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


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.