A portrait that Emmanuel Sieyes, painted approximately 1789

No single file had a greater affect on the French transformation than Qu’est ce que le Tiers-etat?, or ‘What is the third Estate’? written by Emmanuel Sieyes, a hitherto unknown clergyman, this pamphlet encapsulated the political grievances of common people. Published at a an essential moment in early 1789, it energised the push for reform at the Estates-General.

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In so late 1788, the French king luigi XVI announced the convocation that the Estates-General, Bourbon France’s closest indistinguishable to a national parliament.

This notice unleashed a overwhelming of politics opinion. Thousands of essays and political pamphlets were published and also circulated. Countless speculated around the composition, procedure and possible outcomes of the Estates-General. Few of these records demanded equality and greater representation for the 3rd Estate, France’s common people.

What is the third Estate? inflamed this political aspirations an ext than any other. It struck a chord through France’s disgruntled lower classes. Asking 3 rhetorical questions and employing clear but forceful language, What is the third Estate? appeared as rational and logical together it was compelling. It tested traditional conceptions of nation and federal government while urging that readers no to expropriate hollow promises or compromises. What is the 3rd Estate? showed enormously popular and became what one chronicler calls “a script for revolution”.

The author of this remarkable file was Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, a free-thinking clergyman. Sieyès was born in south-eastern France in 1748. His parents had actually noble ancestry however by the moment of his bear Sieyès’ family members was barely middle class. His father was a public servant and also devout Catholic that wanted his children, including middle child Emmanuel, to enter the clergy.

Sieyès got a Jesuit education before relocating to Paris, whereby he entered a seminary in suburban Paris and studied theology at the prestigious Sorbonne. Sieyès to be a trivial theology student, often finishing with low grades. He proved a much greater interest in liberal political philosophy, an especially the works of john Locke. A voracious reader, in 1770 Sieyès compiled a perform of hundreds of publications he wished to read – if he ever had the money to buy them. Knowledge texts featured greatly in this list.

Dissatisfaction v the Church

Despite his liberal views, Sieyès ongoing his clerical career and also was ordained as an abbé (abbot) in 1772. His time in the clergy to be moderately successful but far from happy. After waiting 2 years for a posting, Sieyès finally obtained a position in the diocese the Chartres. He at some point rose to the workplaces of vicar-general, cathedral canon and also diocesan chancellor. If his own career advanced slowly, Sieyès became conscious of just how churchmen of noble birth however mediocre capacity were moving quickly up the ranks. Together his dissatisfaction v the church grew, so too Sieyès’ interest in the nation’s unfolding political crisis.

The imperial letter outlining the convocation the the Estates-General in 1789

In respectable 1788, the king notified the convocation the the Estates-General in the center of the following year. In ~ this point, there was uncertainty about the composition and operation the the Estates-General. The Estates-General had actually not met since 1614; it had actually never followed regular structures or procedures; there was no constitutional need for the to take any specific form. This uncertainty prompted a national discussion about the formation, operation and powers the the Estates-General.

In September 1788, the Paris parlement ruled the Estates-General must take on the same form as it had actually in 1614 – that is, through voting performed by order rather than by head. The adhering to month Jacques Necker, who had actually proposed copy the representation of the 3rd Estate in ~ the Estates-General, summoned one Assembly of Notables to provide advice top top the matter. Government censorship was also relaxed, permitting pundits and ideologues to compose extensively around the forthcoming Estates-General.

Sieyès the writer

All this inspired Sieyès to placed pen come paper. In November 1788, he released Essai sur les privileges (‘Essay ~ above the privileges’) which assaulted the visibility of privilege and exemptions in France’s culture and politics system. This was immediately followed by What is the 3rd Estate? in January 1789.

Sieyès’ text was based on a an easy premise: the third Estate created the bulk of the country and did the occupational of the nation, so was entitled to political representation. As cutting board Paine had done in America with Common Sense (1776), Sieyès maintained the structure basic while employing thinking that was clear and obtainable for simple readers. In the most-quoted passage of What is the third Estate?, he posted 3 rhetorical questions and answers:

“What is the third Estate? Everything.What has actually it been heretofore in the political order? Nothing.What does the demand? To become something.”

What is the 3rd Estate? became probably the most prominent text that the at an early stage French Revolution. That crystallised the grievances that ordinary people in a rational and also logical manner. The reminded the common French people they had been exploited and mistreated, both by one unrepresentative government and by a parasitic nobility that refuse to pay its very own way. 

More importantly, What is the 3rd Estate? provided third Estate representatives attending the Estates-General through a set of objectives. Sieyès suggested that third Estate representation should be same to or bigger than the very first and 2nd Estates combined. He referred to as for voting in ~ the Estates-General to be carried out by head (that is, by a tally of separation, personal, instance deputies) fairly than by bespeak (the mansions voting in blocs). This shaped the needs of the 3rd Estate at the Estates-General, culminating in their decision come break away to form the nationwide Assembly. It is uncertain whether this would certainly have emerged without the impetus noted by What is the 3rd Estate?

The opening page of What is the third Estate?

Sieyès’ rise to prominence

For Emmanuel Sieyès, the impact of What is the third Estate? lugged him considerable respect and popularity. In in march 1789, that was chosen to stand for the third Estate at the Estates-General – regardless of Sieyès being a member of the an initial Estate and having no experience as one advocate, debater or windy speaker. Sieyès rarely provided public addresses during the Estates-General yet worked diligently behind the scenes and also was often consulted because that advice or instruction.

When the 3rd Estate developed as the national Assembly on June 17th, Sieyès personally introduced the activities to begin this change. The rest of Sieyès’ politics career never reached the heights of early on 1789. He offered in both the nationwide Constituent Assembly and the national Convention, participating in constitution discussions and also drafting. Ultimately, Sieyès was not radical enough for the revolution he had actually helped unleash. He wanted a constitution monarchy and a bourgeois democracy rather than a well-known republic – but could not bring himself to attack the church together he had assaulted the nobility.

A historian’s view:“Sieyès – who had actually an ear because that what we would certainly now contact the sound-bite – gave a notorious answer come this inquiry . In contrast to the various other two orders, the nobility and also priesthood, i m sorry he declared were guardians of their very own corporate privilege, the third Estate had actually ‘no corporate interest to defend… it requirements nothing less than to make the totality of citizen a single social body.’ it was, he claimed, not one order among others, yet itself, alone, ‘the nation’: it to be ‘everything’.”Iain Hampsher-Monk


1. What is the 3rd Estate? was among the French Revolution’s most far-ranging and prominent political texts, shaping the course of occasions in 1789.

2. Its writer was Emmanuel Sieyès, a middle-ranking priest and cost-free thinker who had actually studied knowledge political philosophy and also was frustrated by nobility and privilege.

3. Sieyès penned What is the 3rd Estate? in late 1788, in the middle of a ‘pamphlet war’ end the composition, procedures and outcomes the the Estates-General.

4. In What is the 3rd Estate? Sieyès argued that commoners consisted of most the the country and did many of the work, castle were the nation. That urged members that the 3rd Estate to need a constitution and greater politics representation.

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5. The principles contained in What is the 3rd Estate? were instrumental in shaping the events of 1789, an especially the development of the national Assembly, if Sieyès himself came to be a politics delegate in the new regime.


Extracts native What is the third Estate? (1789)