Home >> Encyclopedia-britannica-volume-20-sarsaparilla-sorcery >> Shiraz to Silius Italicus >> Sieyes

Sieyes

france, elected, constitution, assembly, church and national

SIEYES (Se-a-yds), EMMANUEL-JOSEPH (1748 1836), French abbe and statesman, one of the chief theorists of the revolutionary and Napoleonic era, born at Frejus, S. France, on May 3, 1748. He was educated for the church at the Sor bonne; but while there he eagerly imbibed the teachings of Locke, Condillac, and other political thinkers, in preference to theology. Nevertheless he entered the church, and owing to his learning and subtlety advanced until he became vicar general and chancellor of the diocese of Chartres. At the crisis of 1788, when Necker asked for opinions as to the constitution of the estates Sieyes wrote his celebrated pamphlet, "What is the Third Estate?" He thus begins his answer—"Everything. What has it been hitherto in the political order? Nothing. What does it desire? To be something." For this mot he is said to have been indebted to Chamfort. The pamphlet had a great vogue, and its author was elected as the last (the twentieth) of the deputies of Paris to the States General. He strongly advised the consti tution of the Estates in one chamber as the National Assembly, but he opposed the abolition of tithes and the confiscation of church lands. Elected to the special committee on the constitu tion, he opposed the right of "absolute veto" for the king, which Mirabeau unsuccessfully supported. He had a considerable influ ence on the framing of the departmental system, but after the spring of 1790 his influence was eclipsed by men of more deter mined character. Only once was he elected to the post of fort nightly president of the Constituent Assembly. Excluded from the Legislative Assembly by Robespierre's self-denying ordi nance, he reappeared in the third National Assembly, known as the Convention (September 1792–September 1795) ; but he effaced himself partly from disgust, partly from timidity. He abjured his faith at the time of the installation of the goddess of reason ; and afterwards he characterized his conduct during the reign of terror in the ironical phrase, J'ai vecu. He voted for the death of Louis XVI., but not in the contemptuous terms La mort sans phrases sometimes ascribed to him.

In 1795 he went on a diplomatic mission to The Hague. He dissented from the constitution of 1795 (that of the Directory) in some important particulars, but without effect, and thereupon refused to serve as a Director of the Republic. In May 1798 he went as the plenipotentiary of France to the court of Berlin in order to try to induce Prussia to make common cause with France against the Second Coalition. His conduct was skilful, but he failed in his main object. He was elected a Director in place of Rewbell in May 1799. Already he had begun to intrigue for the overthrow of the Directory; he now set himself to sap the base of the constitution of 1795. With that aim he caused the revived Jacobin Club to be closed, and made overtures to General Joubert for a coup d'etat in the future. The death of Joubert at the battle of Novi, and the return of Bonaparte from Egypt marred his schemes; but ultimately he came to an under standing with the young general. After the coup d'etat of Bru maire, Sieyes produced the perfect constitution which he had long been planning, only to have it completely remodelled by Bona parte. Sieyes soon retired from the post of provisional consul, which he accepted after Brumaire; he entered the senate, where he defended the arbitrary and illegal proceedings whereby Bona parte rid himself of the leading Jacobins. During the empire he rarely emerged from his retirement, but at the time of the Bour bon restorations (1814 and 1815) he left France. After the July revolution (I83o) he returned; he died at Paris on June 20, 1836. The thin, wire-drawn features of Sieyes were the index of his mind, which was keen-sighted but narrow, dry and essen tially limited. His lack of character and wide sympathies was a misfortune for the National Assemblies which he might other wise have guided with effect.

See A. Neton, Sieyes (1748-1836) d'apres documents inedits (Paris, 190o) ; also the chief histories on the French Revolution and the Napoleonic empire. (J. H. Ro.; X.)