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The Core Curriculum

Abbé Sieyès

1748 CE – 1836 CE

Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, 1789 (Wikimedia Commons)Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in 1789 by Jean-Jacques-François Le Barbier, 1789 (Wikimedia Commons) Emanuel Joseph Sieyès (March 3, 1748 – June 20, 1836) was a Catholic clergyman and a towering figure in the French Revolution. Known throughout his life as Abbé Sieyès, he was born in Fréjus in 1748, and received his education from the Jesuits in that town. He studied theology early on, and by the time the first movements of the French Revolution could be felt, Sieyès had been appointed to the post of Vicar General of the Bishop of Chartes.    

Sieyès soon took up an interest in public affairs. When a call went out for proposals on how to hold elections to the Estates General, which was to reconvene in 1789 for the first time since 1614, Sieyès wrote three pamphlets in response to the issue. The most significant of which, "What is the Third Estate?", roused the poorer members of French society to fight for their rights as citizens.

Sieyès was elected a deputy of the Third Estate, and as a political leader he was extremely influential in the events of the first few months of the Revolution. Sieyès proposed the name National Assembly for the government established unilaterally by the Third Estate, and also took on a role in drafting the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen.

As the Revolution took a radical turn, Sieyès exited the political stage for some time. When asked afterward what he had done during the Reign of Terror, Sieyès famously replied, “J'ai vécu" (“I stayed alive”). After Robespierre’s fall in 1794, Sieyès returned to politics – first as an ambassador to Berlin from 1798 to 1799, and then as a member of the Directory, the executive branch of government that held power from 1795 to 1799. When the Directory turned out to be an unrepresentative and ineffective form of government, Sieyès and another Director allied themselves with General Napoleon Bonaparte. Bonaparte went on to become Emperor, and Sieyès was consigned to prestigious but ultimately insignificant posts.

After the Bourbon restoration in 1814, Sieyès was exiled from France and fled to Brussels, where he lived until 1830. He returned to Paris later in life and died there on June 20, 1836. 


Patrick Comstock, Program in Philosophy and Education, Teacher's College, Columbia University


Works Consulted:

Lynn Hunt, Jack R. Censer, James A. Leith. “French Revolution: An Overview.” Encyclopedia of the Enlightenment, edited by Alan Charles Kors. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. Oxford Reference Online

“Sieyès, Emmanuel Joseph.” Encyclopedia of European Social History, edited by Peter N. Stearns. Detroit: Charles Scribner's Sons, 2001: 317-318