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Power Hungry Leaders And Gullible Commoners History Essay

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Published: Mon, 5 Dec 2016

In 1788, Louis XVIII of France summoned the Estates-General for the first time in 175 years to solve the country’s disastrous financial problems. Jacques Necker, who had recently become finance minister and put in charge of the matter, invited writers to propose how the Estates should be organized, and hundreds of pamphlets were published. Among them was What is the Third Estate?, by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes.In this powerful work of rhetoric, Sieyes pointed out the following: “What is the Third Estate? Everything. What has it been until now in the political order? Nothing. What does it want? To become something….” The words gave hope to the weary commoners, and set off the bomb known as the French Revolution. The question we must ask ourselves here is this: what implications did the pamphlet actually have for the French Revolution?

At first glance, this question appears to have very straightforward answers. The pamphlet, as a whole, serves as basic guidelines for a reform of social order. Liberte, Egalite, and Fraternite are what it pursues, and the ideal society it calls for is based on these values. Sieyes dreamed of a world where it was not the laws that “differentiate citizens among themselves” but the “assets and advantages” of the individual citizens themselves. [5] Equal opportunities, laws to protect the “common rights [6] of citizens,” and the final neutralization of the privileged orders are what he demands. [7] The Third Estate, for all practical purposes, was the Nation-it held everything that was needed to form the Nation, with the exception of the clergy, which Sieyes believed to be a “profession charged with a public service” that had all of its offices usurped by the nobility. [8] These were indeed compelling arguments to the Third Estate, considering that most of them spent their lives in utter poverty, with no hope of redemption! What other answer could there be, other than that this pamphlet envisioned a Revolution that was carried through out of genuine care for the people?

Before any more is said on the subject, it is crucial to review the society of the period. It was 1789, and the Estates-General was about to convene. The procedure of selecting the deputies representing each order was different from that of the Estates-General of 1614: the number of deputies from the Third Estate was doubled [9] , making their number the same as those of the First and Second Estate together, and any tax-paying male over 25 could vote for deputies of the Third Estate. [10] Interestingly, however, many of the elected deputies of the Third Estate were lawyers, and most others came from respected professions-unusual for the representatives of an order which was, by a vast majority, constituted by peasants. [11] The peasants had deemed themselves inferior and chosen the bourgeois deputies to represent them. [12] Sieyes became one of these newly elected deputies of the Third Estate. [13] Maximilien Robespierre and Jacques Danton, were two others. [14] Soon afterwards, the Third Estate left the Estates-General to form the National Assembly. [15] Throughout the course of the Revolution, these three, among many others of the bourgeois, remained important figures; understanding their actions and motives will help answer the main question of this paper.

These public speakers and writers continued with their enlightenment. Meanwhile, on July 14th, 1789, upon hearing news that the King had removed Necker from the position of finance minister, the people of Paris understood the King’s actions as a conspiracy to close the National Assembly, and after looking where to find weapons, they laid their eyes on Bastille, which was rumored to have a full supply of firearms and ammunition; Bastille went down that very day. [16] The fall of Bastille marked the start of the new social order that Sieyes had written about; the “rights of citizens,” were finally recognized in the August 4 decrees and the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, [17] and his theories of national sovereignty, popular sovereignty, and representation became, for the first time, legislation. Males were given universal suffrage; laws protecting property rights were established; no one was privileged. [18] 19Although there were still many problems and issues that needed to be solved, it appeared that the wishful thinking of What is the Third Estate? was coming true.

This state of bliss did not last long. The constitutional monarchy proved to be a failure, and with the emergence of the National Convention, a republic was born. The National Convention was, as all assemblies that preceded it had been, far from united. [20] Political conflict was constant, and to add to the country’s problems, it was met with an outbreak of war with the counterrevolutionary countries of Europe, namely Prussia. [21] The war allowed the Committee of Public Safety, which had originally been established by the National Convention to “formulat[e] policy and coordinat[e] the war effort,” to rise to power, virtually acting as the executive government. [22] Under the control of Maximilien Robespierre, [23] it became the active government in the period known as the Reign of Terror. [24] Any person who supported the royalty, asked for more social reform, or spoke against the Terror was executed swiftly, without delays like trials. [25] Jacques Danton [26] was among those who tried to stop the Terror, and who was executed for it. [27] Eventually, Robespierre, in an effort to gain more power, accused fellow members of the Committee, and was beheaded, ending his life as well as the Terror’s. [28] 

We could continue with the events that happened after the fall of the Terror until the end of the Revolution, but the information we have now is sufficient to answer the question. The political events that occurred between 1789-1795 have a certain pattern: the constant change of the ruling class. It is a cycle of men struggling to get their hands on power, justifying their causes as being “for the people.” What did the French Revolution-the title this cycle of power is given-achieve, as was stated by Sieyes in What is the Third Estate? It achieved, as stated previously, the following: universal male suffrage, laws protecting the “common rights of citizens”-a constitution, and a primitive form of democracy. Did it dispose of privileges? Members of the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror had the power to sentence someone to death with almost no evidence at all. Surely, is this not a privilege? Sieyes might argue that such privileges in post-revolutionary society was earned, not inherited, as it had been during the Ancient Regime. However, the only difference was the law; it was just as unlikely for a peasant of 1793 to become such officials as it was for a bourgeois to be admitted to high offices in 1788. They would both be exceptions. When seen from these principles, the French Revolution brought little change to the Nation; the entire period is merely a change of the ruling, or governing, order. The privileged clergy and nobility were replaced by the tier of leaders [29] of the Third Estate, and members of this tier had well been expecting it: they orchestrated it!

This tier of leaders of the common population-let us call it the First Tier-spent their lives being ruled by, and usurped positions by, members of the higher Estates. Sieyes was one of them. [30] It is reasonable to argue, then, that this First Tier desired to replace the higher Estate as the new ruling Tier. They could not, however, do this alone. The First Tier was by nature, small in number compared to the rest of the Third Estate-for which we will now use the term Second Tier. [31] The First Tier required the help of the Second Tier if it were to succeed in becoming the ruling Tier; after all, the Tiers were, in Sieyes’s words, “The Nation,” and the Second Tier constituted most of it.

How were they to achieve the task of persuading the Second Tier to join forces with them in overthrowing the government? Here, the First Tier had advantages. While the First Tier, as the elite and leaders of the Third Estate, enjoyed relatively prosperous lives, had the right to vote, and generally did not have property taken by the nobles, none of the members of the Second Tier had this luxury. This was the bait that the First Tier could use, and would use, to persuade the Second Tier of their cause. They promised a society in which the Second Tier could have all of these “rights,” and more. Of course, all of this was carefully written and spoken in a rhetorical fashion, so as to produce rage and a revolutionary air. [32] What were the results? The storming of the Bastille was the single largest incident, and it eventually took down the First and Second Estates, replacing the government with the First Tier, who now had the power they wanted-the power to lead the Nation. They gave the Second Tier certain rights and benefits that had been promised beforehand in pamphlets like What is the Third Estate?, but that was where the fairy tale ended.

Based on these observations, we arrive at the conclusion that the actual idea and concept of the French Revolution is not much more than the political protests of a frustrated First Tier that decided that the Nation’s rulers were not worthy, and its manipulation of the Second Tier to carry out the actual, physical overthrow of the government. In effect, the Marxist views of the French Revolution being a Revolution consisting of four smaller class revolutions [33] is a mere illusion, consequences of a historian’s foolish quest to find excessive class meaning in the incidents of history; in reality, what happened was simple. The people overthrew the government in 1789, and for the next ten years, citizens who were not satisfied with it succeeded in rebuilding it several times. In his famed book, The Technique of Revolution, Curzio Malaparte stated that the 18 Brumaire [34] was the “first modern coup d’état.” [35] It was not. July 14th, 1789-the storming of the Bastille-was the first.

What implications did What is the Third Estate? have for the French Revolution? The pamphlet was the first domino that triggered the chain reaction known as the Revolution, by no doubt. But the social order that it created was not that of which it spoke of. The Revolution did bring much social reform, the invention of citizenship [36] being one major change. However, ultimately it failed to create an equal society, because the First and Second Estates of the Ancient Regime were simply replaced by the First Tier, with the pre-existing privileges excluded. However, the governing First Tier had privileges of their own, one extreme example being the aforementioned privileges of the Committee of Public Safety during the Terror. The French Revolution may have started a movement that brought great change to the world, but we must all keep in mind that its original intentions were not quite as noble and philanthropic. The role the pamphlet What is the Third Estate? played during the Revolution was bait for the masses, or the Second Tier.

Sieyes was an idealist. He likely believed that the world he dreamt of was possible, even with the First Tier merely replacing the First and Second Estates and taking control of the Nation, as long as those in high positions had correct motives. However, his comments on the Terror after it had deteriorated, “I survived,” [37] seem to suggest that he had lost faith in the idea. This appears to be not far from the truth, as in 1799, ten years after the publication of What is the Third Estate?, Sieyes assisted Napoleon’s successful coup d’état, ending the Revolution, closing the door he had so enthusiastically opened a decade earlier. [38] 


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