Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

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Charles Maurice de Talleyrand

The French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, Duc de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), remains the classic case of a successful turncoat in politics. For half a century he served every French regime except that of the Revolutionary "Terror."

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand was a masterful diplomat of the old school as ambassador and foreign minister. Admired and often distrusted, sometimes even feared by those he served, he was not easily replaced as a negotiator of infinite wiles. Talleyrand has been an extraordinarily difficult figure for historians to understand and appraise. His moral corruption is beyond question: he was an unabashed liar and deceiver; he not only took but sought bribes from those with whom he was negotiating; and he lived with a niece as his mistress for decades. He repeatedly shifted political allegiance without visible compunction and possessed no political principle on which he would stand firm to the last; and he was also at least technically guilty of treason, engaging in secret negotiations with the public enemies of his country while in its service.

Yet closer scrutiny of what Talleyrand did shows an apparent steady purpose beneath the crust of arrogant contempt for the ordinary standards of mankind's judgment, expressed in the comment attributed to him on the kidnaping and execution of the Duc d'Enghien at Napoleon's command: "It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake." Talleyrand had his own vision of the interests of France, which lay in making the transition from the Old Regime to the new as painless as possible, at the same time preserving the territorial interests of the French nation. His fidelity to whichever persons happened to be at the head of the French state lasted at best only as long as their power, but this matchless cynic seems to have possessed genuine devotion for France as a country, and his apparent treasons can be seen as the products of a higher loyalty. Yet this picture of him may be false, for Talleyrand destroyed many of the records by which the truth regarding his career could have been more closely reached. It is easier to decide his guilt than to specify what he was guilty of, easier to affirm his deeper innocence than to prove it. The problem lies both in the man himself and in the eye of the beholder.

Education and Priesthood

Talleyrand was born in Paris on Feb. 13, 1754, into one of the most ancient and distinguished families of the French nobility. As the eldest son of Charles Daniel, Comte de Talleyrand, a lieutenant general in the French army, he was destined to follow his father's career until a childhood accident caused a permanent injury. His father compelled him to accept a career in the Church over Talleyrand's protests, for he had no vocation as a priest. But he took Holy Orders in 1775 after studies at the Collège d'Harcourt, a secondary school, and at the seminary in Reims. His rapid promotions came to him as an ecclesiastical administrator with powerful backing, not as a shepherd of souls. His first important post was as general agent for the assembly of the French clergy in 1780, negotiating with the government for the "voluntary" payments made by churchmen in lieu of the taxes from which they were exempt. Then, in 1788, he was appointed bishop of Autun and was consecrated the next year, as the French Revolution was about to begin.

Elected to the Estates General as a deputy of the clergy, Talleyrand quickly showed that he wished the First Estate to cooperate in the transformation of the Old Regime into a new order, even at the expense of its own privileges. Passing over into open opposition to the court, he was influential in persuading his fellow ecclesiastics to join the Third Estate in the newly proclaimed National Assembly on June 19, 1789. He proposed on October 10 that the vast properties of the Church be put at the disposal of the state in exchange for salaries to be paid by the state, and in line with this policy he accepted the Civil Constitution of the Clergy and was one of the consecrators of the new bishops established under its provisions. For these violations of Church discipline, Pope Pius VI excommunicated Talleyrand in 1791. His report on public education in September 1791 won wide praise for its principles but was never applied.

Diplomatic Missions and Exile

In 1792 Talleyrand repeatedly went to England as an unofficial envoy with the mission of keeping that country neutral in the war beginning with Austria and Prussia, but the French invasion of the Austrian Netherlands (Belgium) as well as the rise of revolutionary extremism, culminating in the execution of Louis XVI, brought England into the war in 1793. Talleyrand, condemned as an émigré by the Revolutionary authorities at home, was expelled by England in 1794, and he went to the United States for 2 years. There he visited many parts of the country and probably engaged in land speculation.

In 1796, after the formation of the Directory, Talleyrand returned to France. He was named to the Institute and became foreign minister in July 1797. He took part in the coup d'etat of 18 Fructidor (Sept. 4, 1797), which confirmed the republican regime against royalist conspiracies, and he pocketed a fortune in bribes from those who wanted his favor (although the American negotiators in the "XYZ affair" not only rebuffed his demands for money but made them public on their return home). He was forced to resign the Foreign Ministry in July 1799, when his republicanism fell under suspicion. His destiny then became intertwined with that of Gen. Napoleon Bonaparte, whose expedition to Egypt Talleyrand had sponsored and whom he helped to come to power in the coup d'etat of 18 Brumaire (Nov. 9, 1799).

Napoleon's Foreign Minister

Talleyrand served as foreign minister for Napoleon under the Consulate and the Empire until August 1807 and was rewarded in 1804 with the post of grand chamberlain and in 1806 with the title of Prince de Benevento (French, Bénévent). However, his relations with the Emperor became clouded as Napoleon's obsessive aggressiveness became clear to him. Talleyrand wanted to end the exhausting wars against the recurring European coalitions by making peace with England and Russia, the principal foes, on terms that preserved for France its major territorial gains. Remaining in the Emperor's service, he began a perilous game of intrigues designed to thwart his master's ambitions. In 1808 at Erfurt he encouraged Czar Alexander I to resist Napoleon's demands and was dismissed in 1809 by the suspicious Napoleon but allowed to reside at his country estate. However, after the invasion of Russia in 1812, Talleyrand began a secret correspondence with Louis XVIII and, as head of a provisional government established on April 1, 1814, was a principal figure in the King's first restoration.

Congress of Vienna

Again named foreign minister, Talleyrand skillfully maneuvered to win the full support of the Allies for the Bourbons, obtained relatively favorable terms for France in the first Peace of Paris, then played upon the dissensions of the victors to gain a place for France among the negotiators at the Congress of Vienna, and finally turned the victors against each other to France's advantage. This brilliant feat of diplomacy was partly dimmed by the wrath of the Allies when France welcomed Napoleon back in the Hundred Days, but the final peace terms that emerged from the Vienna negotiations brought France back to its prerevolutionary frontiers.

Upon the second restoration of Louis XVIII, Talleyrand served as prime minister and foreign minister from July until September, but the ultraroyalists who dominated the new government were less forgiving than the king, least of all of an apostate bishop, and Talleyrand lost his office. However, he received the title of Duc de Dino in 1815, in place of the princely title of Benevento, which had been extinguished with Napoleon's departure, and in 1817 he became Duc de Talleyrand-Périgord. During the remainder of the reign of Louis XVIII, Talleyrand was a member of the Chamber of Peers, where he often voted against the government.

Final Diplomatic Achievements

After the Revolution of 1830, in which he was a minor participant but encouraged Louis Philippe to take the crown, Talleyrand was sent to London as ambassador. He negotiated an agreement with England, upon recognition of the new independent Belgian state, that was favorable to French interests. The signing of the Quadruple Alliance of 1834 (with England, Spain, and Portugal), which assured Anglo-French collaboration in support of the constitutional government in Spain against the Carlist rebels, was Talleyrand's final achievement as a diplomat. He died in Paris on May 17, 1838, soon after becoming reconciled with the Roman Catholic Church.

Further Reading

Duff Cooper, Talleyrand (1932), and Louis Madelin, Talleyrand (trans. 1948), are the best of the modern biographies concerned with Talleyrand as diplomat and politician. Crane Brinton, The Lives of Talleyrand (1936), a witty and provocative study, goes behind the enigmatic public figure to seek the deeper meaning of Talleyrand's life and work. Françoise de Bernardy, Talleyrand's Last Duchess (1965; trans. 1966), deals with the private life of his last decades. Guglielmo Ferrero, The Reconstruction of Europe: Talleyrand and the Congress of Vienna (trans. 1941), is important for the understanding of Talleyrand's supreme achievement. □

Talleyrand, Charles Maurice de

views updated Jun 08 2018


TALLEYRAND, CHARLES MAURICE DE (1754–1838), arguably the most famous diplomat that France ever produced.

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was born in Paris on 2 February, the son of a noble army officer. Neglected by his parents, as a young boy he sustained a foot injury that gave him a limp for the rest of his life, thus ruling out the possibility of a military career. Instead he trained for the priesthood, was ordained a Roman Catholic priest in December 1779, but then led a very secular life in Paris aristocratic society, openly consorting with his mistress Adelaide Filleul, the Countess of Flahaut, by whom he had an illegitimate son. Nevertheless, his aristocratic credentials secured his appointment as bishop of Autun in 1788.

In April 1789, Talleyrand was elected a deputy of the clergy of Autun to the Estates General. On 10 October 1789 in the National Assembly, the successor to the Estates General, he proposed that all Church property should be confiscated to solve the continuing financial crisis. The acceptance of this proposal in November deprived the Roman Catholic Church in France of nearly all its wealth and led to its radical restructuring in the Civil Constitution of the Clergy (July 1790). Talleyrand was one of only four bishops to swear an oath of loyalty to this Constitution, and as a "constitutional bishop" on 14 July 1790 he officiated at the Feast of the Federation, the national ceremony in Paris to commemorate the first anniversary of the storming of the Bastille. In January 1791, Talleyrand resigned his bishopric. His diplomatic career began in 1792 when he was sent on a mission to London to improve relations between France and Britain. Expelled from Britain in February 1794, he moved to the United States, where he settled in Philadelphia. There he traveled quite extensively, made money from property speculations, and frequented a circle of fellow French émigrés.

Allowed to return to France, he arrived in Paris in September 1796 and resumed a relationship with Anne-Louise-Germaine de Staël (1766–1817). Partly due to her influence, Talleyrand was appointed minister of foreign affairs by the Directory in July 1797. In December 1797, he met Napoleon Bonaparte for the first time and soon began planning with him the expedition to Egypt, which set sail from France in May 1798. Meanwhile, Talleyrand had acquired a new mistress, the wife of Charles Delacroix, Talleyrand's predecessor as minister of foreign affairs. By her he had another illegitimate son, Eugène Delacroix (1798–1863), who became a famous Romantic artist. Talleyrand resigned as minister of foreign affairs in July 1799 and soon began plotting a coup d'état to remove the Directory with Joseph Fouché (1759–1820, the minister of police) and Napoleon Bonaparte (who had returned from Egypt in October 1799).

Following the coup d'état of 10 November 1799, Napoleon reappointed Talleyrand minister of foreign affairs. Talleyrand negotiated the Treaty of Lunéville with Austria (9 February 1801) and supported Napoleon's policies of reconciliation with royalists and Roman Catholics, but he was soon disagreeing with the First Consul over the severity of the Treaty of Amiens with Britain (27 March 1802), the annexation of Piedmont to France (21 September 1802), and the declaration of war against Britain (18 May 1803). Nevertheless, Talleyrand was, at the very least, a passive accomplice in the execution of Louis-Antoine-Henri de Bourbon-Condé, the Duke of Enghien (20 March 1804). When Napoleon assumed the imperial title (2 December 1804), Talleyrand became Imperial Grand Chamberlain.

Whereas Napoleon sought to impose French domination over Europe, Talleyrand believed in the balance of power and unsuccessfully urged moderation on Napoleon after the successive defeats of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. In August 1807, Talleyrand resigned as foreign minister and from 1808 publicly criticized Napoleon's policies, at a time when Napoleon was at the height of his success. While Talleyrand supported Napoleon's marriage to Marie-Louise (1791–1847) of Austria, he bitterly opposed the invasion of Russia in 1812. Thus, although Napoleon had made Talleyrand a prince and extremely rich, Talleyrand deserted him in 1814 to play a leading role in the restoration of the Bourbons. In April 1814, Talleyrand persuaded Alexander I (1777–1825) of Russia to accept the return of the Bourbons and the French Senate to depose Napoleon and offer the French throne to Louis XVIII (1755–1824).

Once more the minister of foreign affairs (13 May 1814), Talleyrand represented France at the Congress of Vienna. Brilliantly exploiting the principle of legitimacy that the Allies claimed to uphold, Talleyrand secured for France remarkably favorable terms. However, the Hundred Days episode resulted in harsher treatment of France by the Second Treaty of Paris (20 November 1815). Forced to resign in September 1815, Talleyrand retired to his country estate, Valençay.

During the late 1820s, Talleyrand actively supported the liberal opposition to Charles X (1757–1836); in the Revolution of 1830, he contributed to the accession of Louis Philippe (1773–1850) as king of the French. As a reward, he was appointed French ambassador in London (September 1830–November 1834), when he helped to negotiate the separation of Belgium from the Netherlands. He died on 17 May 1838. To his critics he was the serial betrayer of the Roman Catholic Church, the Directory, Napoleon I, and Charles X, and the personification of corruption and vice. To his admirers he was the consummate politician and diplomat, who always sought the true interests of France.

See alsoConcert of Europe; Congress of Vienna; France; French Revolution; Napoleonic Empire; Restoration; Revolutions of 1830.


Primary Sources

Talleyrand-Périgord, Charles-Maurice de. Memoirs of Talleyrand. Edited by the Duke of Broglie. 5 vols. New York, 1891.

Secondary Sources

Bernard, Jack F. Talleyrand: A Biography. New York, 1973.

Brinton, Crane. The Lives of Talleyrand. New York, 1936.

Dwyer, Philip G. Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand, 1754–1838: A Bibliography. Westport, Conn., 1996.

William Fortescue

Talleyrand (-Périgord), Charles Maurice de

views updated May 29 2018

Talleyrand (-Périgord), Charles Maurice de (1754–1838) French statesman and diplomat. As foreign minister under the Directory (1797–99), he participated in the coup that brought Napoleon to power. In 1807, concerned about the growing power of Napoleon, Talleyrand resigned as foreign minister. In 1814, he negotiated the restoration of the Bourbon monarchy. As foreign minister to Louis XVIII, Talleyrand ably represented France at the Congress of Vienna (1814–15). He was Louis Philippe's chief adviser in the July Revolution (1830) and served (1830–34) as his ambassador to Britain.

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Charles Maurice de Talleyrand