Chateaubriand's memoirs, XVI, 6

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Mémoires d'Outre-tombe

Book XVI- Chapter 6
Monsieur de Talleyrand

Chantilly, November 1837

Following Monsieur de Rovigo’s pamphlet, Monsieur de Talleyrand presented a supporting memoir to Louis XVIII: this memoir, which I have not seen, and which ought to have clarified everything, clarified nothing. Named as plenipotentiary minister to Berlin, in 1820, I dug up, from the ambassadorial archives, a letter from Citizen Laforest, writing to Citizen Talleyrand, on the subject of Monsieur le Duc d’Enghien. This vigorous letter is the more honourable in that its author does not hesitate to compromise his career, while receiving no reward by way of public opinion, his action remaining unknown: a noble abnegation by a man who, by his very obscurity, condemned the good he had done to obscurity also.

Monsieur de Talleyrand received the lecture, and was silent; at least, I have not found anything from him in the identical archive, concerning the Prince’s death. Yet, the Minister for Foreign Affairs sent word to the Minister for the Elector of Baden, on the 2nd Ventôse: ‘that the First Consul has thought it his duty to give an order to the detachments to go to Offenbourg and Ettenheim, and there seize the instigators of unheard-of conspiracies which, by their nature, put beyond the law all those who manifestly have been involved in them.’

Extracts from the writings of Generals Gourgaud and Montholon, and of Doctor Warden place Bonaparte on stage: ‘My minister,’ he said, ‘represented to me most strongly that it was essential to seize the Duc d’Enghien, although he was on neutral territory. But I still hesitated, and the Prince of Benevento twice brought me the order for his arrest, for my signature. It was not until later however that I was convinced of the urgency for such an action, and decided to sign.’

According to the Mémorial de Saint-Hélène, the following words escaped Bonaparte: ‘The Duc d’Enghien carried himself with great bravery before the tribunal. On his arrival at Strasbourg, he wrote me a letter: that letter was handed over to Talleyrand who kept it until the execution.’

I think little of this idea of a letter: Napoleon has transformed into a letter the request that the Duc d’Enghien made to talk to the Conqueror of Italy, or rather the few lines expressing this request, which, before signing the interrogation attributed to him in front of the Recording-Officer, the Prince had traced in his own hand. However, since this letter has not been found, a rigorous conclusion must be that it was never written: ‘I know,’ said the Duc de Rovigo, ‘that in the first days of the Restoration, in 1814, one of Monsieur de Talleyrand’s secretaries searched endlessly in the archives, beneath the Museum gallery. I have this information from the person who received the order to allow him entry there. He did the same at the War Office, searching for the notes from the trial of Monsieur le Duc D’Enghien, of which only the record of the sentence remained.’

The fact is correct: all Monsieur Talleyrand’s diplomatic papers and notably his correspondence with the Emperor and the First Consul, were transported from the Museum archives to his house on the Rue Saint-Florentin; part were destroyed; the rest were tucked away in a stove, that they neglected to light: the prudence of the minister could do no more to counteract the rashness of the Prince. The documents were retrieved unburned; someone thought them worth keeping: I have held in my hands and read with my own eyes one of Monsieur de Talleyrand’s letters; it is dated the 8th of March 1804 and relates to the arrest of Monsieur le Duc d’Enghien which had not yet been performed. The Minister invites the First Consul to act harshly against his enemies. I was not allowed to retain the letter, and only remember these two passages: ‘If justice obliges us to punish rigorously, politics requires us to punish without exception………………….


I indicated Monsieur de Caulaincourt to the First Consul, as one to whom he could give his orders, and who would execute them with discretion as well as loyalty.’

Will this document by the Prince de Talleyrand appear in its entirety one day? I know not; but what I do know is that it was still in existence two years ago.

There was an agreement in council to arrest the Duc d’Enghien. Cambacères, in his unpublished Memoirs affirms, and I believe it, that he opposed the arrest; but in recounting what he said, he does not say how he replied.

As for the rest, the Mémorial de Saint-Hélène denies the appeals for clemency to which Bonaparte might have been exposed. The imaginary scene in which Josephine on her knees begged mercy for the Duc d’Enghien, grasping a piece of her husband’s clothing and being dragged along by that inexorable husband, is one of those melodramatic inventions with which our writers of fable today compose true histories. Josephine had no knowledge, on the evening of the 19th of March, that the Duc d’Enghien was being tried; she only knew of his arrest. She had promised Madame de Rémusat to interest herself in the Prince’s fate. When the latter returned to Malmaison with Josephine, on the evening of the 19th, it was remarked that the future Empress, instead of being wholly preoccupied by the danger surrounding the prisoner at Vincennes, often put her head out of the carriage window to look at a general melee among her following: female coquetry had banished any thought that might have saved the Duc d’Enghien’s life. It was not till the 21st of March that Bonaparte said to his wife: ‘The Duc d’Enghien has been shot.’ That phrase, uttered while looking at a clock, has been wrongly attributed to Monsieur de Talleyrand.

The Memoirs of Madame de Rémusat, which I have read, are extremely interesting regarding the internal details of the Imperial Court. The author burnt them during the Hundred Days, and then wrote them anew: they are only memories written from memory; the colouring is weak; but Bonaparte is always shown there nakedly and judged impartially.

The men attached to Napoleon say that he knew nothing of the death of the Duc d’Enghien until after the execution of the Prince: this idea appears to receive some support from the anecdote repeated aloud by the Duc de Rovigo, concerning Réal’s visit to Vincennes, if the anecdote is true. Once the death had been brought about by revolutionary party intrigue, Bonaparte recognised it as a fait accompli, in order not to annoy those whom he considered powerful: this ingenious explanation will not do.