What Is the Third Estate?

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The first page of Qu'est-ce que le Tiers Etat?

What Is the Third Estate? (French: Qu'est-ce que le tiers-état?) is a political pamphlet written in January 1789, shortly before the outbreak of the French Revolution, by the French thinker and clergyman Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (1748–1836). The pamphlet was Sieyès' response to finance minister Jacques Necker's invitation for writers to state how they thought the Estates-General should be organized.

In the pamphlet, Sieyès argues that the Third Estate – the common people of France – constituted a complete nation in itself and had no need of the "dead weight" of the two other orders, the First and Second Estates of the clergy and aristocracy. 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.

Summary[edit]

The pamphlet is organized around three hypothetical questions and Sieyès' responses. The questions are:

  • What is the Third Estate? Everything.
  • What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing.
  • What does it ask? To become something.

Sieyès continues by analyzing the political situation of the time, arguing that the dominance of the First and Second Estates in the political arena constitutes a monopoly that treats the Third Estate unfairly. He advocates equal representation of all three orders in government, and asserts that taxes and government policy should affect all portions of society equally.

Throughout the pamphlet, Sieyès argues that the First and Second Estates are simply unnecessary, and that the Third Estate is in truth France's only legitimate Estate, representing as it does the entire population. Thus, he asserts, it should replace the other two Estates entirely.

Significance[edit]

The pamphlet had a huge influence on the currents of popular thought that contributed to the outbreak of the French Revolution. In What Is the Third Estate?, Sieyès outlined the desires and frustrations of the alienated class of people that made up the Third Estate. He set out to reveal the perceived fraudulent nature of the nobility and the suffering of the overburdened and despondent French people, who he saw as victims of aristocratic parasitism. The pamphlet was essentially the rallying cry that united a voiceless class, whose subjugation by an elitist and self-serving political culture gave way to an unheard-of political force. The Third Estate came to outline and clearly state grievances that, for the first time, were not to be overlooked in the convocation of the Estates-General.

The pamphlet redefined the meaning of “public doings” against the conventional wisdom of the time. The aristocracy defined themselves as an elite ruling class charged with the “arduous” task of maintaining the social order in France. On the contrary, Sieyès saw public service as a function performed not by the First or Second Estates but rather solely by the Third Estate. The pamphlet placed sovereignty not in the hands of the supposedly idle, self-serving aristocracy, but instead defined the nation of France by its working class, whose economic and social contributions were “the activities which support society.”

Furthermore, by defining the Third Estate as the primary mechanism of public service, Sieyès deliberately called into question the role of the aristocracy, portraying them as "foreign" to the national interests of France. The perceived arrogance of the nobles, and their supposed ability to act absolutely and without legal oversight, were the grounds upon which Sieyès justified noble privilege as “treason to the commonwealth”. He effectively established the aristocracy as being an alien body acting outside of the general will and the nation of France. Ironically, it was supposedly for these exact self-serving means that the aristocratic Parliament of Paris pressured King Louis XVI to call the Estates-General in 1790. The resulting conflict between the three Estates inspired the political divisions from which the revolution itself grew, and ultimately led to the near-annihilation of the French nobility during the Reign of Terror of 1793-4.

Perhaps most significant of all was the influence of the pamphlet by Sieyès on the structural concerns that arose surrounding the convocation of the Estates-General. Specifically, the Third Estate demanded their representation be made up of members actually belonging to the Third Estate, that the number of deputies for their order be equal that of the two privileged orders combined, and most controversially, “that the States General Vote, Not by Orders, but by Heads.” The pamphlet took these issues to the masses, and their partial appeasement was met with revolutionary reaction. By addressing the issues of unjust representation directly, Sieyès inspired resentment and agitation that united the Third Estate against the feudalistic traditions of the Ancien Régime.

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