SODOM & GOMORRAH: On this day in 1838, the world lost a great statesman with the passing of Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. Talleyrand was the first Prime Minister of France, and French Minister of Foreign Affairs under several French governments.
Perhaps more than any other statesman at the time, Talleyrand influenced the formation of modern Europe. Present at the Congress of Vienna in 1814-1815, Talleyrand successfully negotiated a favorable settlement for France after the defeat of Napoleon. The borders and territories established at that summit created a balance of power between European interests that had been at war almost continuously since the fall of the Roman Empire. This balance of power carried Europe into a period of relative peace, interrupted only by a handful of limited skirmishes and domestic disturbances for the next 99 years until the outbreak of World War I.
Much as he did in his own time, Talleyrand is a polarizing figure. Some maintain (like this publication) that he was a skillful diplomat while others think that he’s a sociopathic traitor. A famous anecdote places Talleyrand in his apartment in Paris during the early 1800’s. A bell began to ring signaling the end of unrest and another revolution. Talleyrand remarked “We’ve won, we’ve won!”. One of his servants asked, “Who are ‘we’, my prince?” to which Talleyrand replied “I’ll tell you tomorrow”. Talleyrand had a unique talent for staying alive amidst a period of revolutionary upheaval and unrest — amidst a period of time when most members of his social class were executed solely because of their pedigree.
Far from being executed, Talleyrand was able to maintain the office in the department of Foreign Affairs under several successive and often violently competing governments. (There were, of course, a handful of interruptions, but the French aristocrat was rarely far from the political center of France.) During his long life, he belonged to six different political parties with very competing views.
Aside from being both a Jacobin and a Legitimist, Talleyrand also held a score of titles such as Bishop of Autun and Prince of Benevento. While able to negotiate between the competing interests of the French government and hostile European powers, the French diplomat managed to supplement his own income from various political activities. In one instance, known as the XYZ Affair, France and the United States almost went to war. At the time, it was common for European diplomats to collect a personal allowance from other countries before engaging in official negotiations. In 1797, Talleyrand followed tradition by demanding bribes and a loan before talking to the Americans, who were offended and broke off the talks altogether.
Talleyrand’s personal life was filled with similar tumults. It was rumored he fathered several illegitimate children including the painter Eugene Delacroix (with the wife of his boss, who was rendered infertile due to a tumor at the time of conception). His financial situation was always complicated by the numerous collection of bribes, his habit of collecting expensive books, his excessive parties, and his compulsive gambling.
Despite his shortcomings, Talleyrand provides a sterling example of a member of the old society being able to successfully survive and influence his surroundings, no matter how chaotic and dangerous.