QU'EST-CE QUE C'EST LE TIERS ETAT? ( 1789), influential political pamphlet written by the abbé E.-J. Sieyès. This was one of the most widely acclaimed pamphlets of the French Revolution and would probably rank among the half dozen most important of the modern era. It was published in January 1789 just as the controversy over the composition and organization of the Estates General convoked for the following May was moving toward its climax. It was so popular that two more editions appeared during the spring, the second one in two slightly different versions, and finally in a considerably revised and amplified third edition. During the Revolution, it was translated into German and other European languages. While there is no firm estimate of the number printed that spring, it must have reached the tens of thousands. It seems to have been as popular in the provinces as in Paris.
The abbé Sieyès was a cleric of modest middle-class origin who had achieved moderate success as an ecclesiastical administrator but who was barred by birth from the higher ranks of the clergy. A frequenter of the Paris salons, he seems to have been associated with the group known as the patriots during the pre- Revolutionary ferment. He wrote other pamphlets during this period and later, but none approached the success of Qu'est-ce que c' est le tiers état? It brought him immediate popular acclaim and a reputation as a profound political thinker and potential leader. It was unquestionably responsible for his election as a deputy to the Estates General by the Third Estate of a Paris district after he had failed to be elected by his own order.
The issue that Sieyès addressed in his pamphlet was the mode of organization of the Estates General scheduled to meet in the spring of 1789. The Parlement of Paris had declared on 25 September 1788 that the Estates should be organized in the same manner as the last one held in 1614, with the three estates having an equal number of representatives and voting being done separately by order. Spokesmen for the Third Estate immediately attacked the parlement's declaration on the grounds that the parlement's aim was to protect the special rights and