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Talleyrand's Wit

Talleyrand in 1808, 
painted by François Gérard

As promised, in today’s post I want to delve a little deeper into the life of one of the Regency era’s most prominent figures, Charles Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord. I touched on him briefly in my recent post on the Congress of Vienna, where he skillfully negotiated favorable terms with the Allies for the restoration of the monarchy in France, following the defeat of Napoleon.

Talleyrand was born into the aristocracy in 1754 under France’s old monarchical system or ancien règime – the one that came to a bloody end during the French Revolution. An early childhood accident left him with a limp that remained with him all his life. Disinherited by his father in favor of his brother, Talleyrand went into the clergy and was made a bishop in 1789.

But in what became his signature move, Talleyrand abandoned the Church and was defrocked as a result of his support of the French Revolution. He also helped the revolutionary government weaken the Roman Catholic Church's power and prestige in France. It was probably just as well he left the Church; he became a notorious womanizer who eventually married a divorced woman, outside the bounds of Catholicism. 

Then in 1792 while the Reign of Terror raged in France, Talleyrand went first to England as an unofficial representative of France and later, when he was kicked out of Britain by Pitt, to the United States, a neutral country, where he waited until the horrors in France subsided. 

(Fans of the hit Broadway musical Hamilton might like to know that Talleyrand stayed with Aaron Burr in Philadelphia, where he got to know Alexander Hamilton. But years later when Burr came to France, Talleyrand shunned him for killing his friend Hamilton in a duel.)

When Talleyrand returned to France in 1796 he abandoned his revolutionary aims to help Napoleon rise to power. Later he switched sides again, abandoning the Emperor after Napoleon's stunning defeat. Talleyrand was instrumental in putting the Bourbons, the surviving brothers of the guillotined King Louis XVI, back on the throne in 1814.

But Talleyrand's career wasn't over. In 1830, following another revolution and the abdication of the last Bourbon king, Talleyrand didn't waste any time serving the new King of France, Louis-Phillipe, as ambassador to Great Britain.

It's been said that Talleyrand betrayed most everyone he ever worked for at one point or another. For this reason, some have called him a traitor.

But I see him as a wily survivor. He used his formidable intelligence and diplomatic skills to survive and even thrive during a violent and tumultuous period of French history. Many of his aristocratic contemporaries, especially those who lost their heads during the Revolution, weren’t so lucky.

The Man with Six Heads (“L’Homme aux six tệtes”) 
 1815 caricature of Talleyrand showing his involvement
 with six different French governmental regimes 

An educated, witty man, Talleyrand was extremely quote-worthy, and his words translate well from French to English. It was hard for me to select only a few good quotes from the many that have been recorded, but here are some of my favorites:

From Talleyrand the wry social observer:

“Mistrust first impulses. They are almost always good.”

“Speech was given to man to disguise his thoughts.”  

“If we go on explaining we shall cease to understand one another.”

From Talleyrand the politician:

“I am more afraid of an army of one hundred sheep led by a lion than an army of one hundred lions led by a sheep.”

“War is much too serious a matter to be entrusted to the military.”

“Without freedom of the press, there can be no representative government.”

From Talleyrand the cynic:

“What clever man has ever needed to commit a crime? Crime is the last resort of political half-wits.”

“To succeed in the world, it’s much more necessary to possess the penetration to discern who is a fool, than to discover who is a clever man.”

“Since the masses are always eager to believe something, for their benefit nothing is so easy to arrange as facts.”


But my favorite quote comes from an anecdote about Talleyrand when he was an 84-year-old man on his deathbed. To be fair, this story is also attributed to other famous people so it may be apocryphal. Yet I'd like to think it did happen; it seems so appropriate. 

According to the story (which I've loosely translated), King Louis-Phillipe visited Talleyrand in his final days. The King asked the dying man if he was suffering.

“Oh, yes,”  Talleyrand moaned. “Like I'm in hell.”

To which the King murmured in reply: “Already?” 


Additional sources include:
  • Napoleon's Master, A Life of Prince Talleyrand by David Lawday, St. Martin's Press New York, 2006
  • Beautiful Thoughts from French and Italian Authors, by Craufurd Tait Ramage, published by Edward Howell, Liverpool, 1866.

Images from Wikimedia Commons


  1. Maureen,

    I love the quotes! They are just as true today as when they were first spoken!


    1. I agree! Talleyrand was quite a wit, but he also had a pretty cynical view of human nature.


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