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The emigre and the turncoat
Talleyrand meets Benedict Arnold
Charles Maurice de Talleyrand hadn’t expected to reside in England, still less to seek refuge in America. But revolutions can play havoc with the plans of even the most talented and resourceful men.
Benedict Arnold hadn’t expected to take arms against Britain. And having taken arms, he didn’t anticipate putting them down and taking up British arms against America. But love can make men commit acts rasher even than revolutions alone can do.
“It was not my intention to stay long in England,” Talleyrand explained decades later. A pillar of the ancien régime, yet a nimble fellow nonetheless, Talleyrand had danced ahead of the rising tide of the French Revolution from its outbreak in 1789 until its violent left turn in 1792, whereupon a desire to keep his head prompted him to cross the Channel to England. He minded his own business, charming old friends and new acquaintances. But he was not alone among the French aristocrats taking refuge in Britain and other European countries, and the case they made to their host governments for war against France unnerved the new regime in Paris and prompted it to declare war. Whereupon Talleyrand and many of the other emigres became enemy aliens and personae non gratae. He was informed he must leave England at once.
Talleyrand resented this summary treatment. "My dignity required of me to protest against the unjust persecution of which I was the victim," he recalled. He applied to the home minister, the prime minister and even the king himself. They turned deaf ears. "Unable to obtain satisfaction in any quarter, I had but to submit, and therefore went to sleep on board a ship which, I had been told, was the first to start for the United States." America would give him refuge, he was sure.
Getting there was no small task. "On the second day of our voyage, after having but just left the Thames, we met with a violent storm. I was then between England and France, which, indeed, constituted one of the most critical positions in which anyone could be placed. I could see France. . . my head was in danger there. . . . I ran no immediate risk by returning to England, but it would have been far too repugnant to me to solicit the hospitality of a government who had tried to wound me."
The ship staggered into Falmouth. While its rigging was being repaired, Talleyrand and other passengers found berths at an inn. On learning that they were bound for America, the innkeeper informed Talleyrand that one of his guests was an American general. Talleyrand asked for an introduction, and the innkeeper obliged.
"After the usual exchange of greetings, I put to him several questions concerning his country," Talleyrand related. "But from the first, it seemed to me that my inquiries annoyed him. Having several times vainly endeavored to renew the conversation, which he always allowed to drop, I ventured to request from him some letters of introduction to his friends in America."
"No," the officer replied curtly.
Talleyrand expected at least an explanation, but none was forthcoming.
Finally the officer said, "I am perhaps the only American who cannot give you letters for his own country." He paused, as though reflecting. "All the relations I had there are now broken." Another pause. "I must never return to the States."
The officer declined to identify himself, but Talleyrand asked about him. "It was General Arnold!" he wrote later, still surprised. Now Tallyrand was the one reflecting. "I must confess that I felt much pity for him for which political puritans will perhaps blame me, but with which I do not reproach myself, for I witnessed his agony."
Benedict Arnold was not a man who easily elicited sympathy. He had betrayed his first country when he sided with the American rebels against the British crown, becoming the most energetic and promising of George Washington's lieutenants. He betrayed his second country when, after suffering slights at the hands of the Continental Congress, and falling hard for a beautiful woman with strong Loyalist connections, he turned his coat and fought on the British side against his former comrades in arms.
The Americans instantly despised him, and his name became a watchword for treason. The British judged him odious but, as long as the war went on, necessary. When the end of the war terminated the necessity, the odium persisted. Arnold was truly a man without a country.
Talleyrand's situation at the time of their meeting wasn't that different. In the eyes of the radicals then governing France, he was a traitor, like all the other survivors from the old regime. He hoped to outlast the radicals and then be able to return to France. But he had no guarantee that this would happen. Meanwhile the British treated him as a presumptive spy.
Talleyrand could identify with Arnold at a personal level, too. Talleyrand’s own survival had required accommodating principle to fickle fortune, and it would do so again. He saw in Arnold another survivor.
Talleyrand spent two years in America. He was the guest of Aaron Burr in New York, and became friends with Alexander Hamilton. He charmed the Americans as he had charmed the English. He traveled throughout America and observed its people and folkways.
What he learned served him ambiguously when he returned to France after receiving word that the fires of radicalism had indeed burned down. As French foreign minister, he thought he knew the Americans well enough to demand bribes from their diplomats for the privilege of addressing the French government. The attempted extortion backfired badly, turning the entire United States against France and leading to an undeclared war between France and America.
Talleyrand learned his lesson. At Napoleon’s behest, when the Jefferson administration inquired about the purchase of New Orleans, Talleyrand answered by offering all of Louisiana: the western half of the Mississippi Valley. The offer flummoxed Jefferson, but the American president recovered and the deal was struck. The bargain guaranteed America’s future; it also guaranteed trouble between America and Britain, which suited the purposes of France.
Talleyrand remained active in French affairs for another three decades. To do so he had to keep nimble, often being but a step ahead of his enemies. He never forgot his meeting with Benedict Arnold, which he recounted in his memoirs. Whatever he learned from the Americans he met in America, the agony he saw in Arnold reinforced his conviction that only the agile survive.