Charles Maurice de Talleyrand: Quotes & Biography

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature and is completing a Ph.D. He has taught college English for 6 years.

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand was a French political official who became known for his political savvy as he successfully survived the turmoil of the French government in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

A Political Survivor

The late 18th and early 19th centuries were a time of unprecedented turmoil in France. Starting with the French Revolution of 1789, in which peasants rebelled against the corrupt aristocracy, France plunged into decades of chaos. This included the Reign of Terror in which aristocrats, including the queen and king, were publicly executed. This led to the rise of military strongman Napoleon and his plans to build an empire. Following the failure of Napoleon, the monarchy was restored.

During all of this turmoil, thousands of aristocrats and government officials were stripped of power, exiled, or executed. But through it all, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand managed to survive.

Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand

Early Life and the Revolution

Talleyrand was born to an aristocratic but poor family in 1754. A bad foot prevented him from carrying on the family tradition of military service, so he entered the clergy, or religious orders, of the Catholic Church. However, this religious appointment was only a stepping stone to political power.

By 1780, Talleyrand had acquired the politically influential position of agent general, one of the church's representatives to the government. In 1789, he was named a bishop of the church just as the Revolution was beginning. He was elected to represent the clergy in the Estates General, a national assembly that had not met in nearly 200 years but was now being called to address the grievances brought by the Revolution.

Talleyrand argued for the rights of the church against the monarchy and became closely associated with the Revolution. He earned the name, ''Bishop of the Revolution.'' But by 1791, he would leave the church to pursue more lucrative government service. In 1792, he was sent as a diplomat to England to encourage its neutrality in the war between Austria and France.

While Talleyrand was in England, the Revolution turned into the Reign of Terror, as aristocrats and nobles were rounded up and executed. Not wanting to go back to the violence, but not trusted in England, Talleyrand ended up exiled to the United States for two years, where he amassed a small fortune in financial speculation.

Napoleon and the Restoration

Talleyrand returned to France in 1796. He felt the political winds shifting again and aligned himself with the military leader Napoleon, who seized political control of France. Talleyrand became a foreign minister and negotiated peace accords with both England and Austria, bringing peace to Europe for the first time in six years.

Talleyrand helped Napoleon's forces kidnap and execute a prince of the Bourbon family, the exiled family of the former king. That event led the way to Napoleon declaring himself emperor in 1804, with Talleyrand as grand chamberlain.

Talleyrand resigned his post in 1807 after falling out of favor with Napoleon and working against him in secret negotiations. He then became part of the provisional government which deposed Napoleon. In 1814, the exiled Bourbon prince Louis XVIII was recalled and declared him king and Talleyrand was named foreign minister. He would spend the next 20 years as a top diplomat for the monarchy before dying in 1838.

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