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Jean Baptiste Colbert

Jean Baptiste Colbert

The French statesman Jean Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) was one of the greatest ministers of Louis XIV and is generally regarded as the creator of the economic system of prerevolutionary France.

Jean Baptiste Colbert was born at Reims on Aug. 29, 1619, of a family of prosperous businessmen and officials. He entered the service of the French monarchy under Michel le Tellier, the father of the Marquis de Louvois. In 1651 he became the agent of Cardinal Mazarin, whom he served so well that the cardinal bequeathed him to King Louis XIV in 1661. Almost immediately Colbert became the most important minister in France. He was made intendant of finances in 1661 and in the next few years assumed responsibility for public buildings, commerce, and the administration of the royal household, the navy, and the merchant marine. His only serious rival was the war minister, Louvois. The two men intrigued against each other for royal favor, with Louvois, especially after 1679, gradually winning the upper hand. Colbert, however, remained immensely powerful until his death.

Colbert's most successful years were from 1661 to 1672. The neglect and corruption of the Mazarin period were replaced by a time of prosperity with expanding industry and mounting employment. The tax system was made slightly fairer and much more efficient, thereby greatly increasing Louis XIV's revenues.

In a mercantilist age Colbert was the supreme mercantilist. His program was to build up the economic strength of France by creating and protecting French industries, encouraging exports, and restricting imports (especially of luxury goods). By endless regulation and supervision, he tried to make French industry, particularly in luxury items, first in Europe; he was partially successful, for the French tradition of high quality in certain fields (for example, tapestry and porcelain) dates from his time.

Colbert organized royal trading companies to compete with the English and the Dutch for the trade of the Far East and the Americas. Although these companies were almost all failures, he was successful in building up one of the strongest European navies and a more than respectable merchant marine. At the same time he laid the foundations of the French overseas empire in Canada, the West Indies, and the Far East. The great expansion of French commerce and industry in the next century was largely due to his groundwork.

Colbert carried through a series of legal codifications of enormous importance, and the Code Napoleon was partly inspired by, and based on, his monumental work. He also made himself responsible for the artistic and cultural life of France. He encouraged, patronized, and regimented artists and writers, and the magnificent building program of Louis XIV was primarily his work.

Colbert was not an innovator. His ideas came from other men, particularly Cardinal Richelieu, and his interpretation of them was often mistaken. But for 22 years he controlled the economic fortunes of France, and he did so with an all-embracing scope and an incredible capacity for work. Some of his projects, however, were unsuccessful. He was unable to unify the diverse systems of weights and measures in France or to secure free trade within the country. His regulation of industry by constant inspection was largely ineffective, as his orders were often disregarded.

The major failure of Colbert stemmed from his determination to end Dutch domination of Far Eastern and European trade. Unable to damage the Dutch by a vindictive tariff war, he supported Louis XIV's unprovoked invasion of Holland in 1672 in the hope that the Dutch would be overrun in a few weeks. But the resultant war lasted until 1679, and the strain on the French economy undid many of the good results of Colbert's work.

Colbert died on Sept. 6, 1683, to the great relief of the general public, with whom he was (for the most part undeservedly) very unpopular. The immense concentration of responsibilities in one minister was never repeated under the monarchy.

Further Reading

Most of the work on Colbert is in French. The definitive work in English is Charles Woolsey Cole, Colbert and a Century of French Mercantilism (2 vols., 1939). A useful general treatment is in Pierre Goubert, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen (1966; trans. 1970). Goubert considers that Colbert has been overpraised by French historians and stresses his lack of originality and the elementary nature of his views on economics. However, he does justice to the wide range and great importance of Colbert's work.

Additional Sources

Murat, Ines, Colbert, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984.

Trout, Andrew P., Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978. □

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Colbert, Jean Baptiste

Jean Baptiste Colbert (zhäN bätēst´ kôlbĕr´), 1619–83, French statesman. The son of a draper, he was trained in business and was hired by Cardinal Mazarin to look after his financial affairs. On his deathbed, Mazarin recommended Colbert to King Louis XIV, who made him comptroller general of finances (1665). Colbert helped to procure the downfall of the superintendent of finances, Nicolas Fouquet, for mismanagement. As Louis XIV's minister, Colbert scaled down the public debt by repudiating some obligations and reducing the value of others and set up a system of accounts in order to keep the government within its income. His efforts to make taxes more equal had little success in the face of localism and tradition. Colbert's aim was to make France economically self-sufficient. One of the most successful practitioners of mercantilism, he encouraged the growth of industry through subsidies and tariff protection, rigidly regulated the qualities and prices of manufactured and agricultural products, tried to break down trade barriers within France, initiated a vigorous road-building program, and restricted the use of natural resources. In 1669 he was made secretary of state for naval affairs. He constructed shipyards, arsenals, and harbors, among them Brest and Rochefort, and began the construction of a large navy as a first step in the development of commerce and colonization. Colbert contributed significantly to the splendor of Louis XIV's reign by patronizing the arts and sciences. He founded the Academy of Sciences and the Paris Observatory and promoted the French Academy. His efforts at economy were soon menaced by the extravagance of the king, and the opening of Louis XIV's wars began the decline of Colbert's power and the ascendancy of the marquis de Louvois. It was Colbert's commercial policy, however, that, by challenging Dutch commercial strength, contributed to the Dutch War of 1672–78. To meet military expenses, Colbert was obliged to resort to increased taxation, the sale of offices, borrowing, and the anticipation of future revenues. His new taxes caused serious disturbances. Despite his unpopularity at the time of his death, Colbert was later ranked among the greatest of French statesmen.

See E. C. Lodge, Sully, Colbert and Turgot (1931, repr. 1970); C. W. Cole, Colbert and a Century of French Mercantilism (1939).

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Colbert, Jean Baptiste

Colbert, Jean Baptiste (1619–83) French statesman, the principal exponent of mercantilism. He came to prominence as an adviser to Cardinal Mazarin. From 1661, when Louis XIV began his personal rule, Colbert controlled most aspects of government: reforming taxation and manufacturing, reducing tariffs, establishing commercial companies such as the French East India Company, and strengthening the navy. He also enacted legal reforms and encouraged arts and sciences.

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