The Declaration of Independence and What is the Third Estate

The Declaration of Independence is a document that was published in 1776 by Thomas Jefferson as a reaction to a series of offenses by the English Government, specifically King George III.The document states that the colonists have a desire to dissolve their ties to the King and the government that surrounds him, an entirely novel idea during the time period. Jefferson writes that the colonists have the right to no longer be British subjects because “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” (Blaisdell 64). Once Jefferson establishes what these unalienable rights are, he goes on to list all of the ways that he, and the rest of the colonists, believe King George III has been withholding these rights from them (Blaisdell 65). Jefferson’s document, The Declaration of Independence, did exactly what its name would lead one to assume, it declared the independence of the people in the colonies and sparked a revolution.
Another man, Emmanual Joseph Sieyes, makes a remarkably similar push for independence and a revolution of the social system in his work What is the Third Estate. Much like Jefferson, Sieyes saw that men do have certain rights, that should not be taken from them. Written as a response to an inquiry about how the Estates-General should be organized What is the Third Estate asked for many of the same things as Jefferson’s The Declaration of Independence did but most importantly it requested equal representation for the Third Estate. Sieyes argues that the Third Estate “constitutes nineteen-twentieths” of all the production in the country (Blaisdell 72) and that in the event that there were no First and Second Estates leeching off of the work of the Third that the country would be far more efficient and better off in general, much like Jefferson says about the colonists being better off without King George III suppressing them. Just as The Declaration of Independence did, What is the Third Estate motivated the people to make a change, and to revolutionize the way of thinking about social order, mans’ rights and government power.

Connecting the Declaration of Independence and What is the Third Estate

The Declaration of Independence, drafted by Thomas Jefferson and signed in 1776 is unquestionably one of the most well-known and significant documents in American history. It spoke against British control and tyranny at that time. Jefferson pens, “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” (Blaisdell 63-64) Jefferson then lists several of “His” (The King of England) transgressions and the overarching aspiration to form a state separate from England and all of the injustices that have been performed under English rule. He states, “A Prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of free people” (Blaisdell 66) and declares the freedom of the respective colonies.

Emmanual Joseph Sieyes brings forth similar emotions in his work, What is the Third Estate? Sieyes speaks out against “the privileged” when he writes, “’No matter how useful you are, ‘they said, ‘no matter how able you are, you can go so far and no further.’”(Blaisdell 72) Sieyes urges his fellow people to rise up against the wide-ranging umbrella of limitations and stresses the importance of reaching the estate’s full potential. He argues the Third Estate “contains everything that pertains to the nation” (Blaisdell 74) and questions why the estate is not something greater. These documents have inherent parallels and pose comparable points and questions, with Sieyes and Jefferson aiming for a similar goal.

Power Struggles Present in the Declaration of Independence and The Third Estate

The Declaration of Independence clearly establishes the kind power the United States is looking for through a representation of Britain’s tight control. The Declaration of Independence exemplifies how the king caused “repeated injuries and usurpations” (Blaisdell 64) as well as acted in every way “which may define a tyrant” (Blaisdell 66). The United States is looking for a government that allows power to be given to the people. The authors of this document believe that men are born with certain rights, and in order to protect those rights, the people should have a say in the government. The Declaration of Independence goes on to state that is the “Right of the People” to alter the government if the government were not working or becomes “destructive” in any way (Blaisdell 64). The main intent behind this document is to stray away from the “absolute tyranny,” and create an inclusive government where the people’s voices are heard (Blaisdell 64).

Sieyès argues over power among classes in his What is the Third Estate? He argues that the privileged have set limits to the third estate, stating, “you can go so far and no further” (Blaisdell 72). However, Sieyès points out that it is the third estate that occupies certain jobs that keep society running as it should, therefore, the third state is everything and should have more rights. Sieyès goes on to claim that the privileged do not help society because of its “idleness,” but are granted certain rights because of their place in society (Blaisdell 73). Sieyès continues, stating that nobility has special rights making them “a people apart in the great nation” which forms the separation of powers between the third estate and the nobility (Blaisdell 73). Sieyès believed the nation would be better off without the nobility because the third state held society together.

The Declaration of Independence and the Third Estate

The Declaration of Independence discusses the reasons why the United States decided to break off from England and become its own nation. This document discusses how it is a government’s responsibility to protect certain rights of the citizens: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Blaisdell 64). If a government does not protect these rights, then it is the rights of the governed people to “abolish it, and to institute new Government” (Blaisdell 64). The British government did not protect and uphold these rights of the people; rather, it caused a series of “repeated injuries” and established “absolute Tyranny over these States” (Blaisdell 64). The writers of the Declaration were clearly not satisfied with the government and how it protected its people. Therefore, they intended to create their own new form of government, which would do a better job in helping its citizens instead of merely ignoring their concerns. In this case, political power is created through a new form of government with different branches, such as a Representative House, Legislature, and Judiciary powers.

In France, the citizens also were not satisfied with their government. The Third Estate of France is described as “everything;” the people of the Third Estate are the commoners (Blaisdell 70). Emmanuel Joseph Sieyes, author of What is the Third Estate? describes how the Third Estate is a complete nation by itself. In order to be considered a nation, it must provide “private activities and public services” (Blasdell 71), which the Third Estate does provide. For example, it must provide public services such as “the army, the law, the Church, and the bureaucracy” and private activities such as merchants, families who work on land, and the sale of goods (Blaisdell 71-72). France cannot run without the Third Estate and would ultimately do much better without the first two estates. The French are concerned with establishing their own rights: “Liberty, Prosperity, Security, and Resistance of Oppression” (Blaisdell 80). The French were less interested than the Americans establishing a new form of government that protected the rights of the citizens; rather, they concentrated on establishing a government that kept part of their old form of government and bashing the rest of their government.

The French and American Declaration

The French and American Revolutions are two of the most famous revolutionary movements in the history of mankind.  The revolutions are very similar, mainly in the writing that led up to revolution.  The United States’ “Declaration of Independence” and the French’s “What is the Third Estate”, “Decree Upon the National Assembly”, “Tennis Court Oath”, and “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen” all outline very similar grievances that the people are rising against.

In the “Declaration of Independence” the Continental Congress wrote “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”  In the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” the French wrote “The end of all political associations is the preservation of the natural and imprescriptible right of man; and these rights are Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance of Oppression.”  The common theme in those two quotes is the word Liberty, which is “the state or condition of people who are able to act and speak freely” (  While the Patriots and the French had smaller grievances, specific to their situation, Liberty is the most overarching one.  Both groups felt underrepresented by their controlling body, the English monarchy for the Americans and the French monarchy for the French.  Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès wrote his “What is the Third Estate” after the American Revolution but it applies to what was happening in the colonies as much as it did to what was happening in France.  Sieyès wrote “1) What is the Third Estate?  Everything.  2) What has it been until now in the political order?  Nothing.  3) What does it want to be?  Something.”  Both the American colonists and the French citizens wanted recognition from their controlling government but more importantly they wanted the rights they felt they deserved.

The colonists way of gaining “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” was to declare independence from Britain.  They wrote in the Declaration of Independence “these United Colonies are, and of Right out to be Free and Independent States.”  The French offered up a similar solution, however their monarch was not an ocean away.  The “Third Estate” formed the “National Assembly”, which consisted of “at least ninety-six per cent of the nation.”  The “National Assembly” wrote in the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” that they had “resolved to set forth in solemn declaration, these natural, imprescriptible, and inalienable right; that this declaration being constantly present to the minds of the members of the body social” effectively declaring their own independence from the monarchy.

While the American and French revolution happened an ocean away and began about 13 years apart they followed the same track in action and writing.



French and American Revolutions

The American Revolution and the French Revolution may have been at separate times, but the societies of both influenced the genesis of their respective revolutions. The relations of the revolutions to each other can be described as symbiotic. French philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau or Montesquieu and English thinkers that influenced American revolutionary thought such as John Locke all drew from each other to spur revolution. Because of the different situations of oppressive rule in their respective countries, however, their declarations are notably different. While the Declaration of Independence and the Declaration of the Rights of Man were different documents in terms of structure and language, the reason for writing was the same: namely to remedy the violation of the rights the writers believed were inalienable. The differences in these natural rights between the two declarations are a foreshadowing of the future success of these revolutions.

The revolutionaries in the American colonies did not need to worry about immediate retaliation from their King; he was overseas. In addition, the concerns of the people were mostly political and not social. Over all, the Declaration emphasized the violation of certain natural rights and the need to regain these rights: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Blaisdell 64). The Declaration also mentions the importance of prudence in the upheaval of government. These rights are concerned with stability and the overall happiness of the country as a whole; it is clear that the American revolutionary thinkers proposed the Declaration of Independence with the intention to eventually create a stable, functioning, and independent country that attempts to address the concerns of its citizens to a reasonable degree.

The Third Estate of the French, or the entire population of France save the clergy and nobility, faced a different dilemma: they lived in close proximity to their ruling class. However, the discontent of their audience from the wrongdoings of the ruling class was much more widespread than in the colonies. As a result, revolution was possible at the cost of social upheaval with no insurance of stability. Natural rights are also addressed first and foremost in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. However, these rights differ from the Declaration of Independence because of the writers’ contrasting priorities. By emphasizing “Liberty, Property, Security, and Resistance of Oppression,” it becomes obvious that the French are more concerned with social upheaval through the elimination of the First and Second Estates than with political change (Blaisdell 80).

These differences in priority can be thought of as a foreshadowing of the success of these revolutions. In focusing on outright social upheaval without thinking about the political consequences, the French failed to create a stable basis for government the first time. On the other hand, the American, future-oriented approach to revolution created a secure starting point to create a new government.


Comparing American and French Complaints and Proposals

The Declaration of Independence and What Is the Third Estate? go about discussing their complaints and proposals in very different fashions. The Americans list many complaints but they provide few solutions to their grievances. On the other hand, the French list many complaints but also provide solutions to their issues. The Americans believe it is their duty to revolt and that they are suffering from cruel mistreatment. In the Declaration of Independence the Americans complain about how the King of Great Britain is denying them of their liberties and ruling unjustly. They propose that ‘these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the State of Great Britain (Blaisdell 66).” This quote illustrates how the Americans complained about how they were being ruled but never provided any solution to the issues only complete separation from Great Britain. This was a very bold statement and anything of this nature was unheard of during that time period. Few believed that the colonists would be able to successfully revolt against one of the world superpowers.
In the discussion of What is the Third Estate? the French are complaining about how they are being governed and how the political and social systems are unjust. The French have much more organized complaints and proposals than the Americans. On page 80 of The Communist Manifesto and Other Revolutionary Writings, the French state that in order for the society to be just and ruled properly they must “set forth in a solemn declaration, these natural, imprescriptible, and inalienable rights.” The French want to institute change in society through a peaceful way instead of an all out revolt against the existing government. They discuss exactly what the Third Estate is and how it will be created and governed. This structure is far more sophisticated than the Americans. The French may have these more structured ideas and plans because they were able to witness the American Revolution and what the Americans did properly and improperly. In addition, the French may have been more structured due to the fact that they had been a united country far longer than the colonies had existed. The Americans and French both went about complaining what they wanted to change in government in different manners and also proposed these changes differently but overall the French and Americans shared the same ideas in what they wanted to change in their countries.

The Power Of a Unified Nation

The revolutionary texts of both France and the United States focus on the injustices of the people have faced, and both appeal to the natural rights of man. One crucial difference between the two country’s texts, though, foreshadowed the ultimate success or failure of their respective revolutions: who the texts targeted as the barrier to the health of the nation. While the United States looked to the foreign, English King as the enemy of the people, France looked at members of its own citizenry as enemies of the country—a difference that proved destructive to France after its Revolution.

The Declaration of Independence paints the King as the source of all of the colonies’ problems. It is he who has refused to pass laws for the good of the people, and he who has prevented the people from receiving their proper representation. It is, in fact, one long catalogue of every way the King has wronged the American people. By targeting one single person as not only separate from, but an enemy to, the people, the Declaration of Independence was able to unite the people around a shared anger and identity; by clearly identifying the King as their common enemy, they were better able to band together as a unified nation. Indeed, the Declaration repeatedly refers to the collective “us”; it was “our most valuable Laws” that the King abolished, and the King has forced troops among “us” (p. 65). Thus, it creates a unified mass of people, banding together against the King.

France, by contrast, points its finger at its own people as the enemy. As Sieyès rallies the Third Estate together, he declares that “nineteen-twentieths” of France is burdened with the jobs that the privileged “refuse to perform” (p. 72). Thus, he creates a sharp division between 96% of the country, and the seemingly lazy remainder of the population. The First and Second Estates, he makes clear, are the enemies of the Third. Even in the Declaration of the Rights of Man, there is a division among the people; the Declaration only supplies for rights that would help the Third Estate. For instance, it provides for the freedom and equality of all men at birth, something that the First and Second Estates had no need for. Thus, even the Declaration of the Rights of Man, a document meant to protect the whole citizen body, really only belonged to the Third Estate, and was forced upon the First and Second. A document that truly belonged to the whole populace would have included provisions for not just the Third, but the First and Second Estates as well. Unlike the United States, which were able to unify around a common enemy, France was only able to have its Third Estate come together against its First and Second.

As the revolutions in both the United States and France went underway, it became clear what the consequences of this difference in enemies were. The United States was able to unite all thirteen colonies against the King, and, after winning the War, was able to unify under one confederation. France, by contrast, had a revolution where the people were unable to find an outsider against which the whole populace could unify; the people had no common cause, and so turned against each other even after the monarchy had been overthrown. Indeed, the Reign of Terror that followed the Revolution was largely caused by government officials’ own paranoia that their own people were turning against them. Thus, the inability of the country to unite in revolution caused instability and danger for years afterwards.

And so, even though both France and the United States had similar goals—to better the government’s representation of the people and to structure the government to best protect Man’s natural rights—it was not the systematic change that ultimately made the difference in the success of their governments; it was whether or not their people had ever been able to join together as one, single nation.

Comparing Revolutionary Documents

The difference between the Declaration of Independence and “What is the Third Estate?” is the inflammatory nature of the latter. The Declaration of Independence was written by the Americans in order to outline the grievances they had against the crown. They had no reason to expect any immediate retaliation by the king because the main body of the king’s forces was all the way across the Atlantic Ocean. Not only that but the king would not even hear about the document for months because of that distance. “What is the Third Estate?” was written under a different set of circumstances. The piece was written in France within easy reach of the French government and military. There was much more danger associated with a revolution on French soil because of the potential immediate response times.
The Declaration of Independence was written in a tone that inspired patriotism in the readers. This was because many of the citizens were still loyalists and wanted to remain a British colony. There was no need to incite the citizens themselves to rise up and fight the British because they were so far removed from the King. There was no need for the average citizen to take up arms against British soldiers. The same was not true of “What is the Third Estate?” Abbe Sieyes was well aware of the clear and present danger that accompanied the proliferation of this document, both to the author and to the citizenry as a whole. He knew that it would take much more forceful language in order to incite every citizen to take up arms, especially with the proximity of so much raw power nearby.
The difference between the two documents is mainly because of the context in which they were written. If the colonists of America had an entire army breathing down their necks they would have been less easy to rile up. An army is usually a pretty good deterrent. The fiery speech of Abbe Sieyes was necessary, however, because of the great danger that the French were up against.

Differences Between American and French Revolutionary Documents

By the late eighteenth century, America and France had developed a politically and socially symbiotic relationship.  It was the tail end of the enlightenment, and France’s famous Encyclopédie had been published and read by thousands European and American citizens.  This massive set of books contained subtextual political jabs and criticisms hidden in works from many famous philosophers.  Their revolutionary ideas, such as Voltaire’s separation of church and state and Montesquieu’s separation of powers had heavy influences on their own country, as well as on the American colonists, who were becoming increasingly unwilling to cooperate with their mother country, Britain.  Although each country’s revolutionary documents (America’s Declaration of Independence and France’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen) were written in retaliation against oppressive governments, they were written to achieve different goals.  The former was written to highlight mankind’s right to institute a new government when its current one is corrupt, whereas the latter was written to highlight and stress the importance of inalienable and universal human rights.

Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence to unify the colonies and persuade Britain to renounce its sovereignty over America.  The piece declares that it is the sole job of a government to protect the basic rights of man—including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness— and if it fails, it is the people’s right to institute a new government.  It then lists the most prominent ways in which the British King is governing his colonies tyrannically, and urges the people of the thirteen American states to unify and forcefully emancipate themselves from Great Britain completely, thus beginning the American Revolution.

France’s National Assembly wrote its Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen in a similar context: a time in which over ninety percent of French citizens were being underrepresented and mistreated by their government.  Also a precursor to a revolution, this document stressed the basic rights of every man, which should be unanimously recognized and respected.  It lists seventeen human rights, such as liberty, security, and resistance of oppression.

Although they have more similarities than differences, each document was written to inspire social and political change.  Each group felt that its rights were being infringed upon, and the respective declarations of France and America illustrate their ideas of what they, as nations and as people, deserve.