A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution: The Abbé Sieyes and What is the Third Estate?by William H Sewell Jr.
What Is the Third Estate? was the most influential pamphlet of 1789. It did much to set the French Revolution on a radically democratic course. It also launched its author, the Abbé Sieyes, on a remarkable political career that spanned the entire revolutionary decade. Sieyes both opened the revolution by authoring the National Assembly’s/i>… See more details below
What Is the Third Estate? was the most influential pamphlet of 1789. It did much to set the French Revolution on a radically democratic course. It also launched its author, the Abbé Sieyes, on a remarkable political career that spanned the entire revolutionary decade. Sieyes both opened the revolution by authoring the National Assembly’s declaration of sovereignty in June of 1789 and closed it in 1799 by engineering Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état.
This book studies the powerful rhetoric of the great pamphlet and the brilliant but enigmatic thought of its author. William H. Sewell’s insightful analysis reveals the fundamental role played by the new discourse of political economy in Sieyes’s thought and uncovers the strategies by which this gifted rhetorician gained the assent of his intended readers—educated and prosperous bourgeois who felt excluded by the nobility in the hierarchical social order of the old regime. He also probes the contradictions and incoherencies of the pamphlet’s highly polished text to reveal fissures that reach to the core of Sieyes’s thought—and to the core of the revolutionary project itself.
Combining techniques of intellectual history and literary analysis with a deep understanding of French social and political history, Sewell not only fashions an illuminating portrait of a crucial political document, but outlines a fresh perspective on the history of revolutionary political culture.
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A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution
The Abbé Sieyes and What Is the Third Estate?
By William H. Sewell Jr.
Duke University PressCopyright © 1994 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
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What is the third estate? Is an extraordinary text. It was, by all accounts, the most influential pamphlet of the thousands published in the months leading up to the French Revolution. Appearing in January 1789, What Is the Third Estate? was longer than most at 127 pages, and it contained some difficult philosophical arguments as well. But its scintillating style, its exceptionally clear posing of the issues, and its radical conclusions won it immediate acclaim. It probably did more than any other work to chart out the radically democratic path that the revolution was to follow in its first year. Its blistering antiaristocratic rhetoric did much to turn the commoners—known in France as the Third Estate—against the nobility. Moreover, it set forth a radical theory of national sovereignty and elaborated a revolutionary political strategy that was followed by the National Assembly when it seized sovereignty from the king in the summer of 1789.
The author of What Is the Third Estate? was an obscure ecclesiastic named Emmanuel-Joseph Sieyes, a canon of the cathedral of Chartres. The pamphlet launched him on a remarkable political career; it is commonly said that he not only opened the French Revolution by publishing What Is the Third Estate? and authoring the National Assembly's declaration of sovereignty in June 1789 but closed it by helping to engineer Napoleon Bonaparte's coup d'etat a decade later in 1799. The pamphlet's combination of philosophical depth, rhetorical cunning, and practical importance—combined with its author's fascinating political itinerary—makes What Is the Third Estate? an enticing subject for historical analysis and an unsurpassable point of entry into the political culture of the French Revolution.
The Political Crisis of the Pre-Revolution
What Is the Third Estate? appeared in the midst of the long political controversy that led to the French Revolution, and it bore the marks of its time. Understanding the pamphlet requires some knowledge of the political conjuncture from which it sprang. When What Is the Third Estate? appeared, France had been embroiled in a deep political crisis for over two years, since the summer of 1786, when the controller general informed the king that the state was on the verge of bankruptcy. The intervening months of intense political maneuvering had failed to rescue the state budget and had succeeded only in raising the stakes. To balance the budget, the crown needed desperately to tap the revenues of the nobility, a wealthy class that was nevertheless exempt from most taxation. But the state was so weakened by the fiscal crisis that the king was unable to impose his will without obtaining some form of legal consent from the aristocracy. Many nobles were willing to pay, but not without extracting major political concessions from the crown, which over the past century had largely stripped them of autonomous power in the increasingly centralized and absolutist state.
According to traditional constitutional theory, all new taxation was supposed to be approved by the Estates-General, a body made up of representatives of the three estates of the realm: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners or Third Estate. In fact the Estates-General had not met since 1614, and the crown had in the meantime imposed all sorts of taxes without its consent. Calling the Estates-General threatened to unleash an avalanche of stored-up grievances, as well as demands that the Estates be granted the right to meet regularly, which might transform them into something like the British Parliament. This the crown wished to avoid. A second alternative would be to submit plans for tax reforms to the Parlement of Paris, the kingdom's highest court. But the Parlement had for decades been the major locus of a liberal resistance to royal absolutism, and the crown feared a protracted battle in which the aristocratic Parlement might rally the populace to its support by championing limitations on royal power and guarantees of personal freedoms and legal rights.
Faced with these unpalatable alternatives, the crown eventually decided to convoke another institution that had not met since the seventeenth century—an Assembly of Notables. The calculation was that this body, composed of some of the most distinguished nobles and prelates in the land, would be more amenable than the Parlement or the Estates-General. But the crown's strategy backfired disastrously. The Assembly of Notables proved recalcitrant: after debating at great length, it refused to assent to new levies and asserted the authority of the Estates-General in all matters of taxation. As the crisis deepened, the Parlement openly defied the king and campaigned for the rights of individuals and the rule of law. In May of 1788 the crown attempted to push through its fiscal reforms by dismissing the Parlement and promulgating edicts unilaterally, but this provoked revolts in several of the provinces and rendered the country ungovernable. Finally, in September 1788, Louis XVI capitulated and called the Estates-General after all.
The calling of the Estates-General was a great victory for the "patriots," who wished to limit the power of the crown and establish a constitutional government. The initial beneficiary seemed to be the Parlement of Paris. Exiled to the provinces in May of 1788, the Parlementaires returned to Paris in triumph in September. But within a few days of their return they ruled that the Estates should be convoked in exactly the same form as at their last meeting in 1614. This meant that each estate or order would meet separately, each with the same number of delegates, and each with a single vote; consequently the clergy and nobility, the two orders with extensive fiscal and other privileges, would always be able to outvote the Third Estate. This ruling turned public opinion sharply against the Parlement, which was accused of trying to turn the common victory to the sole advantage of the aristocracy.
In the fall and winter of 1788–89, an unending succession of publicists, men of letters, journalists, and intellectuals wrote pamphlets denouncing the royal administration and the aristocracy and extolling the Third Estate—which, as they endlessly pointed out, accounted not only for 95 percent of the population but for most of the nation's wealth as well. The common demand of these pamphlets was what was known as the "doubling of the Third"—granting the Third Estate as many representatives as the other two orders combined—and the taking of votes by head instead of by estate. Together these would assure the commoners a voice at least equal to that of the privileged orders.
The Pamphlet and the Revolution
This was the context in which What Is the Third Estate? was published. The pamphlet was an immediate and spectacular success; it went through three editions in the winter and spring of 1789. What Is the Third Estate? electrified public opinion. It was distributed and debated by various political clubs and committees that had sprung up in the heated atmosphere of the winter and spring of 1789. Its author was catapulted from obscurity to fame and became a leading figure in the Society of Thirty, which constituted itself as a kind of organizing committee for the emerging patriot party and included such luminaries as the Due de La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt, the Marquis de Lafayette, and the philosophe Condorcet. Although he was a cleric, the abbé Sieyes was elected as a representative of the Third Estate of Paris and became one of the guiding spirits of the Revolution during the crucial summer of 1789.
The triumph of What Is the Third Estate? was not just personal. It also succeeded in focusing the political and constitutional debate that was raging in the spring of 1789 on the question of aristocratic privilege. Hostility to the nobles and their privileges was widespread in the political discourse of these months, but attacks on the nobility made up only one of many themes in the debate. Sieyes's pamphlet differed from most by identifying noble privileges not as one of many defects of the current political regime but as the essential source of all other disorders in the kingdom. He argued, in fact, that nobles were not really members of the French nation, but enemies. Because their privileges made them idle consumers of wealth instead of active producers, because they insisted on special privileges and exceptions to the laws that governed the rest of the nation, and because they defended these distinctions from other Frenchmen by deliberating in a separate body in the Estates-General, their interests were utterly removed from those of the nation at large. His answer to the question What Is the Third Estate? was that the Third Estate alone actually constituted the entire French nation, because the nobles had in effect seceded from the nation by clinging to their privileges.
Sieyes not only attacked the nobility with uncommon bitterness and acerbity; he also suggested a radical but practicable means for eliminating the nobles' privileges and restoring political power to the real French nation. He argued that in cases like the present one, when the very constitution of the nation was at issue, the Estates-General was incompetent to act because it embodied the constitution's most blatant flaw, a division of the kingdom into a privileged aristocracy and an oppressed Third Estate. Instead, the king should have called a constituent assembly, representing equally all members of the nation, which could meet and discuss fundamental questions of political organization outside the current constitutional framework. But the Estates-General had already been called and would soon be meeting in Versailles. What might the Third Estate do under these circumstances to establish a just and proper constitution for France? Here the logic of Sieyes's argument was compelling: if the Third Estate was actually the entire nation, then its representatives to the Estates-General had the authority to declare themselves the country's legitimate national assembly in the absence of representatives of the other two orders and proceed to elaborate a constitution on their own.
Astonishingly, the representatives of the Third Estate actually took this course of action. On 17 June they voted overwhelmingly for a declaration, authored by Sieyes, in which they designated themselves the National Assembly, thus arrogating to themselves the power to determine the nation's constitution and make binding laws. This seizure of constitutive and legislative power by the Third Estate was, from a juridical perspective, the crucial event of the Revolution of 1789. It transferred sovereignty from the king to the nation and placed a National Assembly of the people's representatives at the head of the state. Although the National Assembly had seized the initiative, it was hardly secure in its exercise of power until the crown was further weakened over the summer and fall of 1789 by a series of popular uprisings—the storming of the Bastille on 14 July, a massive revolt of the peasants in July and August, and the "October days," in which the king was forced to move from Versailles to Paris, becoming a virtual hostage of the Parisian National Guard. But beginning in June 1789, the National Assembly carried out a radical juridical and political revolution and elaborated a written constitution based on the rights of man and citizen. The crucial step of the juridical revolution was taken on 4 August, when the National Assembly abolished all legal privileges, thereby eliminating the nobility as a separate order in state and society.
Through the summer of 1789, the French Revolution would appear to have followed the script written by the abbé Sieyes in What Is the Third Estate? His pamphlet not only set forth the essential principles adopted by the new state—the destruction of all privileges and the establishment of national sovereignty and equality before the law—but elaborated the political strategy by which the political revolution was accomplished. We seem to be faced with a case of textual determinism, in which the arguments set forth by a political intellectual structured the course of political events.
But is such a thing possible? How could a single pamphlet have charted the course of an event so massive and chaotic as the French Revolution? It could not have done so, of course, unless it spoke to sentiments, opinions, and political visions already in circulation in the body social. In fact, virtually all of the themes and ideas expressed in What Is the Third Estate? were also present in other pamphlets published in the months before the meeting of the Estates-General. The abbé Sieyes certainly did not singlehandedly invent the discourse and politics of the summer of 1789. Rather, what might be claimed is that What Is the Third Estate? focused the chaotic debate of the pre-Revolution on certain issues and provided a coherent strategy and program for political change. Alternatively, it could be argued that What Is the Third Estate? did not shape the Revolution, but that the close fit between its themes and the actuality of political developments was more a sign of Sieyes's exceptionally clear understanding of the revolution's political dynamics than of his persuasive power. But this alternative interpretation seems even less plausible. I find it easier to imagine that in What Is the Third Estate? Sieyes managed to catch up the emotions and thoughts that were swirling around him, crystallize them into a powerful and coherent text, and then capitalize on the fame that his pamphlet brought him to push his program through the National Assembly. This would be an astounding accomplishment for a political text, but not as improbable as correctly predicting in December of 1788 how so unimaginable an event as the French Revolution might unfold.
The argument of this book is predicated on the assumption that What Is the Third Estate? was a significant determinant of the course of the Revolution at least through 4 August 1789. It is the pamphlet's extraordinary power to shape the revolution that makes it an irresistible object of historical and literary reflection. One of the major tasks of my investigation is to determine how it was possible for the pamphlet to have had so powerful an influence. How did Sieyes deploy his arguments, and why was this deployment so successful? How much of the persuasive power of What Is the Third Estate? was due to the sheer logical force of his arguments? How did he appeal to his readers' emotions—their hopes, fears, resentments, and passions? To what audience did Sieyes especially address his appeals? What figurative or literary devices did Sieyes employ to harness his readers' enthusiasms? Chapter two of this book will attempt to reconstruct the rhetorical armature of this remarkable political text.
But my reflection will not end with a demonstration of how Sieyes solved the seemingly unsolvable problem of harnessing the French Revolution to his own political and ideological purposes. For although I am convinced that What Is the Third Estate? is a truly extraordinary work of political rhetoric and that its effects on the course of the French Revolution were profound, there are good reasons to doubt that any text, however brilliant, could become an unambiguous instrument of its author's intentions and then serve as an authoritative recipe for putting them into practice. After establishing the pamphlet's sources of rhetorical power, I will go on to examine some of the ambiguities and contradictions of the pamphlet and its sometimes paradoxical relation to what we can reconstruct of its author's political intentions. A closer examination of the polished surface of What Is the Third Estate? reveals some small but extremely deep fissures, whose exploration I believe will illuminate not only the political and ideological dynamics of the French Revolution but the powers and limitations of political language more generally.
Who Was the Abbé Sieyes?
This book is by no means a biographical study, but it must say something of the life and career of the abbé Sieyes. Sieyes figured centrally in revolutionary history; his most recent biographer, Jean-Denis Bredin, dubs him "the key to the French Revolution." Although the implication that Sieyes's career can unlock the Revolution's mysteries is surely hyperbolic, there is no question that he was a crucial actor in both opening and closing the political drama that unfolded in France between 1789 and 1799. He helped open it by publishing his great pamphlet in January 1789 and by authoring the resolution that transformed the deputies of the Third Estate into the National Assembly on 17 June. By a stunning irony of history, he also helped close it by engineering the coup d'état that brought Napoleon Bonaparte to power ten years later, in 1799.
All of this was quite an accomplishment for a man of modest origins who in January of 1789 was a little-known canon of the cathedral of Chartres. Emmanuel-Joseph Sieves, who was forty-one at the outset of the French Revolution, was a native of Fréjus, a town of some three thousand inhabitants in Provence, on the French Mediterranean coast. His father was a minor royal official, a receveur de droits royaux and directeur de postes. Born in 1748, Sieyes was a frail boy with a precocious intellect who came from a large and far from wealthy family; he accepted a career in the church in spite of his utter lack of religious vocation because it seemed the only practical means of getting ahead. In 1765, at the age of eighteen, he entered the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice in Paris; while at the seminary, he studied theology at the Sorbonne. He was at best an indifferent student: after five years he received his first diploma in theology but was ranked at the bottom of the list of passing candidates. In 1772, at the age of twenty-four, he was ordained as a priest, and in 1774 he obtained his licence in theology, ranked fifty-fourth in a class of eighty-eight.
Excerpted from A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution by William H. Sewell Jr.. Copyright © 1994 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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Meet the Author
William H. Sewell, Jr. is Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago. He is also the author of Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848, winner of the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize, and Structure and Mobility: The Men and Women of Marseille, 1820–1870.
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