Jean-Baptiste Colbert

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Jean-Baptiste Colbert
Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (August 29, 1619September 6, 1683) served as the French minister of finance for 22 years under King Louis XIV. He achieved a reputation for his work of improving the state of French manufacturing and bringing the economy back from the brink of bankruptcy; although - historians note - since Louis spent so much money (on luxury and wars) France actually became increasingly impoverished. Colbert worked to create a favourable balance of trade and increase France's colonial holdings. Historians of mercantilism consider Colbert a key figure.

Colbert's market reforms included the importation of Venetian glass and Flemish cloth manufacturing to France. He also founded a royal tapestry works at Beauvais. Colbert worked to improve the economy via tariffs and the construction of internal improvements. In regard to foreign markets, Colbert aimed to ensure that the French East India Company could obtain coffee, cotton, dyewoods, fur, pepper, and sugar. In addition, Colbert founded a French merchant marine.

Colbert issued more than 150 edicts to regulate the guilds. One such law had the intention of improving the quality of cloth. The edict declared that if the authorities found a merchant's cloth unsatisfactory on three separate occasions, they were to tie him to a post with the cloth attached to him.


Early life

Colbert's father and grandfather operated as merchants his birthplace of Reims, France. He claimed to have Scottish ancestry. A general (but unconfirmed) belief exists that he spent his early youth at a Jesuit college, working for a Parisian banker; as well as working for the father of Jean Chapelain. Before the age of 20, Colbert had a post in the war office; a position generally attributed to the marriage of an uncle to the sister of Secretary of War Le Tellier. Colbert spent some time as an inspector of troops, eventually becoming the personal secretary of Le Tellier. In 1647, through some means or other, Colbert acquired the confiscated goods of an uncle, Pussort. In 1648, he (and his wife Marie Charron) received 40,000 crowns from some source or other; and in 1649 Colbert became the councillor of state.

The Fronde and later revolts

The Fronde lasted from 1648 to 1653; and, following 1651, when Cardinal Mazarin left Paris, Colbert served as an advisor. In April 1655, Colbert published a notable letter in defence of the cardinal. In 1659, Colbert helped suppress the revolts in Normandy, Anjou and Poitou, events which resulted in the execution of Bonnesson.

The death of Mazarin and Colbert's rise

Colbert's earliest recorded attempt at tax reform came in the form of a mmoire to Mazarin, showing that of the taxes paid by the people, not one-half reached the King. The paper also contained an attack upon the Superintendent Fouquet. The postmaster of Paris, a spy of Fouquet's, read the letter, leading to a dispute which Mazarin attempted to suppress.

In 1661, Mazarin died and Colbert "made sure of the King's favour" by revealing the location of some of Mazarin's hidden wealth. In January 1664 Colbert became the superintendent of buildings; in 1665 he became controller-general; in 1669, he became minister of the marine; he also gained appointments as minister of commerce, of the colonies and of the palace. In short, Colbert acquired power in every department except that of war.

A great financial and fiscal reform at once claimed all his energies. Not only the nobility, but many others who had no legal claim to exemption, paid no taxes; the bulk of the burden fell on the wretched country-folk. Colbert sternly and fearlessly set about his task. Supported by the young king Louis XIV, he aimed the first blow at the greatest of the extortioners, the bold and powerful superintendent, Fouquet. Fouquet's fall, in addition, secured Colbert's own advancement.

Economic reform

With the abolition of the office of superintendent and of many other offices dependent upon it, the supreme control of the finances became vested in a royal council. The sovereign functioned as its president; but Colbert, though for four years he only possessed the title of intendant, operated as its ruling spirit, having had great personal authority conferred upon him by the king. One must not judge the career on which Colbert now entered without constant remembrance of the utter rottenness of the previous financial administration. His ruthlessness in this case, dangerous precedent as it gave, seemed perhaps necessary; the council could not respect individual interests. When he had severely punished guilty officials, he turned his attention to the fraudulent creditors of the government. Colbert had a simple method of operation. He repudiated some of the public loans, and cut off from others a percentage, which varied, at first according to his own decision, and afterwards according to that of the council which he established to examine all claims against the state.

Much more serious difficulties met his attempts to introduce equality in the pressure of the taxes on the various classes. To diminish the number of the privileged proved impossible, but Colbert firmly resisted false claims for exemption, and lightened the unjust direct taxation by increasing the indirect taxes, from which the privileged could not escape. At the same time he immensely improved the mode of collection.

Having thus introduced order and economy into the working of the government, Colbert, in a vast yet detailed plan, now called for the enrichment of the country by commerce. The state fostered manufactures in every way that Colbert could devise. The authorities established new industries, protected inventors, invited in workmen from foreign countries, and absolutely prohibited French workmen from emigrating. To maintain the character of French goods in foreign markets, as well as to afford a guarantee to the home consumer, Colbert had the quality and measure of each article fixed by law, punishing breaches of the regulations by public exposure of the delinquent and by destruction of the goods concerned, and, on the third offence, by the pillory. But whatever advantage resulted from this rule, the disadvantages it entailed more than outweighed them. Colbert prohibited the production of qualities which would have suited many purposes of consumption, and the odious supervision which became necessary involved great waste of time and a stereotyped regularity which resisted all improvements. And other parts of Colbert's schemes have met with still less equivocal condemnation.

By his firm maintenance of the corporation system, each industry remained in the hands of certain privileged bourgeois; in this way, too, the system greatly discouraged improvement; while the lower classes found opportunities of advancement closed. With regard to international commerce Colbert suffered equally from lack of foresight: the tariffs he published protected commerce to an extreme. He did, however, wisely consult the interests of internal commerce. Unable to abolish the duties on the passage of goods from province to province, he did what he could to induce the provinces to equalize them. His rgime improved roads and canals. Pierre Paul Riquet (1604 - 1680) planned and constructed the Canal du Midi under Colbert's patronage. To encourage trade with the Levant, Senegal, Guinea and other places, Colbert granted privileges to companies; but, like the more important French East India Company, all proved unsuccessful. The narrowness and rigidity of the government regulations chiefly caused this failure, as well as the failure of the colonies, on which Colbert bestowed so much watchful care.


Colbert achieved a lasting legacy in his establishment of the French royal navy, which owed all to him, for the king thought only of military exploits on land. For naval use, Colbert reconstructed the works and arsenal of Toulon, founded the port and arsenal of Rochefort, and the naval schools of Rochefort, Dieppe and Saint-Malo. He fortified, with some assistance from Vauban (who, however, belonged to the party of his rival Louvois), among other ports those of Calais, Dunkirk, Brest and Le Havre. To supply the navy with recruits he invented his famous system of classes, by which each seaman, according to his assigned class, gave six months service every three or four or five years. For three months after his term of service he would receive half-pay; the government promised pensions; and, in short, Colbert took every opportunity to make the navy popular. One method, however, gained the navy recruits on a very different principle. Letters exist written by Colbert to the judges requiring them to sentence to the oar as many criminals as possible, including all those condemned to death; and the convict once chained to the bench, the expiration of his sentence seldom saw his release. Mendicants also, whom the authorities had not convicted of any crime, contraband dealers, those who had participated in insurrections, and others immeasurably superior to the criminal class, nay, innocent men -- Turkish, Russian and negro slaves, and poor Iroquois Indians, whom the colonists of Qubec entrapped by order -- all became pressed into that terrible service. These means filled the benches of the galleys, and Colbert took no thought of the long unrelieved agony borne by those who filled them.

Nor did Colbert forget the mercantile marine. He gave encouragement to the building of ships in France by allowing a premium on those built at home, and by imposing a duty on those brought from abroad; and just as the law forbade French workmen to emigrate, so it forbade French seamen, on pain of death, to serve foreigners


Even ecclesiastical affairs, though with these he had no official concern, did not altogether escape Colbert's attention. He took a subordinate part in the struggle between the king and the Vatican as to the royal rights over vacant bishoprics; and he seems to have sympathized with the proposal that suggested seizing part of the wealth of the clergy. In his hatred of idleness he ventured to suppress no less than seventeen ftes, and he had a project for lessening the number of persons devoted to clerical and monastic life, by fixing the age for taking the vows some years later than the then customary time. He showed himself at first unwilling to interfere with heresy, for he realised the commercial value of the Huguenots; but when the king resolved to make all France Roman Catholic, he followed him and urged his subordinates to do all that they could to promote conversions.


In art and literature Colbert took much interest. He possessed a remarkably fine private library, which he delighted to fill with valuable manuscripts from every part of Europe where France had placed a consul. He has the honour of having founded the Academy of Sciences (now part of the Institut de France), the Observatory, which he employed Claude Perrault to build and brought Giovanni Domenico Cassini (1625 - 1712) from Italy to superintend, the Academies of Inscriptions and Medals, of Architecture and of Music, the French Academy at Rome, and Academies at Arles, Soissons, Nimes and many other towns. He reorganised the Academy of Painting and Sculpture which Mazarin had established. He himself became a member of the Acadmie franaise; and proposed one very characteristic rule with the intention of expediting the great Dictionary, in which he had a great interest: no one could count as present at any meeting unless he arrived before the hour of commencement and remained till the hour for leaving. In 1673 Colbert presided over the first exhibition of the works of living painters; and he enriched the Louvre with hundreds of pictures and statues. He gave many pensions to men of letters, among whom we find Molire, Corneille, Racine, Boileau, P D Huet (1630 - 1721) and Antoine Varillas (1626 - 1696); and even foreigners, as Huygens, Vossius the geographer, Carlo Dati the Dellacruscan, and Heinsius the great Dutch scholar. Evidence exists to show that by this munificence he hoped to draw out praises of his sovereign and himself; but this motive certainly does not account for all the splendid, if in some cases specious, services that he rendered to literature, science and art.


  • "It is simply, and solely, the abundance of money within a state [which] makes the difference in its grandeur and power." (MH - p.53)

Preceded by:
Jean Silhon
Seat 24
Acadmie franaise
Succeeded by:
Jean de la Fontaine
bg:Жан-Батист Колбер

de:Jean-Baptiste Colbert fr:Jean-Baptiste Colbert lb:Jean-Baptiste Colbert nl:Jean-Baptiste Colbert ja:ジャン・バプティスト・コルベール pl:Jean Baptiste Colbert sl:Jean-Baptiste Colbert sv:Jean-Baptiste Colbert


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