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Charles-Maurice Talleyrand


Talleyrand was a French politician whose great skills at negotiation, flexible approach to loyalty and impeccable survival instinct saw him serve a succession of rival government throughout the French Revolution, Empire and after.

Youth and Religious Career

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was born into an aristocratic French family with a long lineage and little money. He was born with, a clubfoot, preventing him from following the family mainstay of joining the army, and limiting his chances at court, and he was thus educated to join the church; a younger brother was to inherit the family mantle. However, Talleyrand did develop a sense of superiority thanks to his aristocratic rank, and the ability never to show emotion unless he wanted.to. In 1770 he entered a seminary, where he began learning about both the church and, vitally for his later life, politics and skepticism. After taking a mistress and developing an interest in pornography he moved on to a theology degree, and became a priest and progressed through a religious career which included being appointed vicar general by his uncle, an Archbishop.

As Talleyrand desired to become a bishop, he entered into the role of Agent General of the Clergy, which involved representing church rights and wishes at meetings of the French government. Talleyrand fought hard for the church, acquiring political experience, knowledge of the major political forces of the day, and finally in 1788 his own bishopric (and related income). He had few plans to ever be present there, and even fewer to perform the church services. He acquired a strong interest in the economy, becoming an advocate of free trade, willing to take cues from Britain, an approach he would never abandon. He felt Britain and France should be at peace and bedfellows.

Talleyrand and the French Revolution

As the Estates General met in 1789 Talleyrand was elected a representative on behalf of the clergy and sent with a list of grievances to demand. Among these were modifications to the church's privileges, effectively reversing the position Talleyrand had defended in previous years. His ability to modify his position, even reverse it, would come to characterize his later career. Talleyrand believed only a fool wouldn't change his mind.

As the events of 1789 moved into what we call 'The French Revolution', Talleyrand became a leading player, swiftly arguing against much he'd sought to defend in the past, and emerging as one of the more radical voices. He pushed for one National Assembly, a ban on tithing, the nationalization of the church property and the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, all of which came to pass. He helped write the first constitution and became President of the Assembly. He also took mass at the first anniversary celebrations. His reputation as the 'Bishop of the Revolution" soared, and finding that the church could no longer sustain his new political ambitions - not to mention his financial hunger - he resigned his post.

When a new French constitution arrived Talleyrand was barred from parliament as he has sat in the Assembly. However, he was soon in demand from the new French Government and was sent by the Foreign Minister to England to try and negotiate neutrality in any war between France and Austria. He wasn't the ambassador, but had an informal position. He made two visits, thanks largely to his ability to persuade, and had some success before events back in France undermined his position and made negotiations all but impossible: war had begun.

Talleyrand returned to the heart of government in Paris, but decided to leave as the Republican Revolution removed the king, endangering Talleyrand. He now worked on his own initiative to return to England - he crucially obtained a French passport, which meant he wasn't officially fleeing the revolution and could, in theory, return unmolested in the future. - and again tried to stop the war, but France ordered his arrest if he returned. The passport saved his life. In England he made friends with other Frenchmen who had supported the revolution and fled there. But then England turned against Talleyrand as France executed their king, and he was expelled as a spy. He moved to the US, and shocked the nation by taking a Caribbean mistress,

Talleyrand and the Directory

As a phase of the Revolution called 'The Terror' ended in 1794 with the execution of Robespierre, Talleyrand saw a chance to return to France and argued he should be removed from a list of enemies because he had left France with their permission via a passport. When this was agreed in 1796 he returned, took a seat in an academic organization and argued France should pursue a new empire in Africa. This raised his profile and, allied with personal connections, won him the post of Foreign Minister under the Directory.

The next two years saw mixed success, as he negotiated agreements following Napoleon's victories and gained another fortune in bribes. But he failed to become Director, his support of Napoleon's expedition to Egypt ended in failure and he so offended US ambassadors with his demand for bribes that they quit rather than pay him. He had thought of resigning for a while, and now did so, beginning to muse on how to replace the Directory. Talleyrand had begun to see Napoleon as the man to right France, but Talleyrand was also against war and forcing territorial expansion by conquest. He wanted a balance of power in Europe, with a stable France others could trade with.

Talleyrand and Napoleon

Talleyrand didn't remain in the political cold for long, as Napoleon returned from Egypt and took power in a military coup, aided by Talleyrand's advice and diplomacy: he was sent to induce Barras to resign, and Napoleon appointed Talleyrand to help sedate European opposition. Talleyrand duly did so, negotiating multiple agreements and bringing Europe to a temporary halt in the wars. Talleyrand felt he could guide Napoleon along a path of peace. He also had a hand in the concordat between the Pope and Napoleon, and Napoleon's elevation as Consul for Life. However, he could not stop Britain going back to war with France in 1803 - Napoleon's Anglophobia outranked Talleyrand's Anglophilia - and was a key figure in the abduction and execution of the rebel Duc d'Enghien, an involvement Talleyrand later tried to erase from history.

Napoleon appointed Talleyrand Grand Chamberlain, although he wanted the higher ranking post of Arch Chancellor. At this stage Talleyrand was a valued advisor, if not the second most powerful person in France. But he feared Napoleon would wage war after war with no possible end but destruction. In 1802 Talleyrand married his mistress, Mme Grand, to please Napoleon and other social snobs, despite opposition from church and society.

During the Austerlitz campaign Talleyrand worked to try and calm Napoleon's ambitions and moderate the peace, but to no avail. Napoleon sent Talleyrand to negotiate the settlement with Austria, and Talleyrand did his best; he was rewarded with being made a Prince of Benevento; he never went there. He was also made Grand Vice Elector. After 1805 Talleyrand's influence on Napoleon declined, and in 1807 he resigned, fearing that the Emperor would lead them all to tragedy.

Despite him being out of government Napoleon invited Talleyrand on a diplomatic meetings of rulers in 1808, where Talleyrand secretly negotiated with Russian Tsar Alexander I to oppose Napoleon. The Tsar was ripe to be influenced, and Talleyrand usurped Napoleon's charm offensive. There followed a set of secret discussions between Russia, Austria and Talleyrand, who planned for who would succeed Napoleon if the worst would happen. Napoleon found out and threatened to execute him, but the emperor was rarely ruthless with an old friend, although we don't believe Napoleon ever truly knew how much material Talleyrand was leaking to Austria. When Napoleon sought a new wife, Talleyrand was instrumental in winning the hand of Marie-Louise of Austria, but Talleyrand's hopes that Napoleon would alter his policy were dashed.

The Fall of Napoleon

As Napoleon's enemies closed in after 1812, Napoleon tried to persuade Talleyrand to negotiate, but the politician refused, favoring plans to restore the monarchy. When the Russians reached Paris in 1814 it was Talleyrand's home the Tsar stayed at; when Napoleon was deposed, it was Talleyrand who had organized a provisional government to order it. When Louis XVIII returned to France in mid 1814, it was Talleyrand he made Foreign Minister.

The Congress of Vienna

In the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the Congress of Vienna aimed to redraw the map of Europe and formulate peace. Talleyrand put on a master class of negotiation and manipulation, but his decision to give Prussia a major role on the Rhine has invited criticism from historians in light of later wars.

Final Years

Talleyrand remained as Foreign Minister after the final defeat of Napoleon in 1815 - he stayed opposed to Napoleon during the 100 Days - and became Prime Minister, but was forced to resign by a court opposed to old revolutionaries. He had to retire for a few years until 1829 when he came back to the fore as a new revolution ejected King Charles X and gave the throne to Louis-Philippe, a process Talleyrand was deeply, if very carefully, involved in. Talleyrand was now given the role of ambassador to London to square things with England, and played another key role in establishing the kingdom of Belgium. In April 1834 he organized an Atlantic coast alliance of France, Great Britain, Spain and Portugal. He died in 1838 without a legal heir. He had grown to love peace and stability, and secured a Europe which would not suffer a general conflagration for a century.
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