Front Page Titles (by Subject) XIII: TALLEYRAND'S MEMOIRS - Historical Essays and Studies
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XIII: TALLEYRAND’S MEMOIRS - John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton, Historical Essays and Studies 
Historical Essays and Studies, by John Emerich Edward Dalberg-Acton, edited by John Neville Figgis and Reginald Vere Laurence (London: Macmillan, 1907).
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The reality of History is so unlike the report that we continue, in spite of much disappointment, to look for revelations as often as an important personage leaves us his reminiscences. The famous book which has been so eagerly expected and so long withheld will not satisfy those who, like the first Queen of Prussia, demand to know le pourquoy du pourquoy. The most experienced and sagacious of men discourses about certain selected events that concerned him, and passes sentence on two generations of contemporaries; but he betrays few secrets and prepares no surprises. Nothing could increase the lustre of the talents which he is known—by the malevolent testimony of Vitrolles—to have displayed at the first restoration, or which are proved by his own correspondence from Vienna. But we are made to know him better; and all that he says and much that he conceals brings into vivid light one of the wonders of modern politics.
Three months after the fall of Napoleon, Talleyrand went out of office, opposed by Russia, disliked by the King, hated by the triumphant Royalists. Under that constellation, mainly in the year 1816, he wrote these Memoirs. The undercurrent of motive is to explain, or to explain away, the earlier part of his career; to expose his incomparable services to the crown, the country, and the dominant party; to show that nothing in the various past disqualifies him for the first place in the councils of the monarchy he had restored. It is not the plea of a vulgar competitor; for, with all his sleepless ambition, he writes with studied moderation and reserve. He has not the tone of a man contemplating from aloft his own achievements, his immense renown, his assured place in the central history of the world. Talleyrand is dissatisfied, satirical, and almost always bitter in his judgment of men. The better to dissociate himself from evil communications, he interpolates a laboured attack on the Duke of Orleans, which would be a blot on the composition but for the redeeming paragraph on Sieyès, the best of all the characters he has drawn. He slurs over his own share in the work of the National Assembly, justifies his attitude under Napoleon by the pressing need for monarchy, and by his breach with him on the affairs of Spain, and puts himself straight with the Church by a detailed narrative of the disputes with Rome.
He was reputed too idle a man to be a good writer, and it was supposed that Des Renaudes held the pen for him at one time and La Besnardière at another. Chateaubriand, who devoted his most tremendous sentences to the business of denouncing him as a traitor in politics and religion, and who insisted that the last action of his life was a deceitful comedy, quotes a letter to himself as evidence that Talleyrand was deficient in ideas, and wrote an unsubstantial style. These volumes are composed with much art, and, in the passage which is an express vindication, with uncommon power. Sometimes the author shows that he is accustomed to careless converse with inferior minds. He has more good sense than originality, and few gleams of unexpected light, like his friend Hamilton, or his master Machiavelli.
Although Talleyrand was in the habit of showing portions of the Memoirs to many persons in his time, his literary executor, Bacourt, determined that they should not be published until the year 1888. At that time they were the property of M. Andral, who would have liked to protract the suppression. This excessive caution has not been explained. Andral, the grandson of Royer-Collard, who presided over the Council of State under MacMahon, and, in the struggle for class government, was once thought of as the head of an extra-parliamentary Ministry on the American model, was much consulted as a shrewd adviser, steeped in the knowledge of public and private affairs. The business of the day left him without time or care for remoter things, and he lightly eluded inquiry into his precious deposit. He communicated the manuscript to the Count of Paris, though he refused it to his friend Thiers; and he died, bequeathing it to the distinguished writer, who is at the same time a party leader and the bearer of an historic name.
Talleyrand is not favourable to men in authority, or to precepts of attachment and respect. His Memoirs forcibly proclaim that there is no such thing in reason as personal loyalty to a party or a man; that whoever serves one order of things, does well to be preparing for the next; that it is the note of a strong man to employ principles, and of a weak man to obey them. They are especially injurious to the house of Orleans; and a passage relating to Philippe Egalité is the one portion of the manuscript which has been allowed to disappear. This hiatus of several sheets raises the question of the second copy. The Duke de Broglie publishes the final and authentic text; but an earlier transcript exists, and bears marks of having been retouched by the author himself. For appreciable reasons, its possessor has never chosen, hitherto, to make any use of it; but it will now be known whether it completes the published text and throws light on the successive growth of the Memoirs. Two or three passages are evidently later insertions; some were written earlier; and it will be interesting to inquire whether the Spanish and the Roman chapters are entirely the work of Talleyrand himself. One of them is hardly in keeping with the usually secular turn of his mind, and both are out of perspective.
French critics will easily detect inaccuracies, besides those which the editor has pointed out and corrected. It is not true that the Austrians were defeated in Germany in 1796; Carnot never was at Cayenne; Oudinot was not a marshal in 1808. In one of his letters, Talleyrand showed how little he knew about English politics, when he says that the Whigs were seldom in power for more than a short time since 1688. Slips of memory and involuntary mistakes will not discredit the Memoirs. The omissions are more suspicious and indicate design. The remark that Marengo almost made Hohenlinden superfluous, curiously ignores the treaty with St. Julien, one of the less creditable transactions in the life of the French negotiator. But it would be unjust to insist on things untold; for if the author, sweeping a vast horizon, passes discreetly over treacherous places, he has not sought opportunities for vainglory, and is too well bred to record the scenes which exhibit his promptness in emergencies and the ease with which he disconcerted opponents. He describes neither the deliberations of the provisional government nor the arts of management by which a senate peopled with regicides was brought to declare for the Bourbons. He does even less than justice to himself when he relates that Napoleon, refusing to preserve his crown by reducing the territory, said, “Find other masters—je suis trop grand pour vous.” This saying, made known last year, and bearing the mark of the lion’s claw, proved that the mysterious duplicate is authentic. What Talleyrand does not say is that Napoleon, after these heroic words, assented at last to the conditions offered at Châtillon; and that he himself, in May, signed peace on more favourable terms. Instances of this kind are so many, that the Duke de Broglie esteems that the work he has published was not designed for an apology.
He complains that Madame de Staël is not mentioned among those who procured the author’s recall from proscription. But Talleyrand acknowledges that he owed to her his introduction to Barras, and his first appointment to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He affirms that he, for his own part, would have preferred to stand aloof, and that he yielded reluctantly to her influence. He allows full credit to her initiative in a step which was to lead so far. The story has been told in another shape. Talleyrand, it is said, declared to Madame de Staël that his money was exhausted, and that he would have to blow out his brains if, in a month, she could not find him a way to supplies. This is the version of Barante, the least inventive of men, who knew them both well, who had seen the Memoirs, and who goes on to describe the meeting with the director and the scene at Suresnes, as they do. If the well-informed and disinterested historian deserves credit, the Memoirs must be discarded as a concatenation of insincerity. But he is not a sufficient witness to carry such a verdict. For he says that the friends soon afterwards quarrelled, that Talleyrand never ceased to detest the woman to whom he owed so much, and that she, in her anger, never again dreamed of a reconciliation. Nevertheless, in February 1809, she entreated his intervention with the Emperor, in terms which would have been barely dignified in any circumstances, and are incompatible with unforgiveness. The breach on her side cannot have been as incurable as Barante has described it. Yet the occasion was one which might have justified strong feelings.
The American envoys made it known that they had been invited to bestow a present of money on the French minister, and Talleyrand had laughed at the idea of being challenged to repel the accusation. The reproach of official corruption is, perhaps, the most difficult to meet of all those that he incurred. Count Senfft, who, when I knew him, was an inmate of the Jesuits’ College at Innsbruck, but who had been Talleyrand’s warm admirer and friend as early as 1806, relates that he caused a sum of four millions of florins to be returned to the Poles, when he found that he was unable to serve their cause; but that he accepted gifts of money from the German princes, whose interest he promoted, including one payment of forty thousand pounds from the King of Saxony. Senfft himself was Saxon Minister, and as such in the secrets both of Dresden and Warsaw. Bacourt, who has been careful to ascertain that Metternich and Nesselrode received no millions from France, says nothing in exoneration of his chief and patron. The next volume, which will contain Talleyrand’s account of the execution of Enghien, may possibly give some reply to this more formidable imputation. In one of his earliest despatches he censures the venality of Thugut; but his papers, so far as we have them, say nothing of his own. It might be urged that what he did was not really done in secret, that the reconstruction of the European ruin after the revolutionary war, during the confederation of the Rhine and at the Congress of Vienna, afforded opportunities so exceptional that they amount to excuses; that Napoleon, who allowed his brother to bring back bags of diamonds from Madrid, admitted the practice of diplomatic douceurs, and distributed enormous sums in that way. Enemies of the United States used to affirm that the Ashburton treaty was carried by a method which may be traced in the books of Barings.
Talleyrand gives himself all the advantage to be got by depreciating others. He speaks warmly of Hamilton, and respectfully of Lansdowne and Fox in England, of Mollien and Caulaincourt in France; and he is above the vulgar and inefficacious error of reviling enemies. Friends enjoy no immunity from his satiric temper; and he is severe towards his tutor, Langfois, his secretary, Des Renaudes, and his intimate associate, Narbonne. He says that the choice of Necker was the worst the King could have made; Lafayette is beneath the level of mediocrity; Breteuil is fit for the second place anywhere; Sieyès would not be a rogue if he was not a coward; the hands of Carnot are dripping with blood; Fesch is a corsair disguised as a cardinal; Joseph and Jerome are inglorious libertines; the most prosperous of the marshals, Suchet, is quelque peu bel esprit; his own successor, Champagny, begins every day trying to repair his blunders of the day before; Humboldt is a bore; Metternich is tortuous and second-rate; Wellington has no head for principles; Castlereagh strains the Englishman’s prerogative of ignorance.
Most historical characters will probably suffer if we try them fairly by a fixed standard; but Talleyrand displays no such thing as a standard of public or private morality. He tells how, greatly to his honour, he remonstrated with the Emperor upon his Spanish policy, saying that much evil-doing may be condoned, but that a mere cheat becomes contemptible. He was ready to make sacrifices to his sense, not of duty, but of propriety. The thing that shocks him is the indignity offered to the royal family, not the wrong done to the Spanish nation, for he himself had proposed that France should annex Catalonia. This passage, jointly with one or two others, gives the measure of his notion of right and wrong. He relates that, as a student at the seminary, he was silent, resentful, and morose, and was rescued from this unhealthy condition by an actress, whom he met under an umbrella, and with whom he lived for two years. He confesses that she was stupid; but he adds, with unmixed complacency, that the improvement of his manners and disposition was very much her work, and that the authorities had learned not to interfere with a youth of good family, predestined to become a Minister of State, a cardinal, perhaps even the dispenser of Crown patronage. To write like this in Memoirs addressed to the society of the Restoration shows more than a flaw in his knowledge of good and evil. Elsewhere he tells how a lady, whose intimacy with himself had not been free from scandal, requested him to stay away from the place where she was residing, as his presence might hinder her intended marriage. He publishes her name, and adds that the marriage came off without impediment, although there were others about who might have been as much in the way as himself. Here it must be admitted that the great master of ceremonial and the social art touches low-water mark, and we learn to suspect that a low moral vitality had as much to do with the stains on his life as violent passions or extreme temptation.
Talleyrand means it to be understood that, in all his versatile career, he was not the mere servant of opportunity, but that he was a man steering by fixed stars, applying principles to policy, occupied and possessed by certain general ideas superior to time and place. Many volumes of his letters produced in the last ten years show what truth there is in this thesis of the Memoirs. They show that Talleyrand accepted the essential philosophy of Liberalism, construed from Montesquieu and Turgot, Smith and Bentham. In 1786 he defends the Commerical Treaty as a policy based on the true natural laws that will put an end to the rivalry of nations. He believes, even then, that France and England ought to be inseparable in the cause of reason and justice against the world of divine right. A little later he declares that the traditional alliances terminate with the traditional monarchy; and anticipating in 1792 the language of James Mill, argues that arbitrary governments labour for their own good, and free governments for the good of mankind. At a time when it was said that there were only two tolerant prelates in the Church of France, he was one of them. If it cost a sceptic no meritorious effort to emancipate the Jews, the ex-Bishop of Autun attested his sincerity in an hour of passion and peril, by insisting that the State has no authority over the conscience of citizen or monarch, and that the priest who refused the oath must be protected against the popular rage. He deems it the interest and the duty of France to rest content within her own wide borders, and to respect the integrity and independence of other countries by the same law as her own. He pleads for non-intervention in 1792, and still more in 1798, as plainly as in 1830. He acknowledged more and more that every people has the right to shape its own government, and maintained that France would have done well to create a united Italy, an independent Poland. As an avowed convert to the doctrine of Nationality and Revolution, he doubted the supreme masterpiece of political conpromise and half measures, the Orleanist monarchy, and exhorted Lamartine to reserve his genius for a worthier cause than the support of a baseless throne. At the height of authority and fame he defies the wrath of his Government, and compels Louis Philippe to refuse for his son the proffered crown of Belgium.
When we touch the hard formation and come to the convictions he expressed when circumstances did not sway him, and his language was apart from his interest, this is what we find. His Memoirs, letters, and State papers contain a buried picture not unlike the familiar one on the surface of history. The old lines are not effaced. We have not got to expunge from memory the unscrupulous priest, the money-getting Sybarite, the patient auxiliary of the conqueror and the tyrant, the Royalist who defended the tenth of August, the Republican minister who brought on the Empire, the imperial dignitary who restored the Bourbons, the apostle of legitimacy who hailed its fall. The Talleyrand of manifold tradition remains, and he remains a more valuable study than the most consistent doctrinaire.
But the doctrine is there as well as the policy, and the contrast gives an import to his life beyond any measure of practical success. It was characteristic of his public conduct repeatedly to undo his own work, and the problem is to find any constant motive under the glaring outer inconsistencies. Principles, in his easy philosophy, depended a good deal upon circumstances for their available use; and his saying that non-intervention is a term that means about the same thing as intervention, was more than a jest. Accustomed to hold dogmas loosely and conditionally, even in the science of which he was master, he described his own principle of legitimacy as nothing more than a supreme expedient. He gives the keynote at once by declaring that he will not call his Memoirs “My view of the events of my time,” because that would be too positive a title for the work of a man qui a autant que moi douté dans sa vie. He understands the economists and believes in their doctrines, but he confesses that, having found human nature a poor material to carry them out with, he cheerfully ceased to care about them. Wessenberg records that he heard him say, “Le seul bon principe est de n’en avoir aucun.” The interior Talleyrand is a man with a nucleus of distinct opinions, which have not enough sanctity, or even certainty, to be worth the waste of an existence. He knows his shortcomings, his failures, his mistakes, but he assigns most of the blame to others. He brings an indictment against the many resisting and disturbing influences under which he strayed; and the times he lived in, like nothing else in history, have to answer for much deviation. The first enemy was his father.
The accident that lamed him robbed him both of his birthright and of his home. During boyhood he never spent a week in the house of his parents. They not only showed him no affection, but gave him no encouragement, lest success should awaken importunate hopes and claims. They did not even inform him that the meaning of all this coldness, humiliation, and neglect was that he had been dedicated to the service of God. At last he was sent to Rheims, to his uncle the coadjutor, that he might be made aware of the sweets of episcopal life; and he went through his course at St. Sulpice and the Sorbonne. He never had the choice of an alternative or the opportunity of escape. His father would give him no other provision, and the cost of his education was paid out of his first benefice. The family insisted absolutely on putting him into the Church; and the Church received him as he was, without moral fitness, and apparently without religious faith. He was not more unworthy than others of the French clergy in his time, and he was far the ablest. His narrative, with measured but repeated touches, produces an impression stronger than his words. It is not he that sinned, but his parents. If, by taking orders without vocation he became a sacrilegious priest, destined in his long life never to know the security of a tranquil conscience, the crime was theirs. In this man, yet more than in Mirabeau, the ancient order of society, operating in conformity with accepted usage, prepared its doom.
When he last appeared before the world, mindful of his early training, he said that theology imparts certain qualities to the mind—une force et en même temps une souplesse de raisonnement—conducive to political excellence. He names the example of Lionne, who, having been educated for the Church, became the chief organiser in France of that diplomatic subtlety and finesse which Richelieu and the Père Joseph developed between them. He had in mind that which divines learn on the benches of the schools, the extreme subdivision of thought, the habit of threshing out all the contents of a proposition, the dialectics verging on hair-splitting and sophistry, inherited from long ages that were undeterred by observation; not the advantages of a system with imposing traditions, fixed maxims, and a constant policy, whose agents are never taken by surprise and know the uses of time. He was thinking of the priesthood negotiating more than governing. He had seen in his own vicinity, in his own person, things more memorable than the diplomatic art of Cardinal du Bellay and Cardinal de Bernis. The Revolution had been started by one priest; the Republic had been proposed by another. Three out of eight in the Constitutional Committee were ecclesiastics. The Constitution of the year III., as well as that of the year VIII., were chiefly devised by divines. The four ministers who, at the Restoration, inaugurated parliamentary government belonged to the clergy.
His own studies were principally profane. The first book he mentions is the Memoirs of Cardinal de Retz, a man often compared to him in point of character and ability. He tells us that he read political writers and historians; but when he puts Polignac next to d’Ossat among negotiators, he betrays the limits of his knowledge in that sort of literature. He had read Montesquieu, and, like all the best minds of that age, he was influenced by the Esprit des Lois. He pays Machiavelli the tribute of intelligent imitation, and fortifies his legitimacy by the authority of a grim passage from The Prince. He collected a choice library; but he was too much a man of the world to resign himself to study and the dominion of silent masters. Books, he says, have enlightened him; he has never allowed them to govern him. He describes how much he owed to conversation in chosen society and how he picked the brains of specialists.
In old age Talleyrand used to say that life had never had so much to recommend it as at Paris in his youth. In the Memoirs he speaks of a diminution of refinement and a falling-off from what had been before the approach of revolution. He regards himself as belonging to a higher and earlier epoch of good manners, and describes as bearing an inferior stamp men who were the guide of contemporaries and their mould of form. Choiseul, the man he liked best, gesticulates too much, and has a cold heart. Narbonne’s cleverness is all for show, and is exhausted by a joke; his spirits are higher than good taste allows, his familiar grace makes him friends, especially among rather vulgar men. Il a une politesse sans nuances. Nevertheless, they were all such good friends that their intimacy, in the course of five years, was never disturbed by tittle-tattle or misunderstanding. He attributes his own reputation for wit a good deal to the power of holding his tongue. He explains what he considers that the best conversation should be, by the example of his mother, whose charm consisted in pleasing and passing on, without saying a word that could strike or remain. Elle ne parlait que par nuances; jamais elle n’a dit un bon mot: c’était quelque chose de trop exprimé. Much of the thought, the talent, the discipline, the exertion which goes, with other men, to the conduct of affairs, the making of speeches, the writing of books, was concentrated, by him, on the business of pleasant intercourse. His perfect mastery of so much that makes mere society enjoyable, acquired among men who had beheld the evening rays of Louis the Fourteenth, became one of the elements of his superiority; and he spoke with meaning when, after an outbreak of Napoleon’s fury, he said that it was a pity so great a man had been so ill brought up. An ambassador described him in 1814 as one “qui posséda si éminemment l’art de la société, et qui en a si souvent usé avec succès, tantôt pour en imposer à ceux qu’on voulait détruire, en leur faisant perdre contenance, tantôt pour attirer à lui ceux dont on voulait se servir.” The prestige of his grand manner, of his lofty distinction was a weapon both for attack and defence. The Emperor himself recognised the political force residing in the region where his aristocratic minister was supreme, when a report from Madame de Genlis on the conversations of the Faubourg St. Germain, which Talleyrand read to him, put him beside himself with anger, on the evening of Austerlitz.
The young Abbé de Perigord was so obviously marked out for promotion that he was made agent-general of the clergy before he was ordained. In that capacity he relates that he endeavoured to be more than a man of his cloth, and attempted measures of general use. He generally failed; and he professes to have failed because of that common vice of inexperienced men, too much idealism, and an artless belief in human nature. He was so conspicuous that he was spoken of for the Archbishopric of Bourges, and looked forward to a position which would have given scope to his talents as an administrator. The Pope, urged by Gustavus the Third, who came to Rome in 1784, consented to make him a cardinal. But Perigord, being connected with the Rohans, shared the disgrace which the Diamond Necklace brought upon them; and the Queen, through Count Mercy, who calls him a scoundrel, prevented the appointment. Louis the Sixteenth hesitated for months before nominating him to the See of Autun, which happened just before the meeting of the States-General.
Talleyrand appeared at Versailles with the reputation of a man of business, expert in money-matters. By his management of the affairs of the clergy and his association with Calonne, he was better known by his head for figures than as a master of ecclesiastical policy. Mirabeau, with whom he had had a serious quarrel, meant to offer him the department of Finance. At that time he is described as a man without enthusiasm or illusions, pliant, patient, and calm, sure of rising to the greatest elevation. He was no orator, and obtained no popular ascendency. In his address to his clergy, he demanded the Habeas Corpus, trial by jury, free trade, a free press, and the codification of the law. But he thought it madness to double the Third Estate, and wished that the King would dissolve the Assembly and summon another on different lines, with a definite plan of action, which Talleyrand had prepared. He took the lead in discarding instructions and the division of the orders; but, after the fall of the Bastille, he, with his friends, called on Louis the Sixteenth to adopt their policy. At midnight, on the 16th of July, he roused the Count of Artois, explained to him during two hours what would happen if the unresisted Assembly was allowed to send France down the entire cataract of deductive logic, and made him get out of bed and carry the ultimatum to the King. Louis, judging that this was a bid for office by a man who had given no extraordinary proof of capacity, and who in public had taken the opposite line of submission to the majority, rejected the warning, and the Count came back, protesting that the game was lost and that he would be off for the frontier in the morning. Talleyrand vainly dissuaded him from emigrating. At last he said, “Then, sir, as the King and the princes abandon the monarchy, nothing remains for us but to shift for ourselves.” Twenty-five years later when, as head of the Government, he invited the Count to return, he was able to remind him that the advice he had given at their last meeting was good.
The famous decree with which Talleyrand is identified, though it altered fundamentally the conditions of religion in France, was a financial measure, not the outcome of a scheme of Church government. At a Conference held in May, the Archbishop of Arles made, with applause, the insane proposal that they should take the opportunity to have the debt of the clergy paid by the State. It was soon apparent that the clergy would be called on to supply the deficit of the State, and after the 4th of August, and the abolition of tithes, the property of the Church could not be saved. As soon as the assembly had removed to Paris, the Bishop of Autun, quick to recognise the inevitable, moved that the nation should take over the Church property, allowing a pension exceeding by a million sterling that which is now paid, which, while reducing the income of prelates, improved the situation of the parish clergy. The effect was not what he intended, for he did not save the public credit, and he ruined the Gallican Church. The Assembly would neither leave the patronage to the executive, nor salary a body of men to be nominated by the Pope. It therefore adopted the principle of election, which was the substance of the Constitution Civile. In questions of Canon Law, ancient or modern, Talleyrand was neither competent nor interested. The scheme was not of his devising, but it was executed by his instrumentality; he consecrated the first of the new bishops. Writing amid the environments of 1816, he states his reason. Nearly all the bishops had refused the Constitutional oath. If none had accepted, and if there had, consequently, been nobody to transmit the succession, the State might have lapsed into Presbyterianism, which was a form that harmonised with the spirit of the new institutions, and Calvinism would have been established. This far-fetched argument may have been a genuine reminiscence of Bossuet, and of the doctrine familiar to Gallican divines, that a Huguenot is a Republican, that a Presbyterian is the same as a Whig, and that hierarchy in the Church responds to monarchy in the State.
It may be that the bishop employed schism as a supreme preservative against Democratic heresy. The establishment of the new episcopate gave him a welcome opportunity of abandoning his position in the Church and seeking a new career. There was no French abbé on whom his orders sat more lightly, or who was so secular in his conduct. But though he wore no mask of hypocrisy, and submitted to little restraint, when he could not win twelve hundreds at play without being made the talk of the town, the falseness of his position became intolerable. He resigned his bishopric, and refused to have himself put forward for the See of Paris. Three years later, when, riding at night in an American forest, he called out to his servant, and a voice answered, “Here I am, Monseigneur,” he could not help laughing at this reminder of distant Autun. In 1802 Pius the Seventh, although he loved his excommunicated brother less than he will have it secularised him for his services to the Concordat. The Memoirs specially observe the tone of ecclesiastical decorum; and once, addressing Louis the Eighteenth, Talleyrand is aghast at the incredulity of the age.
For a short time, when his Parisian rival, Narbonne, became Minister, he obtained considerable influence, and came to England early in 1792 on an acknowledged, but necessarily unofficial, mission, to ensure the neutrality of Pitt. In August he was again in Paris, and witnessed the overthrow of the monarchy. He induced Danton to send him back to London, under cover of some scientific negotiation, and was thus able to declare that he had not incurred the pains of emigration, and yet to assure Grenville that he was not in the service of the Republic. But with all his dexterity and coolness he could not hold a position between the upper and the nether millstone. He was outlawed in France, he was expelled from England; and having sold his books in London, he sailed for Philadelphia. He would have been glad to get a passage to India, to be shrouded in sufficient obscurity until his time came.
It came at the end of two years. In 1796 he found himself restored to France, in the embarrassing company of a lady who had got Francis into trouble before him, and having no position but that of a member of the Institute. In the scheme for a national system of education, which he presented to the Assembly, the whole was to have been directed by a central board composed of the ablest men in France; so that the idea of the Institute may be said to belong to him. The Duke de Broglie, following his father’s Souvenirs, believes that Talleyrand’s Report was not his own work; while Jules Simon affirms the contrary, and the Memoirs claim that he drew it up after consulting Lavoisier, Laplace, and the scientific men of the day. In his new character he read two papers exposing the wisdom he had gathered in exile. During his two years’ stay in England he had made a friend of Lord Lansdowne, and in the Bowood circle had met men who were working the problems of the hour on different lines from those he had learned at home. In the United States he came under the influence of Alexander Hamilton. He had gone away a disciple in economics of Dupont de Nemours, without his dogmatism and without his fervour. He came back a believer in the doctrine of Utility, in the colonial system of Adam Smith; and he informs his countrymen that nations act by self-interest, not by gratitude or resentment, and that nothing can divert the trade of America from England to France. He said afterwards that a sound political economy was the talisman which made England, for thirty years, the first of European Powers.
Academic exercises were not the road to greatness; and Madame de Staël rescued him from penury by telling Barras what manner of man he was. Talleyrand’s fortune was made that day. He grasped his opportunity; fascinated the director by that pleasant talk which aged men still remember with admiration; and was appointed Minister of Foreign Affairs by a bare majority over the most obscure of competitors. With an interval of four months in 1799, he held the office during the ten extraordinary years from Campo Formio to Tilsit. His despatches, written for the Directory, have been published by M. Pallain, who, but for names and dates, would be an excellent editor, and they are not worthy of his later fame. As the executive agent of a deliberative and fluctuating body, he is not seen to advantage. His employers distrusted him, and he despised his employers. The Swiss and Italian questions were decided without him; the question of the negotiations at Lille was settled against him. He made way slowly, and carried to extremes the compliance which is expected in a subordinate and in a colleague. He tried in vain to be elected one of the directors, and the Prussian envoy writes that his elevation would put an end to the convulsions of Europe. He craved for a master more intelligent than the directors, or at least firmer and more constant. Together with Sieyès he thought of Moreau, of Joubert, of the Duke of Brunswick, the grand illusion of the time. Together they contrived the Eighteenth of Brumaire. He had seen from the beginning that Bonaparte had more than a military genius. He felt for monarchy like the Vendéan chief who, when he was asked in whose name he fought, replied, “In the name of the King, that is, of any man who may occupy the throne.”
He had found what he wanted, a master worthy of such a minister. By the account which he gives of his own system, his endurance in office during all the ascending years is a prodigy of suppleness. Talleyrand at all times wished to restrict the limits of France to the Rhine. He would have made terms with England by the sacrifice of Malta, and thought us justified in the breach of the peace of Amiens. He regarded Austria as the natural and necessary ally, and would have granted overwhelming compensation, by the partition of Turkey, for her losses in the sphere of French influence. He advised the restoration of Venice, and exposed the folly of surrounding the Empire with a girdle of helpless Bonapartes. On the topics of agreement with Napoleon he does not enlarge, and asserts some merit for sympathy and generosity shown to the vanquished Hohenzollerns. But in his political construction Prussia was the inevitable adversary. He constantly described it as a neighbour on whom there was no reliance, with a barren territory and an open frontier, compelled by nature to be ambitious and aggressive, and to scheme for the subjugation of Germany. Tout prétexte lui est bon. Nul scrupule ne l’arrête. La convenance est son droit. His encounter at Vienna with the Prussian statesmen, when he got the better of William Humboldt, must have been a prouder moment than when he set up his chancery at Berlin.
From his entrance into office he pursued the policy of secularisation. From Salzburg all round to Liége Europe was covered with ecclesiastical proprietors and potentates, and it was an opportune and congenial resource to suppress them in order to satisfy the princes who had to be consoled for the conquests of Bonaparte. This process of ecclesiastical liquidation was Talleyrand’s element. He had destroyed the Church of France as a privileged and proprietary corporation; and by the like impulse he helped to deprive the clergy of the Empire of their political prerogative. And he was still on the same ground at the Congress, when he reduced political right to the hereditary rights of families, and the Prince of Reuss was a weightier personage than a doge of Venice or an Archbishop of Cologne. There was little to boast of in following with a despatch-box where the sword of Napoleon cleared the way; but Talleyrand claims to have done his best for the victims, and he angered his master by drawing clauses from which he could not escape. He had to submit to be the instrument of violence, to see his State papers transformed; and, as in the Lauderdale correspondence, to publish as authentic letters he had been too wise to send.
Not much in the description of Napoleon is new. There is a good deal between the lines of the grotesque account of the Spanish princes at Valencay; and in the complacent details of the interview at Erfurt, the point of the dialogue with Wieland has been lost. But the portrait of the Emperor by the most intelligent man in the Empire will always retain its value. The idea it suggests is that Napoleon failed by excess of talent. The flaw in the reckoning was that he calculated too much, and carried his thinking too far. He set himself to provide against contingencies which he could detect, but which were so remote that they practically did not exist, and weakened himself by defences against dangers not likely to take shape amongst obvious-minded men. He brought on perpetual war because the increase of France having been the work of other generals, he was afraid of their renown. Therefore he annexed Piedmont as a trophy of his own campaigns. In the same way he thought that Spain could never be reduced to a trusty satellite, as the King would some day remember who the Bourbons were, and how they came to reign beyond the Pyrenees.
In 1807, when the Empire was at its best, Talleyrand resigned his office; but as a great dignitary of State he continued to be consulted and employed. His proper place at that time was in opposition. He implored Alexander not to ruin his master by too much yielding. His advice to Metternich was an encouragement to Austria to prepare for the war of 1809. Napoleon proposed to send him to Warsaw in 1812, and made the mistake of changing his mind. In the following year he again offered him the Foreign Office. Talleyrand refused; he was not good on a sinking ship. It does not suit everybody, as he said to Savary, to be buried in the impending crash. Before Napoleon started for the campaign in France, that scene of violence occurred which Molé described to Dalling. Talleyrand offered to resign his dignities. Insult had released him from personal obligation; and when the fortune of war turned, after the victories of February, he allowed his friends to open communication with the invaders. Their emissary made his way through the French lines to headquarters, carrying two names as a password, names which had a meaning for Stadion; and, for Nesselrode, these dangerous and significant words traced in invisible ink: “You march on crutches.” The bearer of these credentials was the most acute, the most alert, and the boldest of Royalists. He found, in the middle of March, less than a fortnight before the capitulation of Paris, that the allies were agreed in rejecting the Bourbons. This mission of the Baron de Vitrolles, of which there are three narratives in the second volume, is an epoch in the life of Talleyrand. When he knew that Louis the Eighteenth, who was forgotten in France, was repudiated by Europe, he resolved that he should be king. It was the one solution entirely his own. And he made him king, imposing his choice with invincible ease on an Assembly of Republicans and Bonapartists, and on the wavering and bewildered master of twenty legions. It is the stroke of genius in his career. The conquerors of Napoleon found themselves at Paris in the hands of a gracious cripple in powder, who, without emphasis or exertion, crumpled up their schemes, and quietly informed them that the Bourbons alone were a principle.
With those words he legislated for Europe. By that law, so convincing to his generation, he was providing an organic force that enabled him at Vienna to subdue the Congress, to scatter the victorious allies, and to achieve his own chosen scheme of an alliance between England, Austria, and France. The implacable analysis of history has since made known that the doctrine which makes hereditary right paramount in politics is unscientific, and cannot combine with the rights of nations. Talleyrand was no advocate of arbitrary power, either at Paris or at Vienna. He was disgusted with those who sent Ferdinand the Seventh to reign without conditions. Although it was not his hand that drew up the Charte, it was his mind chiefly that inspired it. In 1815 he denounced the reactionary counsels of the Count of Artois before the King and the Count himself, and insisted on the principle of a homogeneous and responsible ministry; and he retired before the Holy Alliance. The Bourbons, if they had reigned by his advice, would not have fallen. When he wrote his narrative of the events in which he performed the part of king-maker, he did not see that he had made a blunder. The dynasty he had enthroned persisted for fifteen years in excluding him from power. After 1830 he regrets that he had forgotten Fox’s saying that the worst sort of Revolution is a Restoration. When Madame de Lieven affected surprise that the man who had crowned Louis the Eighteenth should appear in London as the plenipotentiary of Louis Philippe, he replied that the King he served would have been the choice of Alexander in 1814. They do not seem to have remembered who it was that prevented it.
[1 ]The Nineteenth Century, April 1891.