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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.