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Abbe Sieyes
What is the third estate?

  The Abbé Sieyès (born Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyès at Fréjus on the mediterranean coast in 1748) was educated for the church at the Sorbonne where he interested himself in philosophy as well as theology. He was ordained as a priest and was in time appointed to prominent positions in the Diocese of Chartres.

  In the later 1780's there was a dire financial crisis in the Kingdom of France and the King conceded in principle to allow the convening of an Estates General at which he would receive submissions from the three Estates of French society (i.e. the Aristocracy, the Clerics and the commoner Third Estate) as to how the crisis should be addressed.

  Prior to the actual calling together of the Estates General a prominent Royal minister named Necker asked for opinions as to its Constitution. It was in response to this that the Abbé Sieyès penned his pamphlet Qu'est-ce que le tiers état? ( What is the third estate? ). This pamphlet, published in early 1789, attacked noble and clerical privileges and was hugely popular throughout France amongst the many persons who hoped for reform.

  Abbé Sieyès' pamphlet begins:-

  The plan of this book is fairly simple. We must ask ourselves three questions.

  1. What is the Third State? Everything.

  2. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing.

  3. What does it want to be? Something....

  and ends:-

  The Third Estate embraces then all that which belongs to the nation; and all that which is not the Third Estate, cannot be regarded as being of the nation.

  What is the Third Estate?

  It is everything.

  Abbé Sieyès was elected as one of the Third Estate deputies from Paris to the Estates General of 1789.

  He advocated the abandonment of the traditional functioning of the three Estates as seperate blocs and the formation of a single chamber National Assembly. He participated in the writing of the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen and the constitution of 1791.

  He contributed to the acceptance of a distinction between active and passive citizens, which restricted the vote to men of property. As a member of the Convention (September 1792-September 1795) he voted for the execution of King Louis XVI. During these times there was something of a Cult of Reason during which Sieyès abjured his faith.

  His voice was not particularly prominent in affairs during the Reign of Terror, a fact which possibly helped him survive these difficult times. After the overthrow of Maximilien Robespierre on 27th November 1794, Sieyès again became active in the government.

  In 1795 Sieyès was entrusted with diplomatic duties in the Hague. He disagreed with several key aspects of the Constitution of 1795 that was to operate under the Directory and consequently declined an opportunity to serve as a Director. He was involved in a diplomatic mission to Prussia (1798) and elected as a Director in May 1799.

  There had, in recent times, been a number of more or less successful coup d'état. In September 1797 three Directors ousted two others who were thought to be in favour of a restoration of the monarchy and an associated negotiated peace. In May 1798 elections returned a large number of radical Jacobin deputies and the then Directors decided to ignore the election results. In May 1799 the relatively radical leanings of the French legislature led to the forced resignation of three Directors. Sieyès was opposed to a return to power by those of radical or Jacobin leanings and looked for a way in which such radicalism could be contained. He subsequently intrigued, with a General Joubert with the aim of aligning military power against radicalism. Joubert's death in battle caused Sieyès to look to a prominent and popular young General of Corsican origin named Napoleon Bonaparte as an alternative.

  Sieyès hoped that a Constitution of his own devising would be accepted after the intrigues he had entered into with Bonaparte had achieved a successful coup d'état. Such success was narrowly achieved against Jacobin and radical opposition on 9th November 1799 (18th Brumaire 1799 by the French revolutionary calendar). Sieyès became, with Bonaparte and Roger Ducos, one of the three Consuls who were to exercise powers pending the framing of a new Constitution.

  It was in these circumstances that Napoleon Bonaparte, as First Consul, emerged as the most prominent of three Consuls (the other two were Cambacérès and Lebrun) in a system of government where elected representatives had limited powers in relation to the more decisive powers exercised by the Consuls.

  On August 2nd 1802 the French Senate recognised Napoleon Bonaparte as Consul for Life and a new Constitution adopted two days later accepted that Napoleon had the power to nominate the successor to this position. In May 1804 Napoleon was accepted as the hereditary Emperor of the French Republic.

  Sieyès became a senator under the Napoleonic Empire and in this role defended Bonaparte's suppression of the more radical Jacobin revolutionary tendency. After the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy Sieyès would have been politically unwelcome in France and lived in exile (1816-30) in Brussels.

  A change of monarch in France in July 1830 with the accession of the relatively liberal Louis Phillipe meant that it was less imprudent for Sieyès to return home and it was in Paris that he spent his last days in 1836.

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Abbe Sieyes
What is the third estate?