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A Popular History of France from the Earliest Time

What there was in the words of Abbe Sieyes


It

may be permissible to quote here a page or, so from the second volume of this history. "At the moment when France was electing the constituent assembly, a man, whose mind was more powerful than accurate, Abbe Sieyes, could say, 'What is the third estate? Everything. What has it been hitherto in the body politic? Nothing. What does it demand? To be something.' There were in these words three grave errors. In the course of the regimen anterior to 1789, so far was the third estate from being nothing that it had every day become greater and stronger. What was demanded for it in 1789 by M. Sieyes and his friends was not that it should become something, but that it should be everything. It was to desire what was beyond its right and its might; the Revolution, which was its victory, itself proved this. Whatever may have been the weaknesses and the faults of its adversaries, the third estate had to struggle terribly to vanquish them, and the struggle was so violent and so obstinate that the third estate was shattered to pieces in it and paid right dearly for its triumph. It first of all found despotism instead of liberty; and when the liberty returned, the third estate found itself face to face with a twofold hostility: that of its adversaries of the old regimen and that of absolute democracy, which, in its turn, claimed to be everything. Excessive pretension entails unmanageable opposition, and excites unbridled ambition. What there was in the words of Abbe Sieyes, in 1789,
was not the truth as it is in history; it was a lying programme of revolution. Taking the history of France in its totality and in all its phases, the third estate has been the most active and most decisive element in French civilization. If we follow it in its relations with the general government of the country, we see it first of all allied during six centuries with the kingship, struggling pauselessly against the feudal aristocracy, and giving the prevalence in place of that to a central and unique power, pure monarchy to wit, closely approximating, though with certain often-repeated but vain reservations, to absolute monarchy. But, so soon as it has gained this victory and accomplished this revolution, the third estate pursues another: it attacks this unique power which it had contributed so much to establish, and it undertakes the task of changing pure monarchy into constitutional monarchy. Under whatever aspect we consider it in its two great and so very different enterprises, whether we study the progressive formation of French society itself or that of its government, the third estate is the most powerful and the most persistent of the forces which have had influence over French civilization. Not only is this fact novel, but it has for France quite a special interest; for, to make use of an expression which is much abused in our day, it is a fact eminently French, essentially national. Nowhere has burgessdom had a destiny so vast, so fertile as that which has fallen to it in France. There have been commons all over Europe, in Italy, in Spain, in Germany, in England, as well as in France. Not only have there been commons everywhere, but the commons in France are not those which, _qua_ commons, under that name and in the middle ages, have played the greatest part and held the highest place in history. The Italian commons begot glorious republics. The German commons became free towns, sovereign towns, which have their own special history, and exercised throughout the general history of Germany a great deal of influence. The commons of England allied themselves with a portion of the English feudal aristocracy, formed with it the preponderating house in the British government, and thus played, full early, a powerful part in the history of their country. The French commons, under that name and in their season of special activity, were certainly far from rising to that importance in politics and that rank in history. And yet it is in France that the people of the commons, the burgessdom, became most completely, most powerfully developed, and ended by acquiring, in the general social body, the most decided preponderance. There have been commons throughout the whole of Europe; there has been in truth no third estate victorious save in France; it is in the French Revolution of 1789, assuredly the greatest, that the French third estate reached its ultimatum, and France is the only country where, in an excess of burgesspride, a man of great mind could say: 'What is the third estate? Every thing.'"


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