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Comte Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès

Comte Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès

The French statesman and political writer Comte Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748-1836) known as the Abbé Sieyès, upheld the interests of the Third Estate. His effort to consolidate a moderate republican government established Napoleon Bonaparte as the head of state.

Born at Fréjus on May 3, 1748, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès got his primary education from the Jesuits in his hometown and continued into advanced study in theology. Appointment as a canon in the cathedral chapter of Tréguier (1775) brought him the appellation of Abbé (used in France not only for abbots but also for churchmen without a parish), and by the eve of the French Revolution he had been promoted to vicar general of the bishop of Chartres. But his interests in these years of intensive political debate turned from theology and Church administration to public affairs, and when the government called for proposals on ways to hold the elections to the Estates General, one of his three pamphlets on the issue was of critical importance in rallying the Third Estate as a force independent of, and even hostile to, clergy and nobility. This was the famous Qu'est-ce que le tiers état? (1789; What Is the Third Estate?), which proclaimed in phrases of ringing clarity that the commoners had been nothing and should be all, as the essential component of the French nation.

Sieyès was elected a deputy of the Third Estate and not of his own Estate, and he played a key role in the events of the first months of the Revolution. He proposed the name National Assembly for the combined single chamber established unilaterally by the Third Estate, with some support from liberal clergy and nobles, on June 17; drew up the "Tennis Court Oath," by which the deputies pledged themselves to the defense of the National Assembly as the embodiment of the sovereignty of the people, on June 20; and took the initiative in the decision of the Constituent Assembly (as the National Assembly was called in its self-assumed task of writing a constitution) to continue its work despite the King's order to disband on June 23. He was also active in the formulation of the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

Further events showed Sieyès to be a moderate within the Revolutionary movement. He favored the widest personal rights of citizens as against arbitrary government power, limitation of the right to vote to property holders (because the votes of the poor, he argued, would be easily bought by the rich), and extreme economic individualism, without restriction upon the right of persons to amass wealth. He was not elected to the Legislative Assembly but was chosen a deputy to the Convention. As the Revolution swung into its radical phase, he chose the path of caution and avoided a prominent role during the Reign of Terror. Asked afterward what he had done during that perilous period, he answered tersely, "J'ai vécu" (I stayed alive). To do so, he had voted for the death penalty against Louis XVI; but after Maximilien de Robespierre's fall, he resumed political activity.

As a member of the Thermidorean Committee of Public Safety and then of the Council of Five Hundred, Sieyès favored an annexationist foreign policy and internal consolidation. After serving as ambassador to Berlin in 1798-1799, he returned to Paris to become a member of the Directory, the executive branch of government. When it became clear that the Directory was supported by only a minority in the nation, with both radical republicans and royalists in active opposition, he and a fellow Director sought the support of the army in the person of Gen. Bonaparte in the coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9, 1799). However, in the new government of three consuls conceived by Sieyès, it was Napoleon Bonaparte who took the post of first consul for himself, and Sieyès was sent into innocuous but prestigious posts, especially after Bonaparte became Emperor Napoleon. He was named to the Senate and became its president, was named a count of the empire, and was elected to the French Academy.

However, when the Bourbon monarchy was finally restored in 1815, Sieyès was banned as a regicide and fled to Brussels, where he lived as an exile until the Revolution of 1830. Returning home, he died in Paris on June 20, 1836, remembered in history chiefly for his inflammatory pamphlet of 1789 and his dupe's part in the overthrow of the Directory.

Further Reading

Sieyès's What is the Third Estate?, edited with historical notes by S. E. Finer (trans. 1964), has a detailed biographical introduction by Peter Campbell. John Harold Clapham, The Abbe Sieyès: An Essay on the Politics of the French Revolution (1912), is by a distinguished economic historian. Glyndon G. Van Deusen, Sieyès: His Life and His Nationalism (1932), is a good general account. □

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