S.A. Bent, comp. Familiar Short Sayings of Great Men. 1887.


  • [Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès, commonly called the Abbé Sieyès, a French politician and publicist; born at Fréjus, May, 1748; vicar-general and chancellor of Chartres; member of the States-General, of the National Assembly, of the Convention, of the Council of Five Hundred; ambassador to Berlin, 1798; member of the Directory; one of the Three Consuls; lived in exile from 1815 to 1830; died in Paris, 1836.]
  • They wish to be free, and know not how to be just.

  • Of the abolition of tithes, in the Constituent Assembly, 1790.—DUMONT: Recollections of Mirabeau. Sieyès regarded this tax (la dîme) as the most onerous of those attached to land. Instead, however, of suppressing seventy million livres a year, he would have compelled the landed proprietors to subscribe each year to a proportionate amount of the bonds of the national debt. The Assembly, notwithstanding, repealed the tax outright. The rejection of the proposition of Sieyès caused him to exclaim, “Ils veulent être libres, et ne savent pas être justes!” “which contains,” says Taine (“French Revolution”), “an epitome of revolutionary legislation.”
  • When the abbé complained to Mirabeau of being coughed down while resisting the confiscation of church property, the latter replied, “My dear abbé, you have loosed the bull: do you expect he is not to make use of his horns?”
  • It was at this time that Sieyès said to Talleyrand and Dumont, “Politics is a science which I have mastered” (La politique est une science que j’ai achevée). Dumont, who records the remark, adds, “Had he ever measured the outline, or formed a conception of the extent and difficulty of a complete legislation, he would not have made such an assertion.”—Recollections of Mirabeau.
  • La mort sans phrase.

  • The vote which Sieyès gave in favor of the death of Louis XVI. became historic in the form, “Death without phrases.” He denied having so given it, but said that it was La mort simply. It is explained by the fact that many deputies justified their votes by short speeches or apothegms. Accordingly, when it was asked how Sieyès voted, the answer was natural, “Death, without phrases:” without a comma, it became La mort sans phrase.
  • Another explanation is, that the stenographer of the Convention, wishing to call attention to the exceptionally laconic form of the abbé’s vote, put after it in a parenthesis, “sans phrase.” Sieyès once referred to the official statement of the vote in the “Moniteur,” Jan. 20, 1793, where it was thus given: “SYEYES, la mort.” “It was a forced loan,” says Fournier, “but not at all gratuitous, for his reputation paid a heavy interest upon it.” Thus when the minister of the king of Prussia in Paris was requested to pay some attention to Sieyès, who was going as ambassador to Berlin, he replied, “No, and sans phrase.”
  • The following are some of the “phrases,” or explanations, offered by deputies in giving their vote on the punishment of Louis XVI.:—
  • Albouys: “Banishment: let this living spectre go out to stalk among thrones!” (Le bannissement; que ce spectre vivant aille errer autour des trônes!)
  • Bernardin de St.-Pierre: “The blood of a king is not the blood of a man” (Le sang d’un roi n’est pas le sang d’un homme).
  • Bancal: “Exile: I wish to see the first king in the world condemned to earn his living” (L’exil: je veux voir le premier roi de l’univers condamné à faire un métier pour gagner sa vie).
  • Carnot: “Death; and never did word weigh so heavily upon my heart!”
  • Chaillon: “I will not commit a murder, that Rome may make a saint” (Je ne veux pas faire un mort, dont Rome fera un saint).
  • Gentil: “Seclusion: to make a Charles I. is to make a Cromwell” (Faire un Charles I., c’est faire un Cromwell).
  • Jean-Bon St.-André: “No people free without a tyrant dead” (Pas de peuple libre sans le tyran mort).
  • Lavicomterie: “Death: while the tyrant breathes, liberty stifles” (Tant que le tyran respire, la liberté étouffe).
  • Paganel: “A king is of use only by his death” (Un roi n’est utile que par sa mort).
  • Zangiacomi: “Let us keep Capet alive for a scarecrow” (Gardons Capet vivant comme épouvantail).
  • The Duc d’Orléans (Égalité), first prince of the blood, read the following: “Solely occupied with my duty, convinced that all who have attacked or shall attack hereafter the sovereignty of the people merit death, I vote for ‘death.’” Robespierre said of this vote, “The nation would have been more magnanimous than he.”
  • We have a master.

  • After the coup-de-main of the 18th Brumaire, 1798, by which Bonaparte overthrew the Directory, Sieyès was believed to have remarked to Talleyrand and Roederer, “We have a master who knows how to do every thing, who can do every thing, and who will do every thing” (Nous avons un mâitre qui sait tout faire, qui peut tout faire, et qui veut tout faire). He denied, however, saying it; which Sainte-Beuve regrets, “as it was worthy of being said.”—Causeries du Lundi, Sieyès. The French Ana assign to Gen. Dugommier the remark on accompanying young Bonaparte to the Committee on the War: “I present to you a most meritorious officer; he will succeed: if you do not advance him, he will advance himself” (il ira loin: si vous ne l’avancez pas, il saura bien s’avancer de lui-même). Others, like Lockhart, attribute the remark to Barras. Bonaparte said of himself at the same time, “Do they [the Directory] believe that I stand in need of protection to make my way? Sometime all of them will be glad to receive mine.” Sieyès did not deny answering Bonaparte, who urged him to be Second Consul: “It is not a question of consuls, and I do not care to be your aide-de-camp.” At the end of the Directory, when he felt how powerless was the mere man of letters, Sieyès exclaimed, “What I want is a sword!” (Il me faut une épée!)
  • One of his favorite maxims was, “Confidence should arise from beneath, and power descend from above” (La confiance doit venir d’en bas, et le pouvoir d’en haut).—THIERS: Consulate and Empire, 1799.
  • I existed.

  • He denied, by replying to the question what he had done during the Terror, “J’ai vécu” (I existed), that he intended to express any egoism or insensibility to the dreadful scenes through which he passed unharmed. Mignet, however, considered it merely the answer to the most difficult problem of the times,—that of not perishing.—Notices Historiques, I. 81. When La Fayette was asked what he had done for liberal principles during the empire, he replied, “I stood erect” (Je me suis tenu debout). There was a difference, however, in the situations.
  • An arrière-pensée.

  • The phrase has been attributed to Sieyès, because it harmonized so perfectly with his character. “It was already to be found,” says Fournier, “in a very truthful line of a play of Destouches” (1680–1754).
  • “Les femmes ont toujours quelque arrière-pensée.”
  • Le Dissipateur, V. 9.
  • A nation of monkeys with the throat of parrots.

  • In a note addressed to Mirabeau, Sieyès called the French “une nation de singes à larynx de parroquets.” This is not more complimentary than Voltaire’s opinion expressed in a letter to Mme. du Deffand, Nov. 21, 1766: “Your nation is divided into two species: the one of idle monkeys, who mock at every thing; and the other of tigers, who tear.” He said of the judges in the Calas case, “Don’t speak to me of those judges, half apes and half tigers.” During the excesses of the Paris Commune, in 1871, the remark was heard, “A Frenchman is half monkey, half tiger.”
  • When Dr. Corvisart regretted the death of a friend who had been attended by two physicians besides himself, Sieyès asked, “What did you wish him to do against three?” This is a line from Corneille’s “Horace,” III. 6, “Que vouliez-vous qu’il fît contre trois?” The answer is, “That he died” (Qu’il mourût).
  • After the establishment of the Directory, the Abbé Poulle entered the house of Sieyès, and fired a pistol at him, which broke his wrist and grazed his chest. Seeing at the trial that the sympathy of the spectators was on Poulle’s side, Sieyès, on his return home, said to his porter, “If Poulle calls again, you will say that I am not at home” (Si Poulle revient vous lui direz que je n’y suis pas).
  • Sieyès took credit to himself for coining a new cry, “Vive la nation!” “an astonishing one at that time,” he added (Le premier qui cria “Vive la nation” et cela étonna bien alors, ce fut moi). When the thought those words expressed had stirred men’s minds sufficiently to cause a vote to be passed perpetuating the Tiers État as the National Assembly, the Revolution was accomplished.