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Friday, October 26, 2007

Talleyrand's apparent treasons can be seen as the products of a higher loyalty

Charles Maurice de Talleyrand
The French statesman Charles Maurice de Talleyrand, Duc de Talleyrand-Périgord (1754-1838), remains the classic case of a successful turncoat in politics. For half a century he served every French regime except that of the Revolutionary "Terror."
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand was a masterful diplomat of the old school as ambassador and foreign minister. Admired and often distrusted, sometimes even feared by those he served, he was not easily replaced as a negotiator of infinite wiles. Talleyrand has been an extraordinarily difficult figure for historians to understand and appraise. His moral corruption is beyond question: he was an unabashed liar and deceiver; he not only took but sought bribes from those with whom he was negotiating; and he lived with a niece as his mistress for decades. He repeatedly shifted political allegiance without visible compunction and possessed no political principle on which he would stand firm to the last; and he was also at least technically guilty of treason, engaging in secret negotiations with the public enemies of his country while in its service.
Yet closer scrutiny of what Talleyrand did shows an apparent steady purpose beneath the crust of arrogant contempt for the ordinary standards of mankind's judgment, expressed in the comment attributed to him on the kidnaping and execution of the Duc d'Enghien at Napoleon's command: "It was worse than a crime, it was a mistake."
Talleyrand had his own vision of the interests of France, which lay in making the transition from the Old Regime to the new as painless as possible, at the same time preserving the territorial interests of the French nation. His fidelity to whichever persons happened to be at the head of the French state lasted at best only as long as their power, but this matchless cynic seems to have possessed genuine devotion for France as a country, and his apparent treasons can be seen as the products of a higher loyalty. Yet this picture of him may be false, for Talleyrand destroyed many of the records by which the truth regarding his career could have been more closely reached. It is easier to decide his guilt than to specify what he was guilty of, easier to affirm his deeper innocence than to prove it. The problem lies both in the man himself and in the eye of the beholder. Home > Library > People > Biographies

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