Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand
Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord was one of the best-known diplomats in European history, having served the throne of France from the time of Louis XVI (the nation’s last absolute monarch) to Louis Philippe (the last king), a time that encompassed the French Revolution and Napoleon.

An aristocrat denied his inheritance because he was physically unfit for the military service traditionally taken by his family, he first sought a career in the church. Though he was ordained a priest and was later named bishop of Autun, he was not a pious man, and, in fact, was likely an atheist. His interest in the church was in its institutions and social merits, not any supernatural matters.

During the French Revolution, he helped to secularize the church and its properties in France and was excommunicated by Pope Pius VI. He personally proposed the Civil Constitution of the Clergy, which dissolved monastic orders in France, made the offices of bishop and priest elected ones, and denied any authority of the pope over French clergymen. The constitution stood from 1791 to 1795.

Talleyrand helped France avoid war with Britain during the Revolution, while cultivating friendships with Napoleon I and Lucien Bonaparte. Talleyrand participated in the coup that brought Napoleon to power and was made his foreign minister—though the two rarely agreed about foreign policy.

He rose to power quickly, becoming grand chamberlain of the empire and prince of Benevento. Once so positioned, he felt freer to distance himself from Napoleon’s policies when he disagreed with them, and he resigned his ministry in 1807 over a disagreement with Bonaparte.

In 1812 Napoleon made Talleyrand his representative in meetings with the Russian czar Alexander I—and Talleyrand responded by becoming a Russian secret agent, selling Napoleon’s secrets and reporting to Alexander in the future. Talleyrand was instrumental in restoring the Bourbons to power to succeed Napoleon and was an important negotiator in the Treaty of Paris, which helped to repair French-European relations after Napoleon’s abdication.

For most of his remaining life, Talleyrand stayed out of the limelight, offering comment more than action, and probably brokering and breaking deals behind the scenes. He remained a womanizer and gourmand throughout his life and was a good friend of Alexander Hamilton despite the latter’s reputation for decadence. His home in Paris is now the American embassy.