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French Revolution
French Revolution

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2.2.1 Sample analysis and discussion of ‘What is the Third Estate?’

Let us take a closer look at part of this document before attempting the exercise below. This preamble should help you to relate to similar exercises in this course. The document is quite long, by far the longest one associated with this course; but you should not find it difficult to read it through fairly quickly and to extract its main points, to grasp Sieyès's ‘message’, and to note how he conveyed it. After you have read it through once, re-read it from the beginning up to ‘a nation within a nation’.

Click to view The Third Estate. [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]

The fact of its immediate success and large print run already suggests that What is the Third Estate? was crisply written, had a clear and timely message, and was readily and immediately understood and appreciated. Sieyès is methodical, concise and to the point. He tells us straightaway that ‘we have three questions to ask ourselves’ about the Third Estate. He sets out those three questions in numerical order. To each question he gives a one-word answer. He then states, ‘We shall see if these are the right answers’, and undertakes to provide ‘the supporting evidence’.

This down-to-earth, systematic approach is very much in the style and spirit of the Encyclopédie in its clarity of presentation, its promise of logical argument based on supporting evidence, and its conclusions critical of existing institutions. Sieyès does not express his conclusions as views personal to himself but as demonstrable statements of objective fact (set out under points 4, 5 and 6).

In the next paragraph he asks, ‘What is a nation?’, and proceeds to give a definition. Again, his method and his objective are clear and logical. You will note, however, that this time he does not offer any supporting evidence for his statement. Why not? Presumably, he believed that his definition was self-evident and would be found so by his readers, as indeed it was.

Sieyès's basic idea of a nation was not new. It drew on Enlightenment concepts familiar to any educated reader. Diderot, in his article ‘Political authority’ published in the Encydopédie in 1751, discussed terms and ideas which by 1789 had become the staple of political thought. He argued that sovereignty, or ultimate political power in a state, derives not from the monarch but from the ‘people’ or ‘nation’, that it must be exercised in their interest and for their benefit, that it should be controlled and circumscribed by laws, and that the ruler's tenure of office is in the nature of a trust exercised for the people's benefit and with their consent, underpinned by an implicit agreement or ‘social contract’ (Gendzier, 1967, pp. 185–8).

Against this familiar background, Sieyès takes a further easy and logical step by postulating another characteristic of a nation: namely, that it has an elected, representative legislative (law-making) assembly. This too follows implicitly from ideas popularized in the Encyclopédie, but it received a tremendous additional boost, first from the success of the American Revolution and the summoning of a constitutional convention by the United States in 1787, and now in France by the summoning of the Estates-General. The French people, or nation, were at last to be ‘represented’ in an assembly or, as it was soon to be called, a National Assembly, through which it too would be enabled to express its political will, frame its own laws and shape its own national destiny.

After this definition of a nation, uncontroversial in its Enlightenment borrowings but now suddenly fresh and revolutionary in its immediate relevance in 1789, Sieyès makes a further claim, all the more unexpected because of the equable tone and calm logic employed by him thus far. He suddenly claims that the nobility, by reason of its ‘privileges and exemptions’, is not part of the nation at all, but ‘a nation within a nation’. This, he states rhetorically, ‘is only too clear, isn't it’. The reader will take the implicit point (soon to be made explicit) that not only is this indeed the case, but that such a situation is illogical, unjust and wrong, no longer tenable or tolerable. Sieyès's purpose is to isolate and marginalise the nobility in his readers’ eyes, and to expose it to their critical censure. In the circumstances of 1789, his message took on startling implications about the respective roles of the nobility and the Third Estate in the Estates-General.

Now go to p.72 of the document (from ‘To sum up …’ to ‘… becoming something?’, p. 73). We see here a reference to another Enlightenment touchstone – ‘the rights of man’ – and also to the ‘petitions’ (cahiers de doléances) which the representatives at the Estates-General brought with them from their constituents. In invoking ‘the rights of man’, Sieyès again draws on a common background and strikes a common chord with his readers in his references to the political terminology of the Enlightenment. Again, too, in mentioning the petitions, there is the striking topicality of his comments as the Estates-General assembled to air the nation's grievances.

But Sieyès refers only fleetingly to the rights of man. His main point in this passage relates to something else, though closely related to it: ‘equality’. Equality was another emotive catchword derived from the Enlightenment. In his article on ‘Natural equality’ in the Encyclopédie (1755), de Jaucourt states that ‘natural equality’ is based on ‘the constitution of human nature common to all men … Each person must value and treat other people as so many individuals who are naturally equal to himself’ (Gendzier, 1967, p. 169). True, de Jaucourt then goes on to say that ‘I know too well the necessity of different ranks, grades, honours, distinctions, prerogatives, subordinations that must prevail in all governments’ (Gendzier, 1967, p. 170). De Jaucourt may be being ironic here, or he may be perfectly serious. Be that as it may, Sieyès is certainly serious in his complaint concerning the inequality of representation in the Estates-General of the Third Estate in relation to the other two estates (church and nobility). The Third Estate, he says, demands that the number of its representatives be equal to that of the two other orders put together’ (emphasis added);.

Exercise 1

Now read from "With regard to its political rights" to "going back in time a bit." Briefly (in about 100 words) (i) explain in your own words what Sieyès has to say about the Third Estate and the nobility, and (ii) describe his tone.


  1. Sieyès makes the revolutionary claim that the Third Estate itself constitutes the nation and should be adequately represented; that the nobility is over-privileged, exclusive, unrepresentative of the nation and over-represented in the Estates-General; and that the Estates-General should sit as a single integrated body, not divided into social orders and meeting in separate venues. Sieyès thus raises to the fore ‘the quintessential revolutionary idea … equality’ (Furet, 1996, p.45).

  2. Sieyès's tone is confident, belligerent, uncompromising and inflammatory. His radical demands on behalf of the Third Estate largely take the form of blunt and open attacks on the nobility as a separate (and self-regarding) estate of the realm.

The significance of Sieyès's pamphlet lay in its ‘consciousness-raising’. His defiant radicalism captured the mood of the 648 representatives of the Third Estate and inspired them to thumb their noses at the nobility or ‘aristocrats’, as he also calls them. (By 1789 and thanks partly to Sieyès, the word ‘aristocrat’ had become a term of abuse synonymous with undeserved privilege.)

On 17 June the deputies of the Third Estate unilaterally declared the assembly of their own members to be the true representative voice of the French nation: the ‘National Assembly’. If the clergy and nobility wanted a voice in shaping the future of France, they must sit in the National Assembly as equals with the Third Estate. The pamphlet was both ‘a treatise and a battle-cry’ (Furet, 1996, p.48), a justification of and a summons to revolutionary action. On 20 June, finding itself locked out, the Third Estate, calling itself the National Assembly, withdrew to a nearby indoor tennis court and declared, in the so-called ‘tennis-court oath’, that it would not disperse until it had provided France with a new, written constitution. It deliberately and expressly excluded the nobility and clergy as such from the body politic. The National Assembly had seized power in the name of the French nation. The Revolution had begun.