TO Louis Philippe, who genially reminded him of former oaths of allegiance under other masters, it is reported that Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Perigord, on swearing loyalty in 1830, replied, "Sire, you are the thirteenth!" This little folk-tale, though exaggerated in fact, is quite accurate in spirit, and its spirit has given rise to the fitting title of Crane Brinton's highly readable biography, "The Lives of Talleyrand".
Professor Brinton is thoroughly consonant with the tendency of our age to view all men sympathetically. Modern historians cease to expect a great deal from human nature; they permit much greater play to the elements of Caesar and Croesus in mankind. Since men are what they are and not what they aspire to be, such an historical methodology is doubtless more scientific.
Needless to say, "The Lives of Talleyrand" is a defense of that shrewd man who managed to slip out from under five successive decaying governments before they fell and keep his political power at an almost constant zenith. Crane Brinton does not attempt to picture Talleyrand as a "good" man in the ethical sense of the word; but he insists that he is just as "good" a man as those parliamentarians of the French Revolution who asserted that all men are free and equal, and then promptly turned around to draw up a constitution that heavily restricted the franchise. The only variance in the analogy as applied to Talleyrand is that he had no such deceitful principles as "equality" or "fraternity". He was a gentleman opportunist, whose skill and diplomacy not only proved a lucrative source for his own wealth, but profoundly benefited France herself.
In addition to the main biographical thread, Professor Brinton has dropped numerous little side-remarks--bits of sparkling philosophy and good humor--that make his work an altogether pleasing account. He seems to have written his book with an impish smile for his Puritan readers.
We seldom find so brilliant a combination of colorful style and historical biography as that embodied in "The Lives of Talleyrand".