Armand-Jean du Plessis, better known to history as Cardinal Richelieu (1585–1642), spent most of his career contending for and then exercising control over a deeply divided, indebted, and dysfunctional superpower. His country’s politics were vicious, and its government paralyzingly complex. In short, if he were dropped into Washington today, he might feel right at home.
French historians have long hailed Richelieu as the architect of the absolute monarchy that dominated Europe throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Henry Kissinger, in Diplomacy, dubbed him “the father of the modern European state system.” Even critics, such as Alexandre Dumas, who made him the villain of The Three Musketeers, often cannot help admiring Richelieu’s icy savoir-faire, which is captured in the famous portrait by Philippe de Champaigne that adorns the cover of Jean-Vincent Blanchard’s new biography. As Richelieu intended, it shows a master political player with the ruthlessness necessary to achieve his goals, chief among them raising France to greatness.
Richelieu was indeed a model statesman, but not for the reasons usually given. Despite his long-standing reputation (which Blanchard largely endorses), the cardinal was not really a great institution builder, still less someone bent on making France what Blanchard calls “a modern administrative state.” Nor do Kissinger’s claims about Richelieu inaugurating an international order based on raison d’état hold up. The cardinal was hardly the first European statesman to place national interest above moral or religious imperatives, and the modern European state system, with its power balancing and alliances, did not really take firm shape until the Peace of Westphalia, six years after Richelieu’s death. Richelieu was, however, one of the greatest examples in history of the politician as high-stakes gambler, notable less for what he did than for how he did it.
Richelieu’s qualities as a statesman emerge most sharply when he is compared with other leaders of the period -- particularly his great rival, Spain’s chief minister, the Count-Duke of Olivares, who lacked both the Richelieu and Olivares. Blanchard’s biography is engaging and well written but has a more sprawling and somewhat thinner feel. As a specialist in seventeenth-century literature, Blanchard has trouble situating Richelieu in the broader sweep of European history, particularly when it comes to the complex dynamics of ancien régime administration and diplomacy. Still, he has read the most important primary sources carefully and has a good eye for colorfully illustrative passages, along with a genuine sensitivity to his subject’s personal strengths and weaknesses. Those who know Richelieu only from the movies will find in Blanchard’s pages a very human character who triumphed in a setting far more frightening than anything Hollywood has recently devised.
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