L'Abbé Sièyes

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The Abbé Emmanuel Sièyes, nicknamed 'the mole of the revolution' by Robespierre, was an active and influential political pamphleteer during the twelve months leading up to the revolution. One pamphlet in particular, 'What is the Third Estate?', was particularly inflammatory in its anti-aristocratic and pro-reform stance. It was widely read and

in making the representatives of that class demand recognition as a, indeed, the political force in the nation.

Born in the coastal town of Frèjus in southeast France in 1748, Emmanuel Sièyes was pushed into the church by his middle class parents without showing any great conviction or enthusiasm. An able organiser, he proved to be a good secretary and servant to his bishop, whom he followed from Trégier to Chartres. Although this was an more prestigious diocese, he felt frustrated to find himself at the whim of a regime where talent was rewarded with so little advancement.

What is the Third Estate?

In 1788 he published a now famous revolutionary pamphlet entitled 'What is the Third Estate?' in which he argued that the nobility of France were not in fact part of the nation. The nobility are depicted as privileged parasites, feeding on the industry of the disenfranchised nation and shirking their responsibilities in the administration of the state. He then claimed that far from being the least important of the three Estates, the third really constituted the whole nation.

He argues that because the Third Estate is the nation, and that national sovereignty resides within the nation, only the third estate is truly qualified to legislate over the nation. This was one of the most widely read and influential political pamphlets in the 12 months preceding the opening of the Estates General and it is precisely the ideas contained therein that led to the creation of the national assembly. He collaborated on the drafting of the first constitution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, masterminded a comprehensive overhaul of the adminstrative divisions of France and

Sièyes and the 1789 Revolution

His pamplet on the Third Estate made him an instant celebrity among the bourgeois, pamphlet-reading and voting public and he had little difficulty getting himself elected to the Estates General. He was no orator but, initially recognised thanks to his famous pamphlet, he quickly gained a reputation as a lofty thinker and champion of radical reform. He spent many hours in the early weeks of revolutionary fervour writing many theories on which the speakers at the Jacobin club based many of their revolutionary speeches to the extreme left of the assembly and the Parisian public.

He was against the Civil Constitition of the Church and the abolition of the tithe 1, commenting, "They would be free but the will not be just." Although always respected by the assembly his intellectual aura seems to have led him to be thought enigmatic. He seems to have been disappointed at this lack of success in the political arena.

Sièyes and the Convention

Nonetheless he was elected to the Convention in 1792, sitting in the centre, refusing to join any party. Despite the fact that he voted for the exectution of the king, the left held him in suspicion and his project for a reform of the eductation system was rejected by the assembly.

Despite keep a very low profile during the rise of and the onset of the Terror, the former churchman was always disliked and distrusted by the Mountain. This prompted Robespierre to call Sièyes the 'mole of the revolution.' The left feared that he was trying to bring down the revolution from within. He survived the successive power changes of the convention, accepting the responsibility for Foreign Affairs under the Thermidor regime but refusing to vote for the Constitution of year III.

Sièyes and the Directoire

Although he refused to accept a post as one of the five directors, he was president of the 'Five Hundred'2. Sent to Berlin in 1798 to keep him out of the way, his role was not yet played out. The next year he was back in Paris and by late 1799 he had accepted a directorship and was plotting a coup d'etat with Napoleon. There had already been two successful coups d'etat in the previous two years and it seems Sièyes believed that if this one was successful then he would be able to control the young Corsican General.

Beyond the Revolution

The coup was successful, the legislative assemblies were arrested and Sièyes, Bonaparte and Roger Ducos were appointed provisional consuls to replace the Directors. Bonaparte had no time for Sièyes ideas for a new constitution, however, and set about concentrating power around himself. Disillusioned, the 'mole of the revolution' finally went to ground for the last time, accepting a seat in the senate and retiring to the Crosne estate, later becoming an imperial count. Under the restoration he was exiled as a regicide but returned in 1830 under the July Monarchy. He died in Paris on June 20 1836. He had been a key figure in the heady days of the political events of 1789 and beyond but always a theorist and never the kind of cut-and-thrust politician that so often flourished in this troubled period. It is a tribute to his discretion that he not only survived the ill-will of the instigators of the Terror, and came back to power (or at least influence) under the direcoire; he was then instrumental in bringing to power the greatest national leader in his nation's history since Charlemagne. And he outlived him, as well!

This entry is part of the French Revolution University Project.

1The ten percent taxe collected by the church on the harvest2The 'Five Hundred' was the lower house of the legislative assemblies

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