SIEYÈS, EMMANUEL-JOSEPH (1748–1836), French revolutionary politician and writer.
The Abbé Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès is synonymous with the French Revolution. He advocated voting reform in the Estates-General, publishing his famous pamphlet, What Is the Third Estate?, in January 1789. Elected to the Third Estate, Sieyès made the transition from writer to politician, serving in the National Assembly and later in the Convention before entering the executive branch as a director in 1799. Unhappy with the constitution and the direction of the revolution, he plotted with a number of former and current politicians, including General Napoleon Bonaparte (later Napoleon I, r. 1804–1814/15) to overthrow the Directory. Sieyès's active role in French politics came to an end shortly after the coup of 18 Brumaire 1799. Sieyès was ultimately more influential as a writer and political commentator than as a politician, and although he was well respected by his contemporaries, he was unable to carry that respect over to his political career.
Sieyès was born into a middle class family in Fréjus, on the Mediterranean. He entered the clergy and studied at the Sorbonne, but his interests extended far beyond the Catholic Church. He eschewed religious dogma and embraced the intellectual climate of the Enlightenment, accepting the general precepts of the social contract and representative government. The Royal Order in Council (5 July 1788) led to intense debate over the structure of the future Estates-General. Sieyès joined the discourse, producing his first pamphlet, Essay on Privilege, in which he attacked the feudal structure of the proposed legislative body.
His assault upon privilege continued in his most famous work, What Is the Third Estate? Elections for the Estates-General were a month away, and Sieyès's pamphlet challenged not only the prevailing social and political structure but the right of the nobility to be represented at all. He argued that the Third Estate constituted "nineteen-twentieths" of the nation and comprised the productive sectors of society. He went so far as to reject the Estates-General in favor of an elected national assembly.
Sieyès determined to effect change and was elected to the Estates-General. He was a popular figure in the Third Estate and was instrumental in the creation of the National Assembly at the end of June 1789. The triumph of his political ideas brought him to a position of intellectual prominence in the assembly. Although he eventually joined the Jacobin Club, Sieyès was not a radical. As a member of the clergy he was none too pleased with the Civil Constitution in 1790 but ultimately voted for it. He remained in the legislature when the National Assembly became the Convention. His moderate stance and reputation in drawing up the Constitution of 1791 allowed him to weather the radical revolution during 1793 and 1794, but he accomplished this only by supporting the Committee of Public Safety.
The fall of Robespierre on 9 Thermidor (27 July 1794) gave Sieyès the opportunity to reemerge as a leading intellectual figure. He did not advocate universal suffrage, and the former revolutionary dictatorship only reinvigorated his opposition to it. He also rejected the concept of a strong executive branch and through his participation in writing the Constitution of 1795 was able to put his opposition into effect. During the Directory, he was a member of the Council of Five Hundred. His frustration with the ineffectiveness of the government led him to support the coup of Prairial (1799) and enter the executive as a director.
Although he became part of the executive, Sieyès was concerned about the Jacobinization of the legislature and had never been comfortable with the political system of the Directory. He plotted its demise in favor of a new constitutional government of his own design. Sieyès hoped that the coup of 18 Brumaire could restore a sense of direction to the stale revolution, but in doing so it introduced Napoleon Bonaparte into the equation. Sieyès underestimated Bonaparte's ambitions and overestimated his own reputation. By the beginning of January 1800, Napoleon easily eclipsed Sieyès as author of the new constitution and head of government. Sieyès took a back seat as one of the three consuls but was relegated thereafter to the Senate, where he remained until 1815.
Sieyès never again achieved the level of success he had found through his writings of 1788 and 1789. He was never a radical and certainly not a consummate Jacobin, even during the year of the Terror. He argued against royal veto power in 1790 and 1791 and did not support universal suffrage but preferred the Enlightenment notion of the "responsible"—which is to say, the propertied—serving in government. He was wary of a strong executive, be it a monarchy or a revolutionary committee. He suffered, however, from intellectual arrogance and was never able to rectify his constitutional theories with practical realities.
Clapham, J. H. The Abbé Sieyès: An Essay in the Politics of the French Revolution. London, 1912.
Sewell, William Hamilton. A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution: The Abbé Sieyès and What Is the Third Estate? Durham, N.C., 1994.
Frederick C. Schneid