Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) - Biography

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) - Biography

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After ousting his rival Fouquet, Colbert was Comptroller General of Finance (1665), Secretary of State for the King’s Household and the Navy (1668), and strongly influenced the internal and external policies of the Sun King. Most illustrious of the great state clerks, Colbert not only marked its time under Louis XIV, but also left a lasting imprint on French politics, to the point of giving its name to a doctrine: Colbertism, a mixture of protectionism and State intervention in the economy.

Colbert's dazzling career under Louis XIV

Son of a cloth merchant who had not done very good business, Fouquet began his career as a small clerk in the War Offices, under Le Tellier. Councilor of State in 1649, he became "servant" of Mazarin, where he kept accounts and managed personal property. Having become the cardinal's trusted man, he rendered him great services and was his agent in Paris when Mazarin had to go into exile during the troubles of the Fronde. While showing himself to be a zealous servant, Colbert did not forget his own interests; by doing the cardinal's business, he did his own and grew rich, a little quickly, for he was unscrupulous about the means to be employed to achieve it. But he was a hard worker, enamored of order and method, a cabinet man with well-kept records, a serious public servant, unquestionably devoted to the state. As much as his ambition to restore France to sound finances, it was the ferocious jealousy he felt towards Fouquet, the great worldly and sumptuous lord, which prompted him, from October 1659, to address Louis XIV a terrible indictment against the management of the superintendent.

From that moment Colbert applied for the succession of Fouquet. Mazarin, shortly before dying (1661), recommended it especially to the young king. Appointed intendant of Finances (1661), Colbert continued to patiently and quietly put together a heavy file concerning Fouquet's embezzlement; he enlightened and harassed the king in secret and this long work of undermining finally ended in the fall of the superintendent (September 1661). Superintendent of Buildings and Manufactures (1664), he received the following year the office of Comptroller General of Finances (1665), which did not give him all the powers of Fouquet because Louis XIV, decided to reign personally reserved the ordering of expenses. Colbert knew how to remain in his rank of ennobled petty bourgeois, giving the monarch the illusion of being the only master.

He was a cold bureaucrat, "capable of black treachery, violence, baseness(Lavisse). The court hated him, but he ignored the court. His unconditional loyalty won him many favors and titles; with his first functions, he still held the posts of secretary of state at the King's House (1668) and at the Navy (1669); he took advantage of Séguier's old age to encroach on the legislative and the judiciary; he became Lord and Marquis de Seignelay and, with funny fatuity, he tried to say "my subjects", "my vassals", "my river". He placed his brothers, his daughters (who became duchesses of Chevreuse, Beauvilliers and Mortemart), his sons (one went to the Navy, the other to the archbishopric of Rouen), his brother-in-law, his nephew , his cousins ​​... From the government, only Foreign Affairs (in Lionne) and War (in Le Tellier) escaped him. For a long time, moreover, a bitter struggle for places and honors opposed the Colbert clan and the Le Tellier clan.

Colbert's reforms

While the man hardly arouses sympathy - especially in contrast to his victim, the handsome Fouquet - the minister's greatness is undeniable. For nearly twenty-five years, Colbert bore responsibility for the entire economic and financial life of France. He was one of the greatest ministers of the monarchy, the main architect of the power of Louis XIV. Its reforming action was carried out in the most diverse fields, financial, economic, commercial, maritime, intellectual, with constant concern for the wealth and glory of the king, that is to say of the State. "We are not in a reign of small things", he said as early as 1664. In the policy of grandeur where the ambition of Louis XIV committed France, to face wars and an equally costly diplomacy ", not to mention of the great train of the court of Versailles, was an overwhelming task for a Minister of Finance.

Disdainful of "stewardship", Louis XIV did not hesitate to anticipate widely on revenues, and Colbert did not succeed in eliminating the deficit which reappeared after the Dutch War (1672), never to disappear. As soon as he came into business, however, Colbert had taken drastic measures to make the silver powers throat. The 1662 chamber of justice succeeded in obtaining some restitution from state farmers. But military needs soon forced Colbert to resort to expedients, as his predecessors had done; it was necessary to found a Loan Fund (1674), to create and sell offices, to increase indirect taxes.

Yet Colbert had tackled one of the essential aspects of the financial problem, the reform of the tax system. Due to the diversity of ancient France, still bristling with privileges and freedoms, taxation was extremely confused and varied. To ensure a better return on pruning, commoner tax, Colbert undertook the hunt for false nobles and false tax exemptions; in 1680, he created the General Farm, which was responsible for raising all other contributions; public accounting was ordered and simplified. But these measures could only have produced their full effect if they had been part of a general rationalization of the administration. Colbert resented the variety of administrative regimes in the kingdom; it was with the intention of putting an end to it that he developed the power of the intendants, who, at first simple investigators and administrators, became from 1680 fixed administrators, and that he pushed Louis XIV to the work of codification of justice, carried out by the great ordinances which succeeded one another from 1667 to 1685 (notably the Civil Ordinance of April 1667, the Criminal Ordinance of 1670 and the Commercial Ordinance of 1673).

The economy at the service of the State

It was the economy, the condition for the state's financial health and political power, that Colbert focused on. His government marked the height of French mercantilism, which has rightly been given the name "Colbertism". In fact, Colbert was less a theoretician than the realizer of the ideas expressed before him in France by Montchrétien and Laffemas. Like all European scholars of his time, he was convinced that the wealth of a state lies primarily in the amount of cash it possesses; he also believed that the available quantity of precious metals is fixed and that the volume of world trade is stable. "It is certain," he writes, "that in order to increase the one hundred and fifty millions which roll in the public, by twenty, thirty, sixty millions, it must be taken from neighboring states. "

Therefore, trade is nothing more than a war for money, "a perpetual and peaceful war of spirit and industry between all nations." Since a nation can only enrich itself by ruining other countries, it is necessary to ensure a surplus value of exports over imports, sell a lot, buy little in order to build up a large reserve of precious metals in France. The simplest process, of course, was to impose heavy tariffs on competing foreign products and lower tariffs on domestic products. Colbert’s State was resolutely protectionist: the customs tariff of 1664 was aggravated by the tariff of 1667, which practically prohibited Dutch and English products (but had to be abandoned after 1678). This state was also interventionist. he constantly intervened and claimed to regulate all economic life. "You must reduce all the professions of your subjects to those which can be useful", wrote Colbert to Louis XIV.

The royal factories

To sell cheaply, Colbert imposed a policy of low wages, but, as the labor force had to be allowed to live, the state practically sacrificed agriculture by setting agricultural prices as low as possible (the peasants were granted, in compensation, protection against tax excesses). The positive aspect of Colbertism is the powerful encouragement given to industry, it is an investment policy carried out by the State to create new enterprises, "factories" throughout the country, which made it possible to develop. '' rapidly increase the volume of exports. Colbert understood that France, not having America's gold and silver mines like Spain, could only enrich itself through a powerful industrial and commercial expansion. Large-scale industry was born in France with Colbert, but under the guidance and control of the state, which imposed detailed regulations on it. Strong of royal privilege. The factories enjoyed a monopoly on manufacturing, and the protection of "factory inspectors" responsible for cracking down on fraud.

Louis XIV at the Manufacture des Gobelins "/> Certain factories were run by the State (Gobelins, Beauvais), others simply encouraged and privileged; their installation was easy and fast because, most of the time, the factory made work a crowd of small scattered workshops. To improve internal trade, Colbert created roads and waterways (canals of Deux-Mers, d'Orléans), but his first concern was the large export trade. immense in the field of the navy, considering that “the prosperity of the merchant navy is the best criterion of the prosperity of the foreign trade.” The ports of Brest, Cherbourg, Rochefort, Toulon were enlarged and developed. Colbert instituted a council of constructions naval vessels and organized a powerful war fleet to protect distant trading lines and trading posts; in 1668 was inaugurated (maritime registration, for the recruitment of naval crews among the po pulations of coastal regions.

On the model of the English and Dutch companies, monopoly and privileged trading companies were created (East India Company, 1664; West India Company. 1664; North Company, 1669; Levant Company, 1670). Finally, Colbertism encouraged colonial expansion, but in this area Colbert encountered an incurable indifference on the part of the French public to distant lands. In 1685, Colbert legislated on the status of slaves in the colonies (Code Noir (or “edict on the slave police”).

In short, Colbertism was an unprecedented effort to emancipate the French economy from the obsolete framework of regional and local diversities, and corporations in the process of sclerosis; he was at the origin of the lasting prosperity of towns like Amiens, Aubusson, Saint-Étienne, Elbeuf. But it also had its downside: agriculture sacrificed too much; the factories soon sclerotic by the regulations that had originally stimulated them; the misdeeds of interventionism, which too identified the good of the nation with the power of the state; and above all this outrageous protectionism which, by openly setting itself the objective of the ruin of other nations, was the great generator of the incessant wars of the reign of Louis XIV.

Colbert, protector of Arts and Letters

This same passion for order, unity and rational regulation, Colbert, in his capacity as Superintendent of Buildings, Arts and Manufactures, manifested it when he undertook to organize artistic and intellectual life for the service of the State. . A great dispenser of royal patronage, he founded the Académie des inscriptions et belles-lettres (1663), the Académie des sciences (1666), the Académie de France in Rome (1666); he reorganized the academies of painting and sculpture (1664), of music (1669), of architecture (1671); we also owe him the Paris Observatory. He found in Le Brun the agent of an artistic academism oriented towards the praise of the Sun King. His Letters, Instructions and Memoirs were published by P. Clément (1861).

When Colbert tried to limit royal spending, he lost his influence with the Sun King and, from 1680, he was gradually replaced by the Marquis de Louvois. When he died, exhausted from work, he left Louis XIV a kingdom at the height of his power.


- Le grand Colbert, by Thierry Sarmant and Mathieu Stoll. Tallandier, 2019.

- Colbert: la virtue usurpée, biography of François d'Aubert. Perrin, 2010.

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