In 1795 Sieyès became one of the first members of the class of moral and political sciences, the future Academy of Moral and Political Sciences of the Institute of France. When the French Academy was reorganized in 1803, he was elected in the second class replacing, in armchair 31, Jean Sylvain Bailly, who had been guillotined 12 November, 1793 during the Reign of Terror. However, after the second Restoration in 1815, he was expelled for his role in the execution of King Louis XVI, and was replaced by the Marquis of Lally-Tollendal, who was named to the Academy by a royal decree.

The recent publication of his unpublished works shows that in 1780 he was the first to use the term 'sociologie'. The term was used again fifty years later by Auguste Comte to refer to the science of society.[24]

See also


  1. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 11
  2. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 11
  3. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 11
  4. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 12
  5. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 12
  6. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 12
  7. ^ William H. Sewell Jr., A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution The Abbe Sieyes and What is the Third Estate? (Durham and London:Duke University Press,1994)9.
  8. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 12
  9. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 13
  10. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 13
  11. ^ William H. Sewell Jr., A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution The Abbe Sieyes and What is the Third Estate? 14.
  12. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 15
  13. ^ Van Deusen, Glyndon G., p. 15
  14. ^ William H. Sewell Jr., A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution The Abbe Sieyes and What is the Third Estate?9.
  15. ^ William H. Sewell Jr., A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution: The Abbe Sieyes and What is The Third Estate? 43.
  16. ^ William H. Sewell Jr. A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution The Abbe Sieyes and What is the Third Estate? 16.
  17. ^ John J. Meng, Review of Sieyes: His Life and His Nationalism by Glyndon G. Van Deusen, The Catholic Historical Review Vol. 19 No. 2 (July, 1933),221. JSTOR (11, February 2010).
  18. ^ "La Mort, sans phrases" ("Death, without rhetoric") being his supposed words during the debate on Louis' fate
  19. ^ Sewell Jr., William H., p. 198
  20. ^ William H. Sewell Jr., A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution: The Abbe Sieyes and What is The Third Estate? 185.
  21. ^ Christopher Hibbert, The Days of The French Revolution, 133.
  22. ^ Sewell Jr., William H., p. 19
  23. ^ Crosne, Essonne, had belonged to the Abbey of Saint-Germain-des-Prés, with a seigneurie that descended in the family of Brancas; both came to the French State with the Revolution.
  24. ^ Des Manuscrits de Sieyès. 1773-1799, Volumes I and II, published by Christine Fauré, Jacques Guilhaumou, Jacques Vallier et Françoise Weil, Paris, Champion, 1999 and 2007


  • Van Deusen, Glyndon G. Sieyes: his life and his nationalism. New York: AMS Press 1968.
  • Sewell, Jr., William H. A rhetoric of bourgeois revolution : the Abbé Sieyes and What is the Third Estate?. (\Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1994.
  • This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.
  • Charles Philippe Dijon de Monteton. "Der lange Schatten des Abbé Bonnot de Mably. Divergenzen und Analogien seines Denkens in der Politischen Theorie des Grafen Sieyès." In Thiele, U., Ed. Volkssouveränität und Freiheitsrechte. Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes Baden-Baden, Germany: Staatsverständnis, 2009, S. 43-110.
  • Hibbert, Christopher. The Days of the French Revolution. New York: William Morrow, 1982.
  • Meng John J., Review of: Sieyes His Life and His Nationalism by Glyndon G. Van Deusen. The Catholic Historical Review, Vol 19, No. 2, (July 1933), JSTOR, accessed 11,February 2010.

External links

May–17 June 1799: Barras | La Révellière-Lépeaux | Merlin de Douai | Treilhard | Sieyès
17–18 June 1799: Barras | La Révellière-Lépeaux | Merlin de Douai | Sieyès | Gohier
18–19 June 1799: Barras | Sieyès | Gohier
19–20 June 1799: Barras | Sieyès | Gohier | Ducos
20 June–November 1799: Barras | Sieyès | Gohier | Ducos | Moulin

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