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Voltaire and Choiseul: the ever-evolving French diplomacy of 1759-1760

Thursday, 20 August, 2020
Louis XV, by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour
Louis XV, by Maurice-Quentin de La Tour (1748).

In May 1759 king Frederick II of Prussia sent Voltaire a poem disdaining the French king Louis XV (see Mémoires pour servir à la vie de Monsieur de Voltaire, OCV, vol.45C, p.439) and insulting his favorite, Mme de Pompadour. The Cabinet noir, empowered to read letters, informed the concerned parties, and Voltaire’s position with the French court was suddenly at stake. In a conciliatory effort, instead of waiting for lightning to strike him, Voltaire sent the poem to the duc de Choiseul, the Minister of Foreign Affairs, who was protected by Pompadour.

Madame de Pompadour as Diana, by Jean-Luc Nattier

Madame de Pompadour as Diana, by Jean-Luc Nattier (1746).

Choiseul responded in kind, sending a poem ridiculing the Prussian sovereign, with a threat to publish it should Frederick disclose his to the public (D8270; part of the poem is in Mémoires, p.441). This was an invitation: either to encourage a war of words between Frederick and Choiseul, or to mediate between Prussia and France. Thus was born a utilitarian relationship, whereby Voltaire shared Frederick’s messages with the minister, suggested diplomatic actions in line with Choiseul’s policies, and, most importantly, applauded Choiseul’s every move to the public.

In response Choiseul could tactfully disseminate specific ideas of his ministry by merely corresponding with the philosophe. Because of the fame they each enjoyed, they both understood that their relationship was not entirely private, but their exchanges benefited from a veil of intimate friendship. Therefore, when salons passed around copies of Voltaire’s letters, or when Choiseul’s responses ‘accidentally’ found themselves in the hands of peers, both could retreat into the légèreté that characterized Choiseul’s ministry. Choiseul used this to his advantage to navigate the tumultuous seas of the Seven Years’ War.

Summer 1759

The first exchanges between Choiseul and Voltaire present a spunky star minister possessing shameless confidence. He responds to Frederick’s verses by calling him a coward, too insignificant to be noticed by the big players of the European arena. On top of his brazenness, he explicitly leaves Voltaire the choice of transmitting his thoughts back to the enemy. Keen to claim a sense of privacy in his correspondence, the minister nonetheless wastes no time in showing his anger over Frederick’s poetry to the Austrian ambassador.

Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, by Louis-Michel van Loo

Etienne-François, duc de Choiseul, by Louis-Michel van Loo (1763).

Choiseul’s words were not, in fact,  spontaneous or innocent. Throughout the spring of 1759 Choiseul had worked hard to inspire faith in the new alliance on both the French and Austrian sides, to convince the Austrian administration of his goodwill, and finally to ratify the new defensive treaty between France and Austria to protect against Prussian aggression on the continent. In the same vein, in his letter of 6 July 1759 (D8387) he tactfully asks Voltaire to share Frederick’s letters with the Russian ambassador to reveal Frederick’s vulgar comments on the czarina. Two days later he also sends a memoir to his ambassador to St Petersburg in which he justifies the need for more Russian involvement in the war, possibly as a mediator for peace. Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria and czarina Elizaveta of all the Russias shared a healthy diplomatic relationship, due to their common interest in crushing Prussia. Very much aware of this, Choiseul wanted to show his support for their alliance, for the continental war, and for Russia’s growing role on the European scene. The minister used these spontaneous events and the genuineness of correspondence between friends to emphasize his diplomatic commitments.

Autumn 1759

Frederick the Great, by Antoine Pesne

Frederick the Great, by Antoine Pesne (1757).

In his letter of 12 November of the same year (D8588) Choiseul recognizes, with optimism, the many obstacles impeding French diplomacy. News of the loss of Québec had reached France by then. He quotes the proverb placed as a motto over his door by his relative Henri-Louis de Choiseul, marquis de Meuse, ‘A force d’aller mal tout ira bien’, before sneering at his favorite target, the Prussian princeling. The minister makes more explicit links between France, Austria, and Russia, likening them to doctors curing Europe of war while Prussia is merely a soothsayer. By focusing on the continental war in his semi-public correspondence, he purposefully aligns all three powers to the eyes of the public. His growing ties with the Spanish court and his concerns for the maritime war against England are carefully omitted. Indeed, on 10 August 1759 king Carlos III ascended to the Spanish throne, advocating for a strong alliance with France and for firm defence against English sea power. The French ambassador always at his side, his plans for the Bourbon Family Pact were soon under way, much to Vienna’s dismay. Taking great care not to cause waves in the fragile Austrian alliance, Choiseul uses the cover of a friendly letter to underline his pro-Austrian and pro-Russian position on the European continent.

Winter 1759-1760

Come December, all of this has changed. Not only has France lost Québec, but the French invasion of England had been a complete, and very costly, disaster. Thankfully on 27 November England and Prussia proposed a peace congress to all belligerent parties. On 20 December  (D8666) Choiseul jokes to Voltaire about signing a peace treaty and claims France’s only quarrel is with England. Spain is boldly mentioned, and the additional risk taken of saying how war on the continent does not interest the king’s cabinet. The French minister is indirectly striking back at the request by Austrian Minister of Foreign Affairs Kaunitz that France forget about her maritime war and focus solely on supporting Austria. Choiseul has decided to make his distance from Austrian interests clear in this letter. Peace has become his only concern, and he actively solicits his ambassadors to Russia, Denmark, Holland and Spain in the hopes of finding a mediating power. In a letter of 14 January (D8708) the minister brags about France having the power to crush Prussia, whose only hope for survival would be a peace treaty. From his perspective, only Prussia’s enemies or his allies can make peace, not France. The duke makes his terms for peace very clear in the letter, arguing for no territorial gain on France’s behalf. While he continues to bash Frederick II with his usual panache, by winter his intentions have changed radically: instead of criticizing Frederick to show his engagement with Austria, he now ridicules the sovereign in the hopes he will realize how much Europe needs peace.

In eighteenth-century Europe, much like today, figures like Voltaire offered their fame as a channel through which savvy politicians could run their public relations. With his early letters Choiseul plugs the many holes causing the Austrian alliance to sink, portraying a unified continental alliance system that laughs in the face of German princelings. Later the minister advocates for peace on every front, formal or informal, diplomatic or social, making a point to open the way towards negotiation without pointing fingers. The recurrent coincidence in timing between his letters and news from the different battle fronts make clear the moments when Choiseul reached certain conclusions about his diplomatic strategy, and when he put them into action.

The ‘war of poems’ is discussed, with some questions about the accuracy of Voltaire’s account, in Choiseul et Voltaire: d'après les lettres inédites du duc de Choiseul à Voltaire, edited by Pierre Calmettes (Paris, 1902), p.7f. Not all the letters mentioned have survived. Those that have are available in Voltaire, Correspondence and related documents, ed. Th. Besterman, and Electronic Enlightenment, identified by D and the letter number.

Aliénor Sauvage

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