Revolution possible, but as a powerful political intervention that
helped determine the revolution's shape.
My first public discussion of the pamphlet came in my book Work
and Revolution in France, where I spent some six pages on its argu-
ments in a chapter on the French Revolution's abolition of privilege.
But I knew that much more remained to be said. In 1984, I was
invited to give a keynote address to the Consortium for Revolution-
ary History, a gathering of historians of the revolutionary era that
takes place every year in the southeastern United States. This seemed
the perfect occasion to spell out my ideas about What Is the Third
Estate? to a sympathetic, knowledgeable, and critical audience. My
lecture attempted to anatomize in some detail the pamphlet's master-
ful rhetoric and to show how Sieyes used it to mobilize the elite of the
Third Estate to support his political program. The scholars assem-
bled at Duke University listened to the talk attentively and engaged
me in a stimulating posdecture discussion, making me feel that I had
at last said my piece on the abbe Sieyes.
But after the session Linda Orr, a professor of French at Duke and
an expert on nineteenth-century historical writing on the French
Revolution, punctured my self-satisfaction.
After telling me how
much she appreciated my talk, she remarked that I had made it seem
as if Sieyes had succeeded in the impossible: consciously inventing a
political rhetoric that actually mastered the French Revolution. She
expressed some polite poststructuralist literary-critical doubts: Was
it really possible for anyone to master fully the language of any text,
let alone to prescribe the rhetoric of a revolution? Was What Is the
Third Estate? really as seamless as I had portrayed it? Wasn't the text
replete with gaps, fissures, and contradictions that subtly subverted
Linda Orr's suggestions launched me on the project that has
become this book. I found that her questions made me look at the
William H. Sewell, Jr.,
Work and Revolution in France: The Language o/Labor from
the Old Regime to
1848 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 198o), pp. 78-84.
This lecture was published as William H. Sewell, Jr., "The Abbe Sieyes and the
Rhetoric of Revolution,'·
The Consortium on Revolutionary Europe, Proceedings,
(Athens, Ga., 1986), pp. 1-14.
3. Linda Orr,
Jules Michelet: Nature, History, Language
(Ithaca: Cornell University
Press, 1976); and Orr,
Headless History: Nineteenth-Century French Historiography o/the
(Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1990).