The political life of the far-famed Charles Maurice Talleyrand de Perigord would be neither more nor less than the secret history of France, from the breaking out of the Revolution to the second restoration of the Bourbons, and would require as many volumes as there are years in that period. But where are the materials to be found? Who besides himself could unfold the influence which he exercised over the events of his time? The actions of a military man are before the world, and the world can judge, if not of their merit, at least of their success; but without a voluntary revelation, the arcana of politics must remain as unknown as the secrets of the confessional. For this reason, less can be said about one who has directed kingdoms, than about the obscurest of the French Marshals. Speculation, indeed, may be busily at work, and even a high degree of probability may be attained; but during the lifetime of this statesman who will speak out? In the country where, above all others, his life and conduct should be best understood, the least has been written concerning him. We might be astonished at this scantiness of information, did we not call to mind, that though retired from public affairs, his influence is still considerable, and that whoever should be rash enough to assert publicly what has been often reported, what most men, perhaps, are ready to believe, but what no man can prove, might be, and probably would be, visited with the vengeance of the law. A good biography of this prince can be expected only after his decease, and then it must emanate from some one intimately connected, not only with him, but with the policy of the various administrations which governed France during a quarter of a century. He has long been occupied, it is said, in the composition, if not of private memoirs, at least of his political life; but the impression is pretty general, that the fruit of his labours will not be given to the world, until the author is no more. At different periods, indeed, much has been written concerning him in this country, but on very questionable authority. National antipathy, aided by the rancour of the emigrants, some of whom in the view of ingratiating themselves with the English, hesitated not to fabricate the most disgusting lies, has represented him as a monster. The truth is, his career has been remarkably free from violence; he has swayed the destinies of France, less by terror than by his prodigious talents, and that laxity of principle, which sanctions in nations what all men would reprobate in individuals. It has been his constant aim to direct, not to oppose, public opinion, -- a power which he was sagacious enough to perceive would in the end be too much even for the iron despotism of Napoleon: he was too wise, we believe too humane, to run counter to it, by committing, or authorising to be committed, crimes that must have long ago ensured his ruin. Like Fouché, he knew that a heinous moral crime is fatal, and a political one a blunder.
The family of Talleyrand is truly illustrious. In the middle ages, his male ancestors reigned over Quercy. The celebrated Princess des Ursins, who during the war of the succession to the Spanish throne played so prominent a part at the court of Philip V., was among his ancestors on the maternal side. It is not improbable that the fate of this lady, who exhibited so striking an example of the instability of court favour, may have been before his eyes, and taught him to escape the rocks on which she and so many others who have navigated this most dangerous of seas have been wrecked. Certain it is, that of all men in ancient or modem times, he has exhibited the greatest share of sagacity to foresee perils and of address to avoid them. He has always governed events, rather than been governed by them, because he has always worshipped the power on which those events must ever depend, -- that of opinion -- we may consequently say, that in a great measure his destiny has been in his own hands.
He was bom in Paris, some time in the year 1754. Intended from his infancy for the ecclesiastical state, he was entered at the Seminary of St. Sulpice. This was an unfortunate destination for him, and probably repugnant to his own wishes. An agreeable person, (notwithstanding some little deformity in one foot,) the elegance of his manners and conversation, the brilliancy of his wit, an exquisite spirit of raillery and keenness of satire, a profound knowledge of the world, especially of human vices and follies, and a strong impulse towards the pleasures, no less than the honours of life, an impulse unrestrained by moral principle, infallibly indicated, that however advantageous the church might in some respects prove to his ambitious aspirings, she would afford too confined a sphere for the exercise of his genius, and that he would prove any thing but a credit to her. However, he took orders at the usual age, and his talents, no less than the interest of his family, procured him rapid advancement. The Abbé de Perigord was only in his twenty-sixth year, when he was nominated agent-general of the clergy. In this important post he displayed as much aptitude in practice, as he had before displayed ability in theory; he showed that he was no less conversant with the affairs of the world, than with the most abstract principles. When he looked round on the moral and political horizon of his country, he perceived that a great, a mighty change was at hand; and whether this change were at once effected by a convulsion, or by the slower but surer influence of circumstances, he resolved to direct it to his own purposes. Profound, subtle, eloquent, insinuating, adapted for any part in the great drama of life, and capable alike of deriving advantage from every occurrence, he watched the progress of events with a calmness inspired by the confidence he felt in his own powers. No crisis could well escape his penetration, and for every one his combinations were prepared. The very few who could read human character predicted his future eminence. Among these was Mirabeau, who in a secret correspondence with Berlin, designated him, even at that early period of life, as one of the most subtle and powerful intellects of the age.
The infidel opinions which the Abbé made no scruple to avow, and the notoriety of his amours, might be supposed to impede, if not altogether to destroy his hopes of advancement in the church. But such was not the case: he belonged to a political party which was all powerful at court, and which clamoured for his promotion. In vain did the virtuous Louis object to his consecration as bishop; disregarding this opposition, the ministry gave him the diocese of Autun, before he had reached his thirty-fourth year. If he was not the most exemplary, he was certainly the most witty and agreeable of prelates. His bon mots, his brilliant repartees, his sparkling sentiments, his cutting satires, were in every one's mouth. his love-letters were in the boudoir of every lady distinguished for beauty, levity, and grace. In short, he was an accomplished infidel, who practised the fashionable vices without compunction, disbelieved in the existence of human virtue, and ridiculed as hypocrites all who pretended to be more scrupulous than himself.
In 1789, Talleyrand was returned by the clergy of his diocese, as deputy to the States-General. The superiority of his genius, and the dexterity with which he handled the most momentous subjects, greatly extended his popularity among all who wished well to the revolutionary cause. He was not satisfied with foreseeing, he wished to hasten what he knew to be inevitable; for of what use was this prophetic faculty unless he could turn it to some account? In the same year, 1789, he voted that the Clergy should be united with the Communes, which had just been formed into a National Assembly. As member of the Committee of Government, he proposed the abolition of tithes, and with a zeal, scarcely equalled by the most violent of his coadjutors, he would have the vote to pass unanimously. He it was who soon afterwards introduced the famous project for alienating the property of the church. In vain did that body, especially the priests of his own diocese, petition and remonstrate; be saw that such measures must be passed, and he resolved to have the credit of introducing them. He turned a deaf ear to complaints of every description, and from every quarter, and pursued his own path, perfectly unmoved amidst the storms which surrounded him. The number of reforms be projected was prodigious; and the reports he delivered in on the state of the finances, and the system of organization he recommended both in that and other departments, proved the astonishing versatility of his talents. Some of these were doubtless most judicious, and none were severely censured except by his own brethren ; but all who had any Catholic feeling left, were scandalized to see him among the most zealous of the constitutional clergy, -- to see him even consecrate the republican bishops. His conduct at length drew down upon him the indignation of the Pope, by whom he was excommunicated, and from that moment he was regarded with horror by the, whole Catholic world.
Having, shortly after this, resigned his bishopric of Autun, he devoted his whole attention to secular matters. He was no doubt assisted by the experience of his friend Mirabeau, who acquainted him with his most hidden views; and on the death of that extraordinary man he was left without a rival to preside over the spirit of the times. Whatever opinions were dominant had him for a support and guide. He saw that there was a desire for instruction; and drew up his celebrated plan of national education, in which he took care that religion should be omitted. He projected an Institute of arts and sciences, and five years afterwards the Directory adopted many of his suggestions. In short, whether the agitated current of public feeling was turned towards the irrigation or the devastation of the moral landscape was of no moment to him; men were beings too ignorant to be enlightened, and too despicable to create any interest in their favour: they were born to be duped, and the wisest was he who duped them most successfully.
In 1792 Citizen Talleyrand came over to this country on a secret mission. What the object of that mission was it is difficult to conjecture; nor is it more easy to say who were its projectors. By the jacobin party in France he was denounced as a royalist, and by the royalists on this side the channel he was still more loudly represented as a jacobin. Probably he had little or no attachment to either party, but in conformity with his usual spirit of calculation, was resolved to watch the progress of events, and declare for the one which should prove ultimately triumphant. There is no doubt, however, that if he had any predilections, they were in favour of the democrats, since among them alone could he hope to enjoy power. After the death of Louis, he remained here as the agent of the republic; and it appears certain that he was instructed to open a communication between the regicide government he represented and the disaffected in England. He complained, however, that our liberals were very interested, -- that none would stir a foot in favour of "the general cause," without advances of money; and from them he characterized the whole nation as mercenary. Such specimens of the national character, indeed, as he was likely to meet, may have justified his censure. The educated, the honourable, the peaceable, -- all who had either property or a name to lose, -- were sure to shun his society as well as abhor his principles; while the needy, the unprincipled, -- the very dregs of the community, would gather round him. The open dislike testified to him by the higher orders seems to have raised his bile, and urged him to more zeal in the revolutionary cause. The emigrants here watched him closely, denounced him at length to government, and procured an order for him to leave England in twenty-four hours. He saw the blackening of the thundercloud in France, and he dared not return; he embarked for the United States, and thereby escaped the blind fury of Robespierre. As his was a mind which could be applied indifferently to the greatest or least objects, as the elephant's trunk can pluck up a tree or gather a pin, so was he ready to turn either an empire or a coffee-mill. In the United States he became a tradesman, and opened a shop. But with all his suppleness and versatility, we are not to suppose that he bore the same affection for the ledger as for the ministerial portfolio: when the reign of terror was ended, he longed to forsake the counter for the tribune, and with some difficulty he obtained permission to return. For this permission he was indebted more to the zealous interference of his friend Madame de Stael, who had great weight with the Directory, than to any other cause. The decree of his perpetual banishment which had passed in 1794, was annulled in September the following year. No sooner was he acquainted with the favourable result of her exertions, than he hastened to embark. He landed at Hamburg, where he remained for some time, and where he formed a connexion with Madame Grandt, which finally ended in marriage. Though from the number of his enemies -- such were all who dreaded the superiority of his talents in the universal struggle for power -- he wisely remained in the shade for some months after his return (1796), his influence was not the less felt. At length he appeared in public, and his eloquence had its usual effect. The Directory gave him the portfolio of foreign affairs; but there was a general outcry against the appointment raised by all who feared his power. Such a man, let him be where he might, could do no other than produce a sensation: it was feared that he would soon become a member of the Directory, and after that whatever he pleased. "He will restore the Bourbons, or seat himself in their place!" cried the jacobin: "He will be our bitterest enemy!" exclaimed the royalist. In fact, he found the opposition so strong, that even he judged a resignation necessary. But if he retired from view, he knew how to influence those who remained at the head of affairs. His presence was still felt: it was galling to his rivals, and to none more than to the Buonapartes, who apprehended, and not without reason, that he might anticipate their brother. That he had formed the design of overturning the contemptible government then existing appears undoubted; and there is as little doubt that he would have succeeded in the attempt, had not Napoleon suddenly arrived from Egypt. Two such minds must either be united or opposed: if opposed, the struggle might have been perpetuated beyond the wish of all parties; if united, they must triumph over every obstacle. A sense of common interest drew them together; and the revolution of the 18th Brumaire was owing to the fruitful genius of Talleyrand as much as to the audacity of Buonaparte.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs, this extraordinary man became the soul of the Consular government. He perceived that the country had need of peace: he obtained it with Austria, at Luneville, and with England at Amiens. In the mean time he was not so absorbed by public concerns as to be insensible to his own. He wanted a wife, but how could he marry who had solemnly taken the ecclesiastical vows? He compelled the poor Pope to secularize him by a brief, and being thus released from canonical obedience, he married Madame Grandt, the beautiful woman with whom he had been so long connected.
Talleyrand had but one rival of ability sufficient to be dreaded, -- Fouché; but in spite of all the intrigues of the latter, he long maintained the second place in the state. Of those intrigues, however, one was near proving fatal to him. A treaty had been concluded between the First Consul, and Paul I., the Russian emperor, the conditions of which were to be carefully concealed from England. The ratifications, &c. were of course deposited in the office of the minister for Foreign Affairs. What was the surprise of Buonaparte when Fouché presented him with a faithful copy of that treaty, which he had received from one of his agents in London, and which was known to our ministry! His first impulse was to arrest Talleyrand; but an investigation being set on foot, it was discovered that one of the minister's clerks had copied the document, and sold it for 30,000 francs. Was not the whole a contrivance of Fouché to remove the man whose genius he dreaded? So thought the world -- how justly cannot be determined. The result was open enmity between these celebrated men, whose characters were so striking. -- Talleyrand governed by the pure force of his mind; Fouché by cunning and deep dissimulation: the one felt that his genius must command; the other, that his good fortune must depend on his vigilance and address: in other respects both were subtle beyond example, perfectly versed in human nature, and the state of opinion among all ranks, and remarkably dexterous in consolidating the revolutionary elements into one compact social form. Hence both were appreciated, and both rewarded, by the most liberal master the world ever saw: the one was invested with the sovereign principality of Benevento, the other with the ducal fief of Otranto.
In 1807 the Prince of Benevento was unexpectedly deprived of his ministry, but raised to the lucrative dignity of Vice Grand Elector. The cause of this honourable disgrace is not very clear: it was supposed at the time to be owing to his decided disapprobation of the meditated Spanish usurpation. However this might be, he was thenceforward subject to the surveillance of the police. The emperor feared him more than all his other internal enemies, for now he began to be an enemy, a secret one, and therefore the more formidable. From that time Buonaparte took pleasure in insulting him before the whole court; but the witty servant often threw back the ridicule on the master. Among the malicious reports of the time, was one which Napoleon was sure to lay hold of as a means of mortifying the man he disliked: it related to a high degree of intimacy, said to be subsisting between Madame Talleyrand and Ferdinand of Spain, who was confined in the Castle of Valençay, belonging to the Prince of Benevento. The next time our prince appeared at court, the emperor eagerly taunted him on the subject. All eyes were turned towards him as he calmly replied: "Well would it be, both for your majesty's glory and mine, if the Spanish princes were never again to be mentioned!" Napoleon hung down his head, and was afterwards in no hurry to bandy retorts with the Vice Grand Elector. Sometimes, indeed, he gave way to his impetuosity so far as to level a torrent of abuse at Talleyrand, and on such occasions the latter was careful not to afford an excuse for the exercise of violence towards him. He withstood the storm with imperturbable demeanour; so that these unseemly exhibitions were as discreditable to the one as they were favourable to the other. The impassibility of the prince's countenance, even when most agitated within, was truly remarkable. On this subject Murat had a coarse but expressive manner of speaking. "Kick Talleyrand on the breech," said his majesty, "and then look at his countenance: it will not show the slightest sense of the indignity."
But though Talleyrand no longer possessed either the portfolio or the friendship of his master, such was the opinion entertained of his ability, that he was often summoned to attend the imperial head-quarters, and entrusted with the management of difficult negotiations. There might indeed be another reason for this: his presence in Paris during the emperor's absence was always dreaded; but it is certain that he was the only diplomatist capable of sustaining the interests of France, and of curbing the ambition of her ruler. His most implacable enemies regretted his dismissal from the ministry, and were anxious for his recal; and well they might, for such men as Champagny, and Clarke, and Caulaincourt, and Maret -- men of narrow views, and too fawning to be any thing but passive instruments in the hands of Napoleon, -- were hurrying the empire to the very brink of ruin. They knew that he alone could save it, and after the Russian campaign Buonaparte seemed to be of the same opinion. Again, the ministry of the exterior was offered to him, but on the condition that he would resign the Vice Grand Electorship. He refused to do so; he would not accept the portfolio unless he might also retain his lucrative dignity. In this he might be right; for at any moment he might be dismissed from the ministry, and there was little hope that in such a case he would be restored to his Vice Grand Electorship: he was overwhelmed with debts, and he was not so mad as to relinquish the advantages he was sure to possess, for such as were wholly contingent, and at best less lucrative. Savary tells us, however, that he freely bestowed the benefit of his advice on the emperor. It was, according to that veracious writer, neither more nor less than, in order to distract the hostilities of England, to open a communication with Lord Wellington, in Spain, and to stimulate that general to dethrone the king of England and seize the vacant dignity!
The emperor, says Savary, strongly commented on the absurdity of striving to deprive a powerful monarch of a crown, when his own was tottering on his head. If such advice were actually given -- which is almost too absurd to be credited -- it could only have been with a view of plunging the falling emperor into a. more destructive abyss. There is reason to believe that as Talleyrand saw that the imperial fortunes were on the decline, he resolved to accelerate their descent. That he was deeply engaged in the restoration of the Bourbons is certain, though it is impossible to ascertain either the nature or the extent of his interference. When the allies entered Paris he was nominated President of the Provisional Government, and in this elevated station he succeeded in drawing all who had any influence to the new order of things. He prevailed on the Emperor Alexander, who had honoured him so far as to reside under his roof, to espouse the cause of the ancient princes. The result is well known. After a few weeks' reign over all France, he resigned the supreme authority to Louis, by whom his services were rewarded. The 12th of May (1814) he was restored to his old ministerial functions; the 4th of June, he was created a peer of France, by the title of Prince de Talleyrand; and towards the close of the same year, he was sent as French Plenipotentiary to the Congress of Vienna.
In this last capacity the prince was a formidable opponent to the pretensions of Murat. He exclaimed against suffering a creature of Buonaparte to remain on the Neapolitan throne. His aristocratic notions, doubtless, led him to despise a man whose family had long been the menial servants of his. In the heat of his exertions, Napoleon returned to Paris, and dispatched an emissary to win him over to his cause. But he was too experienced to be duped by promises, however magnificent, -- he who had so successfully duped others. He felt that Buonaparte and he knew each other too well ever again to meet on a confidential footing. Besides he was too sagacious not to foresee that combined Europe must triumph. For these reasons, and perhaps some others known only to himself, he this time remained faithful to his oaths. He pressed the allies to issue their famous declarations against the usurper, of the 13th and 25th of March (1815). How well his wisdom was justified by the events, the second restoration of Louis soon proved. He was again entrusted with the department for Foreign Affairs; but he did not long remain in office. He disagreed with his colleagues, resigned, and was made the king's chamberlain. From that time to the present he has shunned public life; or we may rather say, been driven from it. Lately, his residence was at Marseilles, but it is now generally at Valençay.
It has been said, that if Napoleon was the Child of Victory, Talleyrand was the Genius of Policy; that history cannot offer two such examples of the influence exercised by intellect alone over the revolutions of a country. With courage to attempt, and talents to effect, the greatest changes, and with little moral principle to restrain them, both have been the wonder and the reproach of their time. But if both had the same contempt for their species, and were equally dexterous in using others as the instruments of their designs, there was a great difference between their methods of conduct. The one effected much by violence, the other was all mildness, and governed only by persuasion: the one persevered in his plans, even when circumstances had changed; the other always modified them by subsequent information: the former hesitated not to oppose the current of events, and even of opinions; the latter sailed quietly on it, and directed it into what channel he pleased: Buonaparte would do all things by his mere fiat; Talleyrand, convinced that all real power lies in opinion, sought an acquaintance with the kindred spirit which rules the destinies of man, and became calm, subtle, and potent as itself: moveable as Fortune in the means by which he attempted to rise, -- varying with the ever restless current of popular feeling, he pursued the end in view with the constancy of Fate. One thing will be remembered to his everlasting honour, -- that while Buonaparte and Fouché waded through blood to attain the object of their ambition, his was a path unstained by the slightest excess. He practised vices, not crimes.
If, however, the whispers of political enemies had any foundation in truth, on the soul of this prince a crime would lie which would consign his name to everlasting execration. Many years before her death the Empress Josephine, in adverting to the disastrous death of the Duke d'Enghien, asserted that the mystery in which that affair was enveloped would some time be removed, and that certain persons would then be found more guilty than her husband. Among the persons thus obscurely alluded to, rumour pointed out the Prince of Benevento; but neither the nature nor extent of his reputed participation in the crime were clearly defined until Savary and the ex-emperor, in their respective memoirs, filled up the vague and almost indistinct outline.
The sum of the charge is this: While Buonaparte was First Consul, the revolutionary leaders, those especially who had voted for the death of Louis XVI., in the continual apprehension that he might restore the throne to the lawful heir, were anxious to lead him to some step which might for ever place him and the Bourbons in mortal hostility to each other. What more likely to effect such an object than the murder of a prince of that house? The Duke d'Enghien was known to be within the reach of the First Consul; and it was also known that he had long been in arms against France. Plots against the life of Buonaparte were fabricated, and the duke named as one of the chief agents. His destruction was decreed: with some difficulty an order was procured for his arrest; he was brought to Paris; and, after a mock trial, condemned and executed. Before, however, his execution took place, he penned a letter to the First Consul, in which he not only asserted his entire ignorance of the odious plots laid to his charge, but even offered to enter into the service of Buonaparte. His letter, conclude the Buonapartists, would have procured his pardon, but it was detained by Talleyrand until the writer was no more.
An obvious question will here present itself to the reader: What had Talleyrand -- he who was allowed on all hands to be unstained by revolutionary violence -- to fear from the restoration of the Bourbons? Why should he detain the letter?
But was such a letter really written? Would the prince, who on his trial exhibited all the magnanimity and chivalrous spirit of a Condé, -- who regarded dealt with indifference -- condescend to purchase life by the most extreme baseness? Would he consent to sacrifice the rights of his house, -- to be the ally of the regicides who had overturned the throne, and destroyed the liberties of his country -- of them whom on the field of battle he had often braved death to oppose? Had such a letter been really written, reason will say, Talleyrand would not have dared to detain it. He would not have taken on himself the responsibility of accounting both to his master and to Europe for the blood of the victim.
Through the cloud of mystery which covers this horrid affair, it seems, however, probable that a letter was actually addressed by the Prince to the First Consul. As the accused saw that he had no chance of a fair trial from his judges, and as a personal interview with Buonaparte was denied him, he may have made a letter the medium of his defence; he may have urged his innocence of the charges against him, and appealed -- not to the generosity, but the justice of the First Consul. If it was detained, it was detained by the same authority which peremptorily refused the interview solicited. What authority was that? Would any one beneath Buonaparte himself dare, on his own responsibility, to do either?
After all, time only can bring this deed of darkness to light. Enough has been said on the ground of reason and probability to absolve Talleyrand.
The magnificent style of living which has ever distinguished the prince is said to have greatly impaired his ample resources. The reports of his immense wealth so current in this country are wholly erroneous. According to Savary, he was so poor after his retirement from the ministry, as to be compelled to dispose of his hotel in Paris, which the emperor, commiserating his distress, was induced to purchase. The immediate cause of this distress was the loss of one hundred thousand crowns, which he had lent to a relative, and which he was unable to recover. The fact that so small a loss should so utterly derange his affairs, is a sufficient proof of his pecuniary situation, and affords the presumption, that he is not guilty of many acts of peculation laid to his charge. It is true, indeed, that he was not always very nice as to the means by which money could be acquired. That he interfered with the public funds, in an unworthy manner, is at least probable; and it is certain that, under the Directory, he participated in the shameless extortions of that government. The less powerful European states were compelled to purchase peace: a refusal would have caused them to be overrun by the French legions. Even the ambassador of the United States was requested, on the preliminaries of a treaty being settled, to make a present to the Directors and their Ministers; but he properly resented the demand, and reduced the knaves to silence.
The Princess of Benevento was never a favourite at Napoleon's court, and scarcely ever permitted to appear there. She was a woman of great beauty, but of a pitiful understanding; and the surprise was great and general that Talleyrand should have made such a choice*.
* Talleyrand had one day invited to dinner the celebrated traveller Denon. With the design of gratifying his guest, he desired his lady, who knew not the savant even by name, to converse with him about his travels. "You will find his book," said he, "on the third shelf in my library. Run it over, and you will be better able to entertain him!" The lady, anxious to please her lord, repaired to the library, but found she had forgotten the title. She opened the books in the hope of refreshing her memory, and leaped for joy when she laid her hands on Robinson Crusoe, which she had not the least doubt was the name of her husband's intended guest. She devoured some pages of the book, until she thought herself sufficiently qualified to entertain him. At the hour appointed he came, and when the dessert was brought, she was ambitious of displaying her newly-acquired knowledge. She spoke of his shipwreck on the uninhabited isle, feelingly participated in his sorrowful adventures, and ended by asking him how his man Friday was! The astonishment of the savant, and the confusion of the husband, may be partly conceived. "Madame?" "Yes, how is faithful Friday?" This was too much for Talleyrand, who immediately interposed.