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Edmund Burke and Abbé Sieyés: A Political Contrast

France in the late 1700s was in a time of turmoil. The institutions of the old regime were failing and new, seemingly radical institutions were put in its place. This sudden and radical change sent shockwaves throughout Europe. Could the ways of old be replaced by this new republican form of government? That is the question many statesmen such as Edmund Burke and Abbé Sieyés had to ask themselves. Sieyés and Burke differed ideologically in many ways. Burke was a conservative and Sieyés was a liberal. However, just as in modern politics, they both had the same goal in mind; a better government for France.

Edmund Burke believed that one must own property to effectively govern. This property, according to Burke, should be passed down from one generation to the next keeping property within the family. Burke believed that this would add stability to the regime because owners would love their land and thus would have a great stake in defending the nation and insuring that the nation was properly governed. People who owned the land, assumed Burke, would not enact rash laws and would be prudent in their legislative duties. By requiring land ownership to govern Burke also ensured that the political body of the nation could not radically change with the whims of the masses. The pool from which Parliament could be drawn was constant and slow to change. Everyone knew his place.

Abbé Sieyés believed that land ownership was not necessary for governance. Sieyés argued that land ownership dated back to the middle-ages, where medieval alliances and wars decided who owned property. To Sieyés this system was unfair. He did so see why people should be excluded from governing just because his/her family did not acquire land hundred of years ago. Sieyés also argued that because the current majority of land-owners did not efficiently use their land they were effectively committing treason and were thusly excluded from the governance of the nation. Sieyés assumed that the land-owners would have only the interest of their own possessions in mind and would not legislate for the whole of the nation, but only for themselves.

In Burkes’ eyes a parliamentary monarchy much like that of England’s was the best form of government for France. Burke believed that this system of government kept enough of the old regime to keep a since a legitimacy, something he thought the new government of France did not have. In his eyes such institutions as the monarchy kept a since of timeless-being for the nation. In a way a nation without beginning or end, much as the romantics views on nature. Burke saw a parliamentary monarchy as being fair because both members of the nobility and the land-owning members of the third estate were able to participate in the governance of the nation. The greatest advantage Burke saw in the English system of governance was that it easily adapted to change. Unlike in the French system England could slowly over time adapt to new ways of thinking instead of having revolutions and radical reforms. Burke saw the parliamentary system as being a more peaceful method for change and stability within a nation.

Sieyés believed that a republican form of government was the way for France to go. In his eyes a republic would end the injustices of the old regime by allowing all men to participate in their own governance. Sieyés also thought that a republican form of government would show that the third estate was in control by destroying all the institutions of the former regimes’ consisting of the first and second estates. By having a republic the spirit of the revolution would be kept alive and the citizens would never forget that they were the majority and were in complete control. As long as there was a republic, thought Sieyés, the tyranny of the majority would rule.

Burkes views on equality within a nation were guided by English common law; the basis of every principal of justice in Burkes mind. To Burke a government must treat all people equal under the law. Nobility and peasantry all were accountable on paper to the same laws that bound members of the parliament and the king. Although he thought people should be treated equal in civil matters, Burke believed that people were socially unequal. To Burke there had to be some inequality built into the political system to make it work. If everyone were socially equal, thought Burke, then how would the government have any authority? Burke assumed that complete anarchy would break out. Burke believed that the pompous traditions of the monarchy kept the nation together and kept order in the system. To Burke all were civically equal, but not socially.

To Sieyés everyone was equal both civically and socially. In his eyes everyone who mattered was a member of the third estate. The only way to become one who could govern in Sieyés’ France was to renounce anything that would make you socially unequal and thus join the third estate. In Sieyés’ eyes the brotherhood of the revolutionary third estate would keep the nation together and prevent anarchy.

Though Edmund Burke and Abbé Sieyés differed in many ways, they had many common themes throughout their works. Both men had an extreme love for the French people and only wanted the best for them. Sieyés and Burke wanted a government that would grow with the French and would stand the test of time. They wanted a government were everyone was treated equally under the law; a nation where nobility and the like adhered to the same ordinances as the common man. All in all both men were in search of the modern democracy, though they had different means of getting there. In the end I think both men would be proud of the France they would see today.

After the French revolution France went through almost 150 years of various unstable governments; the shockwaves of the revolution were long lasting. However, after struggling and experimenting with different forms of governments the French finally found a system that works best for them. Ironically it is neither the system that Edmund Burke proposed or the system that Abbé Sieyés proposed but rather a combination of their ideas and ideas of men like them. In the end neither Burke nor Sieyés were right or wrong, they were just searching for an answer that was not yet ready to reveal itself.