Charles Maurice de Talleyrand Périgord, ‘The Prince of Diplomats’

by | 25 Jun 2012 | Leaders from History

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand Périgord, known to history (thankfully) as ‘Talleyrand’, is the towering figure of late-eighteenth century diplomacy. A man who forged alliances with nation states in the attempt to prevent wars or to influence their outcome, and who negotiated armistice conditions with emperors in their aftermath. A man who rose at eleven in the morning and conducted summit-level negotiations in his chambers during the elaborate ritual of his morning dressing – negotiations that continued over luncheons and suppers, in salons and ballrooms and over card tables at the close of the day. A man of little apparent faith who became a bishop; an aristocrat who helped to compose the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the philosophical cornerstone of the French Revolution, and who proposed the effective nationalisation of the French Church (and was excommunicated by Pope Pius VI for his efforts; resigning his bishopric and taking the opportunity to get married). A member of the ancien régime who had the good sense to leave France for America in order to avoid the guillotine and who returned to a position of great influence when the Jacobin terror was ended. Club-footed yet irresistible to women; principled, yet dedicated to acquiring sufficient funds from his diplomatic efforts to finance the elaborate infrastructure of grand houses, great chefs and large permanent staffs that sustained the whole business of being Talleyrand. There was, and will surely only ever be, one Talleyrand.

Talleyrand and Napoleon

Talleyrand had spotted the talented young general, Napoleon Bonaparte, and assisted his rise to power. Napoleon was the strong man who was needed to defend the revolutionary French Republic against the alarmed monarchies of Europe and to retain for its citizens the benefits of the radical restructuring of French society: the sweeping away of the old feudal aristocratic system and the entrenched powers of the church; the substantial redistribution of land, money and influence.

Napoleon enshrined these gains in a new code of civil laws – the Napoleonic Code; one of the defining documents of the modern world, which helped to establish the principle of the rule the law. The two men became firm friends and allies, talking late into the night, inventing a new world order. But Talleyrand, though worldly and arguably corrupt, was also grounded and realistic. He believed passionately in the ever-shifting balance of power between nation states and of the need for diplomacy to maintain that balance. As Napoleon became increasingly megalomaniac – imposing harsh terms on defeated nations; seeking only to command and not to collaborate; embarking on expansionist invasions – so he began to lose the support of his most gifted advisor.

Talleyrand resigned from his role as Foreign Minister, and began to sell his services to other European nations, taking money from Austria and Russia, amongst others. Even in this, Talleyrand may have had the best interests of France in mind (though he would fully expect to enrich himself in the process of protecting France’s interests).

The Congress of Vienna

Talleyrand maintained his contacts with the exiled Bourbon King Louis XVIII. When Napoleon was exiled to Elba, Talleyrand facilitated the restoration of the monarchy while resisting some of its constitutional aims in order to preserve the legacy of the revolution. At the Congress of Vienna, at which the victorious Allies planned to push France back into a secondary role in Europe, Talleyrand inveigled his way to the negotiating table and began to unravel the Allied position.‘What could this very word ‘Allies’ mean, when the alliance had existed only to defeat Napoleon, who was now in exile? Had the Allies not fought to reinstate Louis XVIII, and was Talleyrand not his representative?’

Talleyrand not only secured remarkably good terms for defeated France (reinstating her borders as of 1792), at which point Napoleon had re-established France’s ‘natural’ borders of the Rhine, Alps and Pyrenees) but also brokered a secret and effectively subversive deal between Great Britain, France and Austria, ensuring that each would come to the other’s aid in the event of an attack from Prussia or Russia.

Talleyrand had successfully played the smaller nations off against the greater, exploiting the fears of Spain, Portugal and the German states about the Allies’ intentions at Vienna, and exposed the fears at the heart of the alliance about each other’s future intentions. Napoleon’s return from Elba undid some of Talleyrand’s good work for France, and the final Act of the Congress imposed harsher terms on France, pushing her back to the pre-revolutionary frontiers of 1789. After the Congress, Talleyrand retired to a life as elder statesman, and was Ambassador to Great Britain from 1830-1834 under King Louis-Philippe.

Talleyrand quotations

On statesmanship

“The art of statesmanship is to foresee the inevitable and to expedite its occurrence.”

“Mistrust first impulses, they are nearly always good.”

“War is much too serious a thing to be left to military men.”

“Speech was given to a man to disguise his thoughts.”

“Treason is a matter of dates.”

On society

“She is such a good friend that she would throw all of her acquaintances into the water for the pleasure of fishing them out again”

“Show me another pleasure like dinner, which comes every day and last an hour.”

“To succeed in the world, it is much more necessary to possess the penetration to discern who is a fool than to discover who is a clever man.”

On leadership

“I am more afraid of an army of 100 sheep led by a lion than of 100 lions led by a sheep.”

On politics

“Without freedom of the press, there can be no representative government.”

Of Napoleon’s decision to kidnap from Germany and execute the Duke D’Enghien, a member of the House of Bourbon, on suspicion of involvement in an attempt to assassinate Napoleon – an act that freshly incensed every European monarchy, Talleyrand said,

“It was worse than crime, it was a mistake.”


Talleyrand is featured in Section 5 of 
>History Lessons
: Bringing People with You

Share this article on social channels: