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On 16 June 2014, I wrote a post, entitled The Bourgeois, members of France’s very large Third Estate. I did not, however, include a discussion of l’abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (3 May 1748 – 20 June 1836). L’abbé Sieyès is the author of Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état, or What is the Third Estate, a pamphlet that reflects the ideology of the philosophes of the Age of Enlightenment in France, such as the writings of Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

The Estates-General

  • Jacques Necker
  • Pamphlet

As the Estates-General were being convened, Genevan banker Jacques Necker, Madame de Staël‘s father, who had been Louis XVI’s finance minister during the period 1777-1781, invited a written definition of France’s Third Estate. Jacques Necker had been recalled and was in office from 16 July 1789 until 3 September 1790, when he was dismissed. Jacques Necker’s invitation yielded l’abbé Sieyès’ Qu’est-ce que le tiers-état? (What is the Third Estate?, a pamphlet, published in January 1789, that could be looked upon as the manifesto of the French Revolution,[1] had the Revolution not spiralled out of control. How could one anticipate the Reign of Terror?

What is the Third Estate?

L’abbé Sieyès presented a portrait of the Third Estate that described its ampleur or magnitude, especially the bourgeoisie’s. L’abbé Sieyès’ pamphlet was not a call to arms, but it stated that the Third Estate, 98% of the population, should be “something.” It was “everything,” but it had been “nothing” “in the political order.”

  • What is the Third Estate? Everything.
  • What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing.
  • What does it want to be? Something.

By becoming a priest, l’abbé Sieyès had elevated himself to the noblesse de robe, nobles of the robe. It comprised persons “whose rank came from holding certain judicial or administrative posts.” (See Nobles of the robe.) As members of the clergy, priests could sit among delegates of the First Estate, the clergy. However, l’abbé (abbott) Sieyès was not an aristocrat who had chosen the priesthood, but a bourgeois who had become a priest. He knew, in other words, that the old aristocracy resented the new aristocracy. (See the History of Nobility, acquired nobility.)

In Qu’est que le Tiers-État? (pdf) Sieyès writes that :

L’ancienne noblesse ne peut pas souffrir les nouveaux nobles; elle ne leur permet de siéger avec elle que lorsqu’ils peuvent prouver, comme l’on dit, quatre générations et cent ans. Ainsi, elle les repousse dans l’ordre du Tiers état, auquel évidemment ils n’appartiennent plus. (p. 10)


The old aristocracy detests new nobles; it allows nobles to sit as such only when they can prove, as the phrase goes, “four generations and a hundred years.” Thus it relegates the other nobles to the order of the Third Estate to which, obviously, they no longer belong. (p. 3)

(See What is the Third Estate? [pdf])

The Bourgeois

Born a bourgeois, l’abbé Sieyès chose to represent the Tiers-État, the Third Estate. It was everything. And it was growing. The sale of offices could lead the buyer, a peasant, to the bourgeoisie, which had ranks: petite, moyenne [middle] et grande)Blaise Pascal‘s (19 June 1623 – 19 August 1662) father was supervisor of taxes in Rouen, an office one could buy and transformed its owner into a bourgeois. Molière‘s father, Jean Poquelin, had purchased his post, “valet de chambre ordinaire et tapissier du Roi” (“valet of the King’s chamber and keeper of carpets and upholstery”), under Louis XIII.

Some bourgeois were very rich and very powerful. Jean-Baptiste Colbert (29 August 1619 – 6 September 1683), served as minister of finance to Louis XIV, from 1665 until 1683. Finally, Louis XIV could not trust aristocrats. He remembered La Fronde (1648-1652), when aristocrats opposed absolutism. They had lost their role. Louis XIV’s advisors were bourgeois who constituted the Conseil du Roi, called the Conseil d’en haut, because they met “en haut,” upstairs. Peasants had not escaped feudalism altogether, but feudalism was waning.

“Consequently, the Third Estate represented the great majority of the people, and its deputies’ transformation of themselves into a National Assembly in June 1789 marked the beginning of the French Revolution.”

(See The Third Estate,[2] the Editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica )

Therefore, it was in Sieyès and the Third Estate’s best interest to ask that “votes be taken by heads and not by orders.” An “ordre” was an Estate.

L’ abbé Sieyès stated that the people wanted genuine representatives in the Estates-General, equal representation to the other two orders taken together, and votes taken by heads and not by orders. These ideas came to have an immense influence on the course of the French Revolution.

(See The Third Estate, Wikipedia)

Among the many causes of the French Revolution, the editors of the Encyclopædia Britannica write that “the bourgeoisie resented its exclusion from political power and positions of honour,” which would be the first cause of the French Revolution and which encapsulates Sieyès’ What is the Third Estate. The Third Estate was “everything,” yet “nothing.” I believe many scholars would also consider the bourgeoisie’s “exclusion from political power” a cause of the French Revolution.


Initially, the French Revolution was a meeting of the Estates-General. In Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-État?, l’abbé Sieyès stated that the vote of delegates to the Third Estate be counted by “heads,” not privilege. This request was not incendiary, nor was, in itself, the Tennis Court Oath (20 June 1789), had delegates not started calling themselves a National Assembly. They swore “ not to separate, and to reassemble wherever circumstances require, until the constitution of the kingdom is established.” (See Tennis Court Oath, Wikipedia & Tennis Court Oath, Britannica.)

Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson was helping Lafayette draft the Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen. He left France on 10 July 1789, four days before the storming of the Bastille. As for the military, in general, it no doubt remembered the Treaty of Paris, 1763, which ended the Seven Years War and had its North-American theater. France lost the battle of the Plains of Abraham, Nouvelle-France’s final battle. Pierre de Rigaud, Marquis de Vaudreuil-Cavagnial and Montcalm had disagreements, but forces in New France were inadequately supported by Louis XV.

When Alexis de Tocqueville and Gustave de Beaumont visited Lower Canada, Tocqueville blamed Louis XV for the loss of New France.

In a letter dated November 26th, 1831, he [Tocqueville] criticizes France’s dealings with its North American colony during the 18th century, referring to the ‘abandonment’ of loyal subjects of the French Empire. Then he adds that it was ‘one of the greatest ignominies of Louis XV’s shameful reign.’[3]

But we remember.

Love to everyone


Sources and Resources

L’Abbé Sieyès


Voltaire & Rousseau

Voltaire’s Letters on England is Gutenberg’s [EBook #2445]
Les Lettres philosophiques de Voltaire is a Wikisource publication FR

Rousseau’s Discours sur l’inégalité is Gutenberg’s [EBook #11136]
Le Discours sur l’inégalité de Rousseau is a Wikisource publication FR

[1] “The French Revolution,” Encyclopædia Britannica

[2] “The Third Estate,” Encyclopædia Britannica

[3] Claude Corbo, in the Encyclopedia of French Cultural Heritage in North America.


Drawing by Jacques-Louis David of the Tennis Court Oath. David later became a deputy in the National Convention in 1793

© Micheline Walker
06 August 2018