UW News

May 15, 2013

Documents that Changed the World: ‘What is the Third Estate?’ 1789

UW News

Joe Janes reached back two centuries to a self-published pamphlet in pre-revolutionary France for the latest installment of his podcast series, “Documents that Changed the World.”

In the podcasts, Janes, professor in the UW Information School, explores the origin and evolving meaning of historical documents both famous and less known. UW Today presents these periodically, and all of the podcasts are available online.

In this installment, Janes discusses a political

"Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-État?" or What is the Third Estate? A pamplet by Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès.

“Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-État?” or What is the Third Estate? A pamphlet by Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès.Wikimedia Commons

pamphlet written and published in Paris in 1789 by Abbé Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, a “little-known and less-regarded provincial French priest.” Its title was “Qu’est-ce que le Tiers-État?” — or in English, “What is the Third Estate?” More elaborate by far than the trifold brochure we think of as pamphlets today, it was put out in three versions growing from 86 pages finally to 180.

Janes said he chose this as an installment in his series because of a long-held fascination with the French Revolution and wondering if there was any particular document “that lit the flame, so to speak.”

He said, “I came across this pamphlet (all 180 pages of it), which didn’t provoke the revolution so much as crystallize the political situation and help to lay out the structures that emerged from it.”

As Janes said in the podcast, the pamphlet presented widely discussed ideas in a compelling way at the right time and place — that the Third Estate was us all. “His central argument was that sovereignty should come from those who produce, who generate services and goods for the benefit of society.”

Janes grew interested, too, in the personal story of Sieyès — “his meandering and generally ineffectual career, with one towering moment in the writing and reception of the pamphlet,” he said. “And how could you not be struck by his careful calculation that 95 percent of the population was doing all the work and getting no representation?

Janes continues to research and record new installments. The podcasts also are available at the iSchool website and on iTunes, where the series has passed its 32,000th download. His presentation at Town Hall Seattle is available for viewing at UWTV.