1902 Encyclopedia > Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (-Périgord)

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand (-Périgord)
French diplomat

CHARLES MAURICE TALLEYRAND DE PERIGORD (1754-1838), created by Napoleon a prince of the empire under the title of the Prince de Ben event, was born at Paris on 2d February 1754. His father, who was of a younger branch of the princely family of Chalais, was an officer in the army of Louis XV., and his mother, also of noble family, was a member of the royal household at Versailles. An accident in infancy rendered Talleyrand lame for life, and changed his whole career. His upbringing was, in accordance with the fashionable heartlessness of the day, entirely left to strangers ; and while a boy he was, in consequence of his lameness, formally deprived by a conseil de famille of his rights of primogeniture,—his younger brother, the Comte dArchambaud, taking his place ; and he was destined for the church. He keenly felt the blow, but was powerless to avert it ; and he used his enforced profession only as a stepping-stone to his ambition, always despising it, and coolly and defiantly forsaking it when he found it an embarrassment.

When he was removed from the country he was sent to the College d'Harcourt, where he speedily distinguished himself; and in 1770, when sixteen years of age, he became an inmate of the Séminaire de St Sulpice, his education being completed by a course in the Sorbonne. Much as Talleyrand despised the church as a career, he never ceased highly to appreciate theology as a training, and he publicly testified to its value to the statesman and specially to the diplomatist. While achieving distinction as a student, he carefully cultivated such society as might promote his advancement ; and it was in the circle of Madame du Barry that his cynicism and wit, reported by her to the king, gained him the position of abbé. To his arts of manner were added, not only his advantages of birth and scholarship, but a penetrating judgment of men and affairs, a subtle audacity, and a boundlessly selfish ambition. As early as 1780 we find this abbé malgré ltd to have reached the important position of "agent-general" of the French clergy. His ability and his flagrant immorality alike rendered him a marked man, and the latter did not prevent his appointment, in accordance with his father's dying request to the king, as bishop of Autun in January 1789. The clergy of his own diocese immediately elected him a member of the states-general; and he delivered before his constituents one of the most remarkable speeches which the crisis produced, containing a sagacious and statesmanlike programme of the reforms which the condition of France demanded. He thus entered the assembly as one of its leaders.

The states-general had hardly met ere Talleyrand's influence was called into play. He successfully urged the clergy to yield to the demand of the commons that the three estates should meet together; and the nobles could thereafter only follow the example thus set. On the question of the extent of the assembly's authority he again sided with the popular leaders. As a financier of great foresight and power he soon became justly celebrated; and his position in the assembly may be estimated by his appointment as one of a committee of eight to frame the project of a constitution. All his previous successes were, however, eclipsed by the daring with which he attacked the rights and privileges of his own order. He had seconded the proposals that the clergy should give up their tithes and plate for the benefit of the nation, and on 10th October 1789 he himself proposed a scheme whereby the landed property of the church should be confiscated by the state. On 2d November, after violent debates, his project was carried, and the old clergy thereafter ranked him as an enemy. But his general popularity so much increased that he was charged by the national assembly to prepare a written memoir in defence of its labours ; and the manifesto, read on February 10, 1790, was received with great approval throughout the country. On the 16th he was elected president of the assembly for the usual brief term. On various subjects he was now looked up to as an authority,—on education, on electoral and ecclesiastical reform, on banking, and on general finance. His career as a diplomatist had not yet begun.

On July 14, 1790, Talleyrand, at the head of 300 clergy, assisted at the fete in the Champ de Mars in commemoration of the fall of the Bastille, and publicly blessed the great standard of France. By this time, however, the dispute as to the civil constitution of the clergy had broken out, the decision of the assembly being resisted by the king, backed by the pope. When in November the king yielded, Talleyrand boldly took the required oath, only two bishops following his example. New bishops were elected by the assembly, and these he, in open defiance of the church, consecrated. In the end of April 1791 he was suspended from his functions and excommunicated by the pope. Without a moment's hesitation Talleyrand abandoned his profession, which he never afterwards resumed. He had been false to its vows, and had scandalized it by his shameless life. It was only in the preceding February that he had, in declining nomination for the archbishopric of Paris, felt, indiscreetly enough and contrary to his usual practice, the necessity of writing to the Moniteur a hypocritical confession of his gambling propensities, stating his gains at 30,000 francs. Although in 1801 the excommunication was recalled, it was nearly half a century after his first act of defiance ere he became personally reconciled to the church, and then only when he was at the point of death.

On purely political lines, however, Talleyrand's career became more and more celebrated. In the beginning of the same month of April 1791, his friend Mirabeau having just died, he was appointed to succeed him as a director of the department of Paris, a position which still further increased his influence in the circles of the metropolis. On the flight of the king in June, Talleyrand leaned at first and cautiously towards the duke of Orleans, but finally declared for a constitutional monarchy with Louis XVI. still on the throne. Ere the constitutional assembly brought its existence to a close on 14th September, he unfolded before it his magnificent scheme of national education, which, in the words of Sir Henry Bulwer, " having at one extremity the communal school and at the other the Institute, exists with but slight alterations at tMs very day." The assembly had voted that none of its members should be members of the new legislative body, so that Talleyrand was free ; besides, events were hurrying on with strange and critical rapidity; and Talleyrand left France for England, reaching London in the end of January 1792. With this visit his diplomatic career may be said to have begun.

He was not formally accredited, but had in his pocket an introduction to Lord Grenville by Delessart the foreign minister; the king himself was aware of his mission, the ostensible object of which was to conciliate England. Talleyrand for his part shared the ulterior views of Narbonne, the minister of war, that it would be for the advantage of his country to divert its energies, which were morbidly directed to its internal troubles, into another channel, and to precipitate an Austrian war. Although received .well in London society, he found the want of official credentials a fatal obstacle to his diplomatic negotiations, and he returned to Paris, whence he was almost immediately again despatched to the English court under much more favourable conditions. He was nominally only attendant with De Chauvelin, the minister plenipotentiary, but he was really the head of the embassy, and he carried with him a letter of Louis XVI. to George III. At this time, indeed, Talleyrand's relations with Louis were very close,—far closer than he afterwards cared or dared to avow. All, however, was of no avail. The startling course of the Revolution made the English look askance upon his mission, and he returned baffled to Paris, where he arrived shortly before the coup d'état of the 10th of August. But this place, where his, wariest manœuvres were outdone by the rapidity of the popular movements, and where at any turn of affairs he might lose his head, was not to his liking ; and by the middle of September he is for the third time in London. It is characteristic of the man—of the dexterity as well as audacity of his intrigue—that he who had but shortly before carried with him a letter of favour from Louis XVI. was, now that royalty was abolished, the bearer of a specific passport— " going to London by our orders "—under the hand of Danton. Equally characteristic is the express falsehood with which he opens his negotiations : he writes at once to Lord Grenville, "I have at this time absolutely no kind of mission in England "—he was selling his library and seeking repose. His courtesies were not returned ; and, although he succeeded in making friends in certain high quarters, he was, in the end of January 1794, under the provisions of the Alien Act, ordered to leave England. Fortified with an introduction by Lord Lansdowne to Washington, he sailed for the United States.

A decree of the convention had issued against Talleyrand during his stay in England. He was an émigré. But as the excesses of the period drew to a close the proscription was recalled on the appeal of Chénier, who founded on Talleyrand's relations with Danton and his mission to England in the service of the Bevolution ! On July 25, 1795, he arrived at Hamburg, whence he passed to Berlin, and, after a short stay there, to Paris. He was received with enthusiasm in the circles of fashion and intrigue. He would have been eagerly welcomed by any of the political parties as a strength ; but the Directory was in power, and he supported it. Within the Directory he supported Barras, as against his compeers. He was thus a moderate constitutionalist and in the way of advancement.

During his absence from France he had been elected a member of the Institute. He was now elected its secretary. In this capacity he read before it two memoirs—one on the " commercial relations of the United States with England," and the other "on the advantages of withdrawing from new colonies in present circumstances." These memoirs exhibit Talleyrand at the very maturity of his powers, and are sufficient to establish his position as one of the most far-seeing and thoughtful statesmen that France ever possessed. The first paper shows how, in spite of the War of Independence, the force of language, race, and interest must in his view bind England and the States together as natural allies ; and it contains that remarkable passage (which once read is never forgotten) in which the civilization of America is described as exhibited in space as well as in time,—as the traveller moves westward from State to State he appears to go backward from age to age. The papers, which were read in April and July of 1797, made his claim to state recognition irresistible, and towards the end of the latter month he was appointed to the post of foreign minister.

He had been carefully scanning the political situation, and he accurately foresaw that the Directory, which represented no one set of opinions, but only a vain compound of all, could not stand against unity of policy backed by force, and in the meantime could be manipulated. Thus with a brutal swiftness its personnel becomes changed. Barras with his sluggish moderation remains ; but, behind and through him, it is the dexterous purpose of Talleyrand that is at work. This is the first characteristic of his administration. Its second is the ability which he displays in his communications with the diplomatic Service, in view of the rupture with England. Its third is the shamelessly corrupt manner in which he approaches the American ambassadors on the subject of the seizure of certain ships, on the conclusion of a commercial treaty between England and the States, putting himself in his public and powerful position at their service,—if the bribe were suitably large. And its fourth is that he is hardly in the chair of office until he has shrewdly selected Bonaparte as the object of his assiduous flatteries, writing to him in semi-confidence, and laying the basis of their future intimacy. But his first term of office was short: the American ambassadors spurned his offer and let his conduct be publicly known, with the result that for this and other reasons he resigned his post. Public opinion was outraged. His official corruption, however, was not ended, for Talleyrand turned everything into gold; in his later diplomacy also he could always be bought; and this public immorality was but too faithfully reflected in his private life, in which gambling was his passion and a source of his vast wealth.

Out of office, but still pulling the strings of the Directory, he awaited the arrival of Napoleon in Paris, and it was his hand which was most powerful in shaping the events of the 18th and 19th Brumaire—9th and 10th November 1799. He reconciled Sieyes to Bonaparte; a majority of the Directory—Sieyes, Ducos, and at last at his persuasion even Barras—resigned; the Directory collapsed, and the consulate was established (see NAPOLEON and SIEYES). Napoleon was the first and Talleyrand the second man in France.

He was now an absolutist, the whole drift of his influence being in the direction of consolidating, under whatever title, the power of Bonaparte. For many years henceforward Talleyrand's career is part of the general history of France. He is soon again foreign minister ; and he is acknowledged to have been the ablest diplomatist of an age when diplomacy was a greater power than it has ever been before or since. To him falls a full share of responsibility for the kidnapping and murder of the Due d'Enghien in March 1804 (see SAVARY). He had assisted at the councils when the atrocity was planned, and he wrote to the grand-duke justifying the seizure of the prince while on Baden territory. His hand in the matter was of course concealed. But, when one advised him to tender his resignation, he demurely remarked, " If, as you say, Bonaparte has been guilty of a crime, that is no reason why I should be guilty of a folly." In other and more agreeable directions he had prostrated himself before Napoleon's purposes, approving among other things of the policy of the Concordat (15th July 1801), and securing thereby the recall of his excommunication. To the pope's grateful brief, which gave him liberty " to administer all civil affairs," he coolly gave a wide interpretation, and he shortly thereafter married. He of course supported and defended first the consulship for life and then the crowning of the emperor.

By and by, however, a change comes over his political attitude, and it is not long ere Napoleon detects it. This change we date, with Sainte-Beuve, from the end of January 1809. Before the peace of Tilsit, July 8, 1807, from Jena onwards, he had personally accompanied the great conqueror; after it they stood apart, for the statesman saw in those brilliant but ceaseless conquests the prelude to the ruin of his master and his country. He was now prince of Benevento, and he withdrew from the ministry, receiving at his own desire the title of vice-grand-elector of the empire. Yet he had not disapproved of the Spanish war; the young princes had even been entrusted to his surveillance at his country house at Valencay. But anything might have happened to the emperor in Spain, and Talleyrand had evidently been calculating the chances of the future. So at the date stated the explosion occurs, Napoleon pouring upon Talleyrand all the fury of his invective, reproaching him with the affair of the Due d'Enghien, and clamouring to know where his enormous wealth had come from,—how much he had gained at play or on the stock exchange, and what was the sum of his bribes by foreign powers. Over and over again such scenes are repeated, the.burden of the fierce reproaches being always the same; but Talleyrand stands impassive as a statue, remarking once, but not till he is out of the room, and is limping away, "What a pity that such a great man has been so badly brought up !" or sending in, at another time, a resignation, which of course is not accepted. The reproaches of the emperor were only too well founded, his minister having reaped a vast harvest from the smaller powers at the formation of the Rhenish Confederation; it is indeed recorded that Talleyrand once put a figure upon his gains in this department of corruption— the figure being no less than sixty million francs.

It is undoubtedly to his credit, however, that he steadily resisted a warlike policy, and that he was particularly opposed to the Russian invasion. He was occasionally employed in diplomatic negotiations, and was even again offered the post of foreign minister if he would give up that of vice-grand-elector. This offer, which would have placed him at the mercy of Napoleon, he declined, and the breach between the two widened. Before the events of 1814 his hotel had become the centre of anti-Napoleonic intrigue; as the crisis approached he communicated with the allies; when it was at hand he favoured a regency, and appeared anxious that Marie Louise should remain in Paris ; and when this was abandoned he carefully arranged a feigned departure himself, but that his carriage should be turned back at the city gates; he did return; and the emperor Alexander was his guest at the Hotel Talleyrand ! The revolution was his work; and his nominee Louis XVHI. ascended the throne. For a third time, and again under a new master, he was appointed foreign minister. It would be difficult to overestimate the splendid services which he now rendered to France. In Paris, on 23d April, the treaty was concluded under which the soldiers of the allies were to leave French soil; and Talleyrand successfully urged that the territory of France should be the enlarged territory of 1792, and also that the great art treasures of which so many European cities had been despoiled should remain in Paris. A final treaty of peace between Europe and France was concluded on 30th May, and in September the congress of Vienna assembled. It was the scene of Talleyrand's greatest triumphs. He succeeded single-handed in breaking up the confederation of the allies, and in reintroducing the voice of France into the deliberations of the European powers. Further, on January 3, 1815, a secret treaty was concluded between Austria, France, and England.

When Napoleon escaped from Elba and advanced towards Paris, Louis XVIII. retired to Ghent. Although the congress of Vienna was thus broken up, Talleyrand made no haste to follow him thither. He was puzzled, and remained so during the Hundred Days. He despised Louis, and an early approach to Bonaparte was out of the question. He therefore coolly betook himself to Carlsbad, remarking, when an explanation was asked for, that the first duty of a diplomatist after a congress was to attend to his liver! Waterloo of course decided him. He appeared at Ghent, and was but coldly received. The foreign powers, however, intervened, conscious after Vienna of Talleyrand's value; and, among others, Wellington insisted that the great diplomatist must be taken into the councils of Louis,—with the result that he became prime minister at the second restoration. But his position was one of extreme difficulty. The king disliked him ; there were scenes bordering on violence in the royal presence; the Russian emperor intimated his hostility to him ; he shared the odium of having a man like Fouché for a colleague ; Chateaubriand and his party hated and beset him. Fortunately an excuse of a broad and national kind soon presented itself. He objected to the conditions which the allies were imposing upon France, refused to sign the treaty, and on 24th September resigned office.

He retired into private life, in which he remained for fifteen years. He only spoke in the House of Peers three times during this period,—twice (1821 and 1822) in favour of the liberty of the press, and once (1823) to protest against the Spanish war. But in 1830, when Charles X.'s reign was evidently imperilled, he again is at the centre of intrigue ; and it is actually at his private but urgent suggestion that Louis Philippe heads the revolution, taking, to begin with, the title of lieutenant-general of the kingdom. Declining the post of foreign minister, he proceeded to London as ambassador, conducting himself and serving his country with his usual consummate skill. He returned crowned with success after the formation of the Quadruple Alliance. In November 1834 he resigned, and quitted public life for ever.

He emerged from his retirement on March 3, 1838, to pronounce before the Institute the éloge of Reinhard, and in so doing 'to treat of diplomacy in general, and to suggest an indirect but adroit apology for his own career. He was received with unbounded enthusiasm by the élite of French literature and society—Cousin even exclaiming that the éloge was worthy of Voltaire. His last illness, which had by this time shown itself, soon prostrated him. He was visited on his death-bed by crowds of celebrities, including the king. He died on May 17, 1838, at the great age of eighty-four. He is buried at Valençay.

According to his desire, his memoirs under his own hand will not appear till 1890.

There is a considerable body of anonymous and untrustworthy literature both in French and English on the subject of this sketch. For the earlier part of Talleyrand's career, see the general literature of the Revolution; for the Napoleonic, the general histories, including especially the Memoirs of the Duc de Rovigo ; for the third and last, also the general histories, and especially the Correspondence between Talleyrand and Louis XVIII., edited by Pullain (1880; transl. into English, 1881), and the Memoirs of Guizot. References abound to the private life of Talleyrand, and on it see also the Histoire Politique et Vie Intime, by G. Touchard-Lafosse (1848), and the Souvenirs Intimes sur M. de Talleyrand, by Amedée Pichot (1870). The student must be on his guard in perusing most of this last-mentioned literature. For many years the Histoire Politique et Privée, by G. Michaud (1853), stood practically uncorrected, although evidently a studied and bitter attack. The view taken by Louis Blanc in his Dix Ans (translated into English in 1845) is also quite distorted, and if one wishes to see a complete misreading of Talleyrand's career it can be found in Blanc's tenth chapter of his fifth book. Sir Henry Lytton Bulwer rendered great service by his life of Talleyrand, published in his Historical Characters; and the worth and accuracy of Bulwer's biography, which was speedily translated into French, has been amply acknowledged by Sainte-Beuve in his valuable treatise (lectures) on Talleyrand, published in 1870. Reference should also be made to Mignet, Bastide, and the Mémoires Politiques of Lamartine.

Caution will have to be exercised in reading Talleyrand's autobiography, which will not appear till 1890. The testimony of contemporaries will not be available to check it, and Talleyrand is proved to have presided at the destruction of much documentary evidence implicating himself, e.g., at the moment when the Russian emperor was living at his house. (T. S. )

The above article was written by: Thomas Shaw, K.C., LL.D., A.A., M.P. for Hawick District from 1892; Solicitor-General, Scotland, 1894 95.

Search the Encyclopedia:

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-17 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries