Constitutional Father Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, better known as Abbe Sieyes, is considered by some scholars, the leader of the early Revolution in France; however, others consider him a selfish, jealous man. No matter what one believes, there are some indisputable facts about Abbe Sieyes.
Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes was born on May 3rd, 1748 in Frejus. His father was a postmaster and collector of king’s dues, while his mother was connected to the lower ranks of nobility. Sieyes’ parents gave him the best education they could afford, first at home under a tutor, then in the Jesuits’ College at Frejus. Most graduates of the college attended military academies and Sieyes expected the same, but was forced into a different occupation.
Emmanuel’s parents pushed him into Holy Orders in the hope that he would support the family, especially his two brothers. The Bishop of Frejus was a family friend and helped Emmanuel’s parents send him to Paris to study at the Seminary of St. Sulpice. His studies lasted for ten years and he was ordained a priest in 1773. Two years after his ordination, Abbe Sieyes became secretary to the Bishop of Treguier. His advancement in the priesthood was hindered of course, because he came from a middle-class family that lacked nobility.
Then in 1784, he became vicar general and chancellor to the Bishop of Chartres. Abbe Sieyes then became a member of the Provincial Assembly of Orleans in 1787. When the Estates General was called in late 1788, Abbe Sieyes wrote his most famous pamphlet, Qu’est-ce que le Tiers Etat? “What is the Third Estate?” With its publishing in January 1789, Sieyes became a prominent figure at the Estates General. On June 12, 1789, Sieyes brought about the vote to allow the privileged to join the Third. Then on June 17, he brought about the vote that transformed the Third into the National Assembly.
One year later, Sieyes was voted president of the Assembly and of the Jacobian Club. During the next three years, Sieyes simply survived the Terror. Later in his career he was a member of the Committee of Public Safety, a member of the Council of Five Hundred, and received membership to the Directory, but denounced it, and finally was named a Consul in 1799. Sieyes left Paris for the Restoration and returned after the revolution of 1830.
He lived six more years and died on June 20, 1836. That was Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes’ life, but scholars have written various interpretations of it and its impact (Clapham 4 – 10). The first scholarly interpretation I examined was that of John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton. Acton wrote Lectures on the French Revolution. Acton states that, “Sieyes was essentially a revolutionist, because he held that political oppression can never be right, and that resistance to oppression can never be wrong..he (Sieyes) sacrificed equality by refusing the vote to those who paid no taxes”(Acton 161).
Acton treats Sieyes as an important figure to the Revolution, especially in its early stages. He makes Sieyes out to be a student of the Locke. He also states that Sieyes controlled France twice, by sheer political power. This political power did not derive from public opinion, but from Sieyes’ political thoughts. To Acton, Sieyes was a political thinker, the best of his time, but he lacked the pulse of the people and therefore was a poor politician.
The next interpretation I examined was that of J. M. Thompson. Thompson sees Sieyes as a philosopher with one major flaw. In Leaders of the French Revolution, Thompson states, “In both those acts (the creation of the National Assembly and the Constitution of Brumaire) Sieyes did well by his country, and did so because he was human enough to forget, for the moment, he was a philosopher”(Thompson 15).
Thompson interprets this ignorance as Sieyes’ major weakness. He thinks Sieyes could not philosophically detach himself from a situation. Thompson also thinks Sieyes was unfit for the priesthood and was closer to the philosophes’ movements. Overall, Thompson believes that Sieyes is responsible for the National Assembly, the National Guard, and the Departmental System and in effect a great political thinker. The third interpretation I read was that of Henri Beraud. In Beraud’s book, Twelve Portraits of the French Revolution, he sees Sieyes as a secondary figure to the revolution, “a man who internally struggled with respect for monarchy and the love of liberty”(Beraud 299).
Beraud’s interpretation of Abbe Sieyes differs form the first two because he sees Sieyes political thoughts as part of his problem. To Beraud, Sieyes was concerning himself more with his reputation and thoughts, than with his political power. To Beraud, Sieyes could have helped prevent disastrous times by taking control, but he acknowledges the fact that Sieyes was not a very good politician. In conclusion, Beraud sees Sieyes as a man clouded by his thoughts and ego.
The next scholar I examined was Georges Lefebvre. Lefebvre wrote The Coming of the French Revolution. This book examines the early revolution and pays some attention to Abbe Sieyes. Lefebvre believes that “Sieyes was the theorist of the ‘constitutive power’ and the moving spirit of the judicial revolution. But being neither a speaker nor a man of action, he was never known except to the bourgeoisie”(Lefebvre 69). To him, Emmanuel Sieyes was a man who lacked the ability and conviction to be a leader.
Lefebvre also opposes Thompson’s view that Sieyes’ actions, especially the coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire, helped France. To Lefebvre, Sieyes was the “gravedigger” to the political liberty he espoused. Lefebvre sees Sieyes’ life as one contradiction – becoming part of the priesthood, after another – planning the coup d’etat of 18 Brumaire. The final interpretation I examined was that of J. H.
Clapham, the foremost author of Emmanuel Sieyes. His book, The Abbe Sieyes, was a source for most of the information I read on Sieyes. Clapham sees Sieyes as a political genius. “He (Sieyes) had genius, it has been rightly said, for finding the key to a given political position.
Hence, a dangerous tactician, whose influence both on ideas and on affairs had to be reckoned with at each crisis of the Revolution” (Clapham 2). To Clapham, Sieyes was hated by his adversaries, because his ideas and principles changed with the revolution and therefore was seen as a traitor to each political faction. Sieyes was a “political metaphysician”-a man who took politics to the abstract level. That was Sieyes legacy, according to Clapham. He was able to bring politics to a science.
Clapham also sees the contradiction in Sieyes thoughts and occupation. Clapham acknowledges the fact that Sieyes’ thoughts and ideas contradicted his vocation, but does not go into any more detail. In conclusion, Clapham believes Sieyes to be the foremost political thinker of his time who influence the Revolution with his thoughts, words, and inaction! These five interpretations cover the spectrum on Sieyes and my personal interpretation falls somewhere in the center. I admit Sieyes political theories were essential to the Revolution, as well as, his pamphlet.
Sieyes was the leader of the Third when it was looking for an identity, and he helped create the National Assembly. In his own mind, he had a vision for a government, which would help France achieve its greatness, but lacked the leadership to implement it. Sieyes was too concerned with political theories to take action when action was needed. Sieyes political thought was a combination of Locke, Montesquieu, and Rousseau.
He was not as radical as later revolutionaries, but was radical for his time in the early Revolution. Sieyes was a constitutional monarchist. He wanted a constitution to control the power of the monarch, but believed a monarch was needed. Sieyes never attempted to destroy the King, he simply attempted to curtail his power. In the end, Sieyes became a great political thinker, but lacked the courage and leadership to control France and shape his political thoughts into reality.
I think many of his political theories and actions came out of his deep seeded hatred for the nobility. He first disliked the priesthood, then the nobility within it because they hindered his advancement. Sieyes’ ego took that as an insult. I think his theory of government was created to destroy the nobility’s power.
Sieyes did not hold hatred toward the King. In actually, Sieyes loved monarchy just the same as he loved liberty. He wanted both liberty and monarchy, but he could not implement this form government because he lacked the leadership and confidence to do it. Sieyes’ lack of confidence led many to view him as weak, feeble man, but I have to disagree.
Overall, Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes was a great political thinker who wanted a constitutional monarch, but lacked the confidence to create this form of government. A lack of confidence does not create a weak man or a failure, he is just human. No one can be expexted to be perfect at the perfect times. Sieyes was essential to the Revolution, he helped create the National Assembly and the Constitution of Brumaire. No matter how you view his potential ability, in reality, he did well by his country Bibliography Beraud, Henri.
Twelve Portraits of the French Revolution. Trans. Madeleine Boyd. Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1928. Clapham, J.H.
The Abbe Sieyes. London: P.S. King & Son, 1912. Dalberg-Acton, John E.E. Lectures on the French Revolution. Ed.
John Figgis and Reginald Laurence. London: MacMillan and Company, 1932. Lefebvre, Georges. The Coming of the French Revolution. Trans. R.R.
Palmer. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1947. Thompson, J.M. Leaders of the French Revolution. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1929.