1969, when I taught the History of Western Civilization course
at the University of Chicago. There, as at many other colleges
and universities, we read selections from this famous pamphlet by
the abbe Sieyes in the section of the course devoted to the French
Revolution. I found the pamphlet exceptionally easy to teach: Sieyes's
political passions touched a responsive chord among undergraduates
in that now remote revolutionary age. But even as undergraduate
sympathy for revolution began to flag in the 1970s, What Is the Third
Estate? lost little of its appeal, for either the students or their teacher.
It seemed that a new dimension of Sieyes's argument unfolded each
time I reread the text or discussed it in class. With the help of my
students, I slowly excavated the pamphlet's many-layered rhetorical
structure. I began to feel that even my fellow historians of the French
Revolution did not fully understand the significance of this extraor-
dinary work of political propaganda. They usually read What Is the
Third Estate? as a typical and readily understandable response to the
burdensome inequalities of Old Regime society, as representing the
common sense of the unprivileged classes of French society. I was
beginning to see the pamphlet less as a passive reflection of an already
existing common sense than as an astoundingly successful attempt to
transform common sense, to make its readers see a familiar social and
political order with new eyes. I began to see What Is the Third Estate?
not as an illustration of the ideas and feelings that made the French
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