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Mike Duncan (00:01):
Hello, and welcome to Revolutions. Supplemental 3.21a, Talleyrand. So I was in fact able to carve out some time to produce this little gift before I officially come back next week. And while I’m here I’d also like to say that I’m glad to see everyone buying gifts for themselves at revolutionspodcastfundraiser.com. It closes up shop in just about three weeks, so now is the time to buy.
But the supplemental is also a gift to myself, because as I mentioned once upon a time, one of my favorite great men of history is the brilliant, duplicitous, farsighted, amoral, treasonous, brutally cold-hearted, seductively passionate, pragmatic, womanizing, excommunicated, atheist ex-bishop and greatest diplomat of all time, Charlie Maurice de Talleyrand, or as I know him, Talleyrand.
But tragically, though he has been around for everything that has happened so far in the French Revolution, he’s always been just off to one side, and hard to wedge directly into the story when other men around him are just a little bit more central to the narrative at any given moment. It’s been bugging me that I haven’t gotten to talk more about the man whose name has become a byword for both amoral double-dealing and unrivaled diplomatic prowess. So here today, I give you the early life and times of Talleyrand.
Talleyrand was born in Paris in 1754 into an old noble family that held a position at court. He was the oldest child of a younger son of that noble family, however, so Talleyrand’s parents weren’t themselves particularly rich or prominent.
His father was an army officer, constantly on assignment, and Talleyrand said later that he was basically raised an orphan, never having spent more than a week total under the same roof as his parents. When he was a toddler, he developed a debilitating and permanent limp in one leg that was either a birth defect or the result of an accident, the latter being Talleyrand’s own explanation. This limp precluded the military career his disappointed father had planned for him, and so Talleyrand was instead pointed towards a career in the church.
But since a priest couldn’t also serve as a proper head of a family, Talleyrand was simultaneously stripped of his inheritance rights as firstborn son, and they were bestowed upon his younger brother. The disinherited Talleyrand was then shipped off to boarding school, and then a few years later to a seminary. But though he was something of an embarrassment, his parents did still have high hopes for him. His uncle was the Archbishop of Reims, and the plan was for Talleyrand to eventually succeed to that position, which would bring a huge salary and control of church lands that would enrich his relatively impoverished nuclear family.
When he got to seminary, however, Talleyrand discovered he did not much like the church, and the church did not much like him. He was a precocious reader and freethinker who took one look at the superstitious dogmatism of Catholicism and decided it was all a bunch of laughable nonsense. Then when he became a teenager, he became, well, a teenager. He liked having a good time, he liked staying out late, and then he discovered girls.
At the age of 21, Talleyrand was freed from the confines of the seminary and sent to finish his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he either blossomed further or rotted further, depending on who you talk to. He embraced the freedom and delights of Paris, made fast friends with other carefree young nobles, and then added the final piece to his disreputable puzzle when he discovered cards, at which he immediately became an obsessive shark.
In many ways, Talleyrand is the perfect example of everything pious Catholics complained about in the church of the Ancien Régime. Here was this gambling young noble who liked to drink wine all night, cavort with mistresses, and make an open secret of his atheism. And not only did he not get kicked out of the church, he was rapidly promoted because of family connections at court. He was indeed given positions within the church bureaucracy and enjoyed the salaries they provided before he was even ordained as a priest. After he finally was ordained at the age of 25, Talleyrand was appointed an agent general of the church, traditionally considered a cushy job that required little work in exchange for a fat salary. But once he was appointed agent general, the other side of Talleyrand emerged, because he was not in fact some shiftless, good-for-nothing leech on society. Talleyrand was bursting with energy, full of ideas, and he had a passion for good, hard, intellectually stimulating work.
As agent general, he found himself overseeing church property and immediately put what he controlled to more efficient and profitable use than his less enthusiastic predecessors had managed.
He also undertook a huge inspection tour of northwest France that led him to write up an unexpectedly impressive report that recommended a huge list of practical reforms, though not all of them were embraced. When Talleyrand, for example, discovered that wives of fishermen lost at sea were trapped in a terrible legal limbo that did not allow them to be considered widows and thus eligible for remarriage, the enlightened pragmatist Talleyrand recommended that if a number of years passed, you know, let’s let him move on.
But the church council he recommended this to was appalled by his lack of respect for the spiritual bonds of marriage and did not take Talleyrand’s advice. The fishermen’s wives remained trapped in limbo. But this hard-working reformist Talleyrand never got in the way of entertaining man-about-town Talleyrand, and through the 1780s he made quite a name for himself in the Paris salons for many fine, but other not-so-fine reasons. He was acknowledged one of the finest conversationalists of the day and an intellectual force to be reckoned with, but also one of the most amoral cadres in Paris who didn’t seem to care about the scandals he always left in his wake.
But in spite of his immorality, he expected to soon be appointed to high ecclesiastic office, and while he waited he struck up a mutually admiring rapport with Controller General Calhoun, and in February 1787 Calhoun invited Talleyrand to join the secret little working group that was cobbling together the reform package that Calhoun was about to present to the First Assembly of Notables, and this all happened back in episode 3.5.
But when Talleyrand showed up to take on his assignment he was shocked to discover how disorganized and last-minute Calhoun’s preparations seemed to be, and as you’ll recall the Assembly of Notables took the same view, using the haphazard nature of Calhoun’s package as an excuse to go through it line by line and object to practically everything. As the Assembly of Notables gave way to the Estates General, Talleyrand gravitated naturally into Adrien Dupour’s liberal-noble society of thirty. At the same time he found himself finally appointed to high ecclesiastic office when King Louis made him Bishop of Houton in late 1788, mostly as a favour to Talleyrand’s dying father.
Talleyrand had of course never been to Houton in his life, and would in fact only go there once as their bishop. That was in April 1789 when he wanted the local clerics to elect him as their representative to the Estates General. When he arrived in Houton he did his best to talk the clerical talk and he managed to get himself elected as a first estate delegate from Houton, which speaks volumes for his ability to talk his way into just about anything. Because election secured, Talleyrand then ducked out of town before Easter so he wouldn’t have to lead mass, which, despite being a bishop, he had no idea how to do.
In the early days of the Estates General, Talleyrand was of course in the liberal-noble minority of the first estate, but he prudently remained one step behind the rush of events. He was not among the first clerical deputies to defect over to the third estate, and only took his seat in the National Assembly after the botched royal session in June 1789. In typical Talleyrand fashion, he said of his decision to take a seat in the National Assembly, there remained only one rational course of action, to yield freely before being compelled and while one could still earn favor from doing so.
Good advice for all of you aspiring, cynical survivors out there. But despite all of his enlightened rationalism and embrace of reform, Talleyrand was not a revolutionary. A revolution is way too messy and unpredictable. So when the crisis of July 1789 hit and the Bastille fell, he had a secret meeting in the palace in the middle of the night with the Comte d’Artois. Talleyrand told d’Artois that if he wanted to save the monarchy, the only course of action would be to violently suppress the insurrection in Paris and then break up the National Assembly by force.
Anything less than that would be the end of the Bourbon dynasty. d’Artois took this advice to Louis, but Louis refused to take such tyrannical measures, and d’Artois decided to emigrate from France the next morning. He and Talleyrand would not meet again for twenty-five years when the memory of that midnight conversation secured Talleyrand an influential position in the soon-to-be restored Bourbon dynasty.
More good advice for you aspiring, cynical survivors out there. Plant all the seeds you can. You never know which one might grow a life-saving vine for you down the road. Back in his daytime role as liberal noble bishop in the National Assembly, Talleyrand was appointed to a position on the all-important constitutional committee. For the moment, that committee was dominated by Meunier, who Talleyrand was happy to work alongside, but certainly not follow out the door when Meunier resigned the committee after his proposals for a two-house legislature and absolute veto for the king failed. That was all in episode 3.13.
Talleyrand would in fact stay on the constitutional committee for the rest of the National Assembly’s existence, though he was never its driving force. Politically, he liked to stay one step behind so he could avoid pitfalls that often consumed those in the vanguard. But that said, on matters of religion, the non-believing Talleyrand was actually further out in front than almost anyone. On October 10, 1789, he was the first to propose the nationalization of church property as a solution to the debt crisis in episode 3.15.
Talleyrand was intimately familiar with the church’s portfolio and believed two-thirds of its vast holdings would be more than enough to support a Reformed church. The rest could be used as collateral to secure necessary bridge loans to see the kingdom through these tight times. These forward ideas led him to become an early member of the Jacobin Club, but he soon drifted over to the far less rabble-filled Society of 1789, where men of standing and education could converse comfortably without being heckled by belligerent fishmongers.
He then stayed out in front on religious matters, backed the new civil constitution of the clergy, and then wound up being one of only two bishops to take the first civic oath. His quote-unquote constituency, back-quote-unquote home in Utan, then declared him a backstabbing Judas, so Talleyrand simply resigned the bishopric, which he reckoned was about to be legally abolished anyway. But his fellow delegates in the National Assembly probably wished he hadn’t defrocked himself quite so quickly. The newly elected constitutional bishops would need to be ordained by an existing bishop to secure the legitimizing link of apostolic succession.
But no Ancien Regime bishop would ordain the sacrilegious new constitutional bishops. So in March 1790, Talleyrand agreed to ordain the first group of three new bishops so they could go ordain the rest, everyone overlooking the inconvenient fact that Talleyrand had already resigned his own bishopric. This is right about the time he gets excommunicated by the pope, an excommunication Talleyrand celebrated with a party of cold meat and iced wine, because all good Christians were now supposed to deny him fire and water.
In the daily grind of the National Assembly, Talleyrand spent most of his time enmeshed in securing the financial health of the kingdom, and he was no fan of the drive to rest the new order on the shoulders of the Asignon, the revolution’s paper money that Talleyrand correctly predicted would soon create a destructive whirlwind of inflation.
But when he wasn’t buried in ledgers, he focused his energy on a great passion project, the total reinvention of French public education. Free and compulsory education was his goal, and his resulting report on public education laid out a remarkably modern program, but unfortunately that program would be buried in the chaos of the coming, well, chaos. In July 1790, the revolutionary leadership was again having a hard time getting a respectable bishop to bless their work.
Specifically, no one would preside over the great feast of the Federation, celebrating the anniversary of the fall of the Bastille. So the self-defrocked Talleyrand was tapped again, and over his own doubts that he could even run the ceremony properly, he put on the heavy robes and did his best to muddle through his part of the theatrics, all of which I described in episode 3.16. There is an apocryphal little story that goes along with that, though, that when he administered the great patriotic oath to Lafayette at the climax of the celebration, that Talleyrand said, quote, Don’t make me laugh.
Which is interpreted either to be a dig at the ambitious Lafayette’s allegedly high-minded and self-effacing patriotism, as in, you know, don’t make me laugh, or as a genuine request that Lafayette please not make Talleyrand laugh, because Talleyrand was trying to get through this absurd ceremony with a straight face. He spent the rest of the National Assembly’s life diligently working on constitutional business alongside the triumvirate of Lemaître, Barnabé, and his old intellectual acquaintance Dupour, the triumvirate who now controlled the Constitutional Committee.
Talleyrand had for a while been angling for a position in the Royal Ministry, but he had to give that up when the National Assembly barred its members from serving in dual roles. He also would have maybe tried for a seat in the coming Legislative Assembly, had he not been barred along with the rest of his colleagues from seeking election. So when the National Assembly dispersed in September 1791, Talleyrand found himself out of power and out of a job.
But soon enough, his friend from the good old carousing days in Paris, the Comte de Narbonne, was appointed Minister of War, and Narbonne tapped Talleyrand in early 1792 to go to London and act as an unofficial agent of the revolutionary government. So that more or less catches us up to where we left off in the main narrative. But just to wrap up this phase of Talleyrand’s life, I’ll give you the details of the inauspicious launch to his otherwise magnificent diplomatic career.
Apart from serving officially as an ambassador, he was sent unofficially to London to secure British neutrality when France and Austria inevitably declared war come the spring of 1792. Talleyrand was eager to take the job, as he was a great believer that a commercial and military alliance between Great Britain and France would be beneficial to both countries.
But this first diplomatic adventure turned out to be a personal failure, though technically a public success. He was received badly by the Ministry of William Pitt the Younger, and even worse by King George III and his wife Queen Charlotte, who literally turned her back on this atheist ex-bishop who all reputable gossip had it as lacking any morals whatsoever. But luckily for Talleyrand, Prime Minister Pitt had already decided to stay out of the coming Franco-Austrian war. So as badly as Talleyrand was treated, he got what he was sent to get — British neutrality.
Once the war between Austria and France did break out in April 1792, and we’ll get into all that next week, Talleyrand will be sent back to London to make sure the British stay neutral. And repeating his experience, he’ll once again be treated shabbily by the British, but with Pitt still set on British neutrality in the Continental War, Talleyrand will technically succeed in his mission.
So we’ll leave him there for now, ready to come back to Paris in the early summer of 1792. Talleyrand is about to disappear completely from the scene, as the coming Republican insurrection of August the 10th 1792 will force him into a hasty emigration back to England, where he will stay for two years until being booted from the country by Pitt’s order of expulsion in 1794. Finding no safe haven in Europe, he will actually wind up living in Philadelphia for two years, where among other things he’ll make friends with Alexander Hamilton.
He’ll finally return to our main stage in 1797. After being allowed to return to France, he will be appointed Foreign Minister of the Directory, the regime that will rule the country after the fall of Robespierre. As we will see, Talleyrand will faithfully serve the Directory outwardly, but inwardly, he will recognize about two days into the gig that the Directory is fatally flawed and destined to fail.
So Talleyrand will spend his idle moments keeping tabs on men who might help him topple the Directory, and give France a government it could be proud of. And it wasn’t long before he noticed, and then started up an admiring correspondence with a young general from Corsica who was having remarkable success in Italy, Napoleon Bonaparte.
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