Sieyès, Emmanuel Joseph

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Sieyès, Emmanuel Joseph (1748-1836): French Revolutionary.

Originally an ecclesiastical administrator, Abbé Sieyès turned to revolutionary politics in 1788 with the deepening crisis of the monarchy. Early in 1789, Sieyès published What is the Third Estate? the most influential of the many pamphlets that appeared in the months leading up to the Estates-General. In it, Sieyès fused thought and action in a political program for the Third Estate in opposition to the First and Second Estates. As the vast majority, without privileges but equal to each other under law, Sieyès declared the Third Estate to be the nation and thereby identified it with the national interest and the general will, in contrast to the private interests of the first two Estates. As practical matters, he argued for the restriction of the Third Estate’s deputies to those who were truly its members, the doubling of its representation, which had already been decided upon by the time of the tract’s publication, and voting by head rather than by order. Taken together, these proposals would and, in fact, did shift the balance of power in the Estates-General to the Third Estate.

Based on the popularity of What is the Third Estate? and other writings, Sieyès was elected as a deputy of the Third Estate. Once in the Estates-General, Sieyès called for its reconstitution as a National Assembly in keeping with his third proposal and collaborated on the composition of the Tennis Court Oath. He contributed to the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the Constitution of 1791, which sought to establish a constitutional monarchy, founded the 1789 Society along with the Condorcet, Marie Jean Antoine Nicholas Caritat, Marquis de, and supported the nationalization of Church property. He was elected to the National Convention in 1792, but stayed in the background during the Terror. In 1795, he reemerged in active politics with his service on the post-Thermidor Committee of Public Safety and participation in the drafting of the Constitutions of 1795 and 1799.

Though he had played an important role in instigating and defending the revolution, Sieyès also played a part in its demise. Under the Constitution of 1799, Sieyès was elected one of the Directors, in which capacity he was one of the major plotters with Bonaparte, Napoleon of the 18 Brumaire coup. After the coup, Sieyès became a member of the newly-formed Consulate, only to be pushed aside later by Bonaparte. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1815, Sieyès left France for exile in Brussels, where he resided until his return to France in 1830.

Further Reading:

W. Sewell, A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution: the abbé Sieyès and What is the Third Estate?, 1994.

Kevin E. Dodson

Lamar University