Law Hall of Fame logoThis French priest was often in Paris in the decade preceding the French Revolution.

 

When the crisis hit the ground in August 1788, and in the shadow of national bankruptcy, King Louis XVI convened a national consultative board, the Estates General for May 1789, Sieyès went to work.

He knew it would be another plea for further taxation.

Never a good puiblic speaker, Sieyes strength was in his writings. With his pen, he published three pamphlets, all to set out the case against the nobility and in anticipation of the Estates General.

Like the boy who cried out that the king had no clothes in the fable of the same name, Sieyes writings electrified the people of France and contributed towards coalescing a then-disorganized opposition to Louis XVI and his out-of-touch court, few there as of merit; most there as of birthright.

Sieyes, Emmanuel JosephBy articulating in layman’s terms the outrageousness of the legal privileges of the nobility and of the absolute monarchy, he significantly advanced the cause of law and justice as out of the French Revolution came recognition of the principle, thenceforth heard only in the most recently independent United States of America, that all men are equal, and still only a whisper in Great Britain, which continues, in 2008, a monarchy and a house of lords unabated, as well as a peerage and privilege system based on birthright.

It is the common people that are the state, Sieyes wrote; not the king or the nobles.

It was a courageous and outspoken condemnation of birthright privilege everywhere, especially his first pamphlet, Essays on Privileges (Essai sur le privilèges) in which he distinguished the middle class (bourgeois) from the old boy’s club; the rich (nobles):

"What is bourgeois next to a privileged person?

"The latter always has his eye on the noble time past. There he sees all his titles, all his strength, he sees his ancestors.

"The bourgeois, by contrast, his eyes always fixed on the ignoble present, on the indifferent future, prepares for the second and sustains the first by the resources of his industry. He is, instead of having been; he endures hard work and, even worse, the shame of employing his entire intelligence and all his strength for our present service, and lives from work which is essential for us all.

"Ah!

"Why can’t the privileged go into the past to enjoy their titles, their grandeur, and leave to a stupid nation the present with all its ignobility?"

And he spoke of the common people being the heirs to the nation – not the nobility. He called the common people, including the bourgeois (middle and merchant class) the Third Estate and wrote What is the Third Estate:

"What is a nation? A body of associates, living under a common law, and represented by the same legislature, etc.

"Is it not evident that the noble order has privileges and expenditures which it dares to call its rights, but which are apart from the rights of the great body of citizens? It departs there from the common law. So its civil rights make of it an isolated people in the midst of the great nation.

"In regard to its political rights, these also it exercises apart. It has its special representatives, which are not charged with securing the interests of the people. The body of its deputies sit apart; and when it is assembled in the same hall with the deputies of simple citizens, it is none the less true that its representation is essentially distinct and separate: it is a stranger to the nation, in the first place, by its origin, since its commission is not derived from the people; then by its object, which consists of defending not the general, but the particular interest.

"The Third Estate embraces then all that which belongs to the nation; and all that which is not the Third Estate, cannot be regarded as being of the nation.

"What is the Third Estate?

"It is the whole."

He attended the Estates General which quickly became the National Assembly, in the fiery events of July 14, 1789.

He lived to the ripe old age of 88 and became a confidant of Napoleon even accepting, hypocritically for an anti-monarchist, a peerage. For all his protestations against the nobility, he died as Count Sieyès.

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