He came of an old Lorraine family, and was already in early life the Comte de Stainville. He earned distinction for his bravery in the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1750, aged thirty-one, he replenished the fortunes of his family by marrying a wealthy heiress. His brilliant mind and gay wit soon won him prominence at court, but he interrupted his rise by opposing Pompadour. In 1752 he changed sides and gained her gratitude by revealing to her a plot to get her dismissed. She secured his appointment as ambassador to Rome, then to Vienna. In 1758 he was summoned to Paris to replace Bernis as minister for foreign affairs, and was made a duke and peer of France. In 1761 he transferred his ministry to his brother César, but continued to direct foreign policy; he himself took the ministries of war and marine. He became so powerful that at times he overruled and intimidated the King.80 He rebuilt both the army and the navy; he reduced speculation and corruption in military payments and supplies, restored discipline in the ranks, and replaced superannuated dignity with untitled competence in the officer corps. He developed French colonies in the West Indies, and added Corsica to the French crown. He sympathized with the philosophes, defended the publication of theEncyclopédie,supported the expulsion of the Jesuits (1764), and winked at the reorganization of the Huguenots in France. He protected Voltaire’s security at Ferney, furthered his campaign for the Calas family, and won from Diderot an apostrophe of praise: “Great Choiseul, you watch sleeplessly over the fortunes of the Fatherland.”81
All in all, his policies rescued France in modest measure from the disaster brought upon her by the Austrian mésalliance. He reduced the subsidies that France habitually paid to Sweden, Switzerland, Denmark, and some German princes. He encouraged the efforts of Charles III to bring Spain into the eighteenth century, and sought to strengthen both France and Spain by the Pacte de Famille (1761) between the Bourbon kings. The plan went awry, but Choiseul negotiated peace with England on much better terms than the military situation appeared to support. He foresaw the revolt of the English colonies in America, and strengthened the French position in St.-Domingue, Martinique, Guadeloupe, and French Guiana, in the hope of establishing a new colonial domain that would compensate France for the loss of Canada. The two Napoleons adopted the same policy in 1803 and 1863.
Against these achievements we must weigh his failure to stop the Russian penetration of Poland, and his insistence upon leading France and Spain into renewed hostilities with England. Louis had had enough of war, and gave an open mind to those who were working for Choiseul’s fall. The, clever Minister charmed many by his courtesy to courtiers, his prodigal entertainment of friends, and his resourcefulness and industry in the service of France; but he intensified rivalries into enmities by open criticism and careless speech, and his unabated opposition to Du Barry gave his foes an intimate access to the King. The inexhaustible Richelieu supported Du Barry, and his nephew the Duc d’Aiguillon itched to replace Choiseul as head of the government. The royal family, resenting Choiseul’s activity against the Jesuits, condescended to use the scorned mistress as a tool in deposing the impious Minister.
Louis repeatedly asked him to avoid war with England and with Du Barry; Choiseul continued secretly to plot war and openly to scorn the mistress. Finally she joined all her forces against him. On December 24, 1770, the irritated King sent a curt message to Choiseul: “My cousin, my dissatisfaction with your services compels me to exile you to Chanteloupe, to which you shall take yourself within the next twenty-four hours.” Most of the court, shocked by so abrupt a dismissal of one who had done great things for France, dared the royal ire by expressing their sympathy for the fallen Minister. Many nobles rode off to Chanteloupe to solace Choiseul in his exile. It was a comfortable banishment, for the Duke’s estate included one of the finest palaces and most spacious private parks in France; and it was placed in Touraine, not far from Paris. There Choiseul lived in state and elegance, for Du Barry induced the King to send him 300,000 livres at once, and a pledge of 60,000 livres per year.82 The philosophes mourned his fall;“Tout est perdu!” cried the diners chez d’Holbach, and Diderot described them as melting in tears.