A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution

The Abbe Sieyes and What is the Third Estate?

A Rhetoric of Bourgeois Revolution

Bicentennial Reflections on the French Revolution

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Book Pages: 248 Illustrations: Published: December 1994

History > European History, Politics > Political Theory

What Is the Third Estate? was the most influential pamphlet of 1789. It did much to set the French Revolution on a radically democratic course. It also launched its author, the Abbé Sieyes, on a remarkable political career that spanned the entire revolutionary decade. Sieyes both opened the revolution by authoring the National Assembly’s declaration of sovereignty in June of 1789 and closed it in 1799 by engineering Napoleon Bonaparte’s coup d’état.
This book studies the powerful rhetoric of the great pamphlet and the brilliant but enigmatic thought of its author. William H. Sewell’s insightful analysis reveals the fundamental role played by the new discourse of political economy in Sieyes’s thought and uncovers the strategies by which this gifted rhetorician gained the assent of his intended readers—educated and prosperous bourgeois who felt excluded by the nobility in the hierarchical social order of the old regime. He also probes the contradictions and incoherencies of the pamphlet’s highly polished text to reveal fissures that reach to the core of Sieyes’s thought—and to the core of the revolutionary project itself.
Combining techniques of intellectual history and literary analysis with a deep understanding of French social and political history, Sewell not only fashions an illuminating portrait of a crucial political document, but outlines a fresh perspective on the history of revolutionary political culture.


“Sewell’s work provides the best treatment thus far in English of Sieyes writings on political economy, including his critique of privilege, on the one hand, and the political ineptitude of the laboring poor, on the other. . . . [This book] displays a rich command of unfamiliar writings. . . .” — Robert Wokler, Contemporary Sociology

"In this remarkable analysis, William Sewell restores to Sieyes’s great text a complexity that has too often been denied it. Drawing on contemporary political theory and political economy as well as historical and biographical material, Sewell masterfully demonstrates that what matters about Sieyes’s text is not only its acknowledged influence on the events of the French Revolution, but also the ways in which contemporaries misunderstood or rejected its deeper, prophetic vision." — Sarah Maza, Northwestern University


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William H. Sewell, Jr. is Professor of Political Science and History at the University of Chicago. He is also the author of Work and Revolution in France: The Language of Labor from the Old Regime to 1848, winner of the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize, and Structure and Mobility: The Men and Women of Marseille, 1820–1870.

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Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-1538-4 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-1528-5
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