Talleyrand and His Black Mistress: the Morals of the French in Philadelphia

No elite culture suffered more dislocation in the 1790s than the French. The French Revolution, through its various phases, was disrupting enough. To that can be added the slave revolt in France's most wealthy American colony, St. Domingue or today's Haiti. The Franco-American alliance during the American Revolution made the United States an obvious refuge for the displaced French, many came, none more interesting than Talleyrand, who admitted to being thoroughly bored by America and Americans. He hoped to at least meet the hero of the age, George Washington, but Washington refused to see him perhaps because Talleyrand was the moral villain of the age. The US minister in France, Gouverneur Morris, had written of him, in an official letter, with respect to morals... the Bishop [Talleyrand] is particularly blamed on that score. Not so much for adultery, because that was common enough among the clergy of high rank, but for the variety and publicitiy of his amours, for gambling, and, above all, for stock-jobbing.....

J. F. Bernard writes in his biography of Talleyrand that the bored Frenchmen made "a public demonstration of indifference to public opinion that outraged Philadelphia.... This demonstration - or rather, this series of demonstrations - consisted in a liaison, which seems to have lasted over a year, with a handome young woman of black antecedents. Talleyrand not only visited the lady's rooms, but sometimes entertained her in his own small apartment on North Third Street, and he took special delight in promenading with her through the busy streets." Moreau de St. Mery, who ran the French bookstore in town, recalled that Talleyrand did whatever he wanted and was supremely contemptuous of everyone and everything.

Although in my work on yellow fever epidemics, I read many letters and some diaries of the period, only one mentioned Talleyrand. In an 1843 entry in his diary Thomas P. Cope recalled his experience with Talleyrand in the mid-1790s. He doesn't mentioned a black or creole mistress but recollected the daughter of a poor woman who was a neighbor of Talleyrand's and who gave birth to his child. Cope was impressed that as Talleyrand rose to become one of the most influential men in Europe he continued to provide for the mother and their child. Cope, who as the cliche goes was a proper Quaker, did fondly recall the creole ladies from Haiti:

There arrived with these exiles from Hayti, some of the prettiest girls I ever beheld. They were very slightly tinged with African blood, their skins smooth, cheeks ruddy, eyes soft & sparkling, teeth without blemish & white as ivory, their countenances ever decked with smiles & good nature. Their hair was long & glossy black, their forms unexceptionally graceful, not inferior to the most elegant Grecian beauties & highly captivating.... They mixed not with the other islanders but were a class by themselves & seen mostly in clusters. By what means they lived was best known to themselves. The story went that some of them were rich & brought with them considerable sums of money. When affairs became more settled in their Island, they suddenly disappeared like splendid birds of passage & we saw them no more.

by Bob Arnebeck

Go to Introduction: Swamp1800