What is the Third Estate?

In January 1789, Abbé Sieyès published a pamphlet entitled What is the Third Estate?

Through the pamphlet, Sieyès focussed specifically on the Third Estate, and set out the importance of the 99% of the population that it represented. In it, Sieyès said that the Third Estate was the nation itself, a radical notion in the 18th century given that it was the most subordinate of the three Estates in French society at the time. He also criticised the First and Second Estates, referring to them as the combined “privileged Order”. He argued that it was the Third Estate which did all that was useful for society and that merit should be the determinant of social status, not privilege and inheritance, and that reason and justice would be ultimately support the triumph of the Third Estate.

It was a very influential piece due to its radical ideas, but also due to the simplicity and directness of the language. He opened the pamphlet with three memorable questions:

“1. What is the Third Estate? – everything

2. What has it been now in the political order? – nothing

3. What is it asking? – to be something”

These questions enabled the core message of the pamphlet to be spread even to the illiterate population, as word of mouth broadened the reach of the publication.

See Also

Abbe Sieyes

Pamphlet Wars