Jean-Baptiste Colbert (August 29, 1619 — September 6, 1683) served as the French minister of finance from 1665 to 1683 under the rule of King Louis XIV. He was described by Mme de Sévigné as "Le Nord" as he was cold and unemotional. His relentless hard work and thriftiness made him an esteemed minister. He achieved a reputation for his work of improving the state of French manufacturing and bringing the economy back from the brink of bankruptcy. Historians note that, despite Colbert's efforts, France actually became increasingly impoverished because of the King's excessive spending on wars. 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 foundation of the Manufacture royale de glaces de miroirs in 1665 to supplant the importation of Venetian glass (forbidden in 1672, as soon as French glass manufacture was on a sound basis) and to encourage the technical expertise of Flemish cloth manufacturing in France. He also founded royal tapestry works at Gobelins and supported that 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.
Colbert's father operated as a clothier in 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. In 1640, at the age of 21, Colbert had the post of commissaire ordinaire des guerres in the war office; a position generally attributed to the marriage of an uncle to the sister of Secretary of War Le Tellier. Colbert's father Nicolas, however, used his political position and wealth to purchase the title for his son. Colbert's role as commissaire was to inspect troops; this would become an important position and one that would propel him into notoriety in 1648 with the events of the Fronde. In 1648, he married Marie Charron, a daughter of a member of the king's council. Her dowry was 100,000 livres. The marriage contract also mentioned Colbert's 50,000 livres "deriving from his profession"
The Fronde and later revolts
The Fronde lasted from 1647 to 1653. Twice in 1651 and 1652, Cardinal Mazarin was forced into exile. Colbert served as an intermediary between the royal court, as it moved about in the provinces, Cardinal Mazarin in exile and Le Tellier, who was working to coordinate the war efforts in Spain and Paris simultaneously. It was at this time that Colbert's presence would soon become familiar with the powerful cardinal, the queen and her son Louis XIV. 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
While Mazarin was in exile, Louis' trust in Colbert grew. In 1652 Colbert was asked to manage the affairs of the Cardinal while he was away. This new responsibility would detach Colbert from his other responsibility as commissaire des guerres. Although Colbert was not a supporter of Mazarin in principle, he would defend the cardinal's interests with unflagging devotion.
Colbert's earliest recorded attempt at tax reform came in the form of a mémoire 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 of Finances; in 1669, he became Secrectary of State of the Navy; 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. Supported by the young king Louis XIV, Colbert aimed the first blow at the man accused of being the greatest of the royal embezzlers, the superintendent Nicolas Fouquet. Fouquet's fall, it should be noted, simultaneously secured Colbert's own advancement.
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 remembering the corruption 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 a measure of order and economy into the workings of the government, Colbert now called for the enrichment of the country by commerce. The state, through Colbert's dirigiste policies, fostered manufacturing enterprises in a wide variety of fields. The authorities established new industries, protected inventors, invited in workmen from foreign countries, and 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. Other parts of Colbert's schemes have met with 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 devised 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 equalise them. Currency exchange rates still remained between these provinces despite a policy focusing on the unification of French trade. His régime improved roads and canals. Pierre Paul Riquet (1604–1680) planned and constructed the Canal du Midi under Colbert's patronage. To encourage overseas trade with the Levant, Senegal, Guinea and other places, Colbert granted privileges to companies, but, like the noted French East India Company, all proved unsuccessful. The narrowness and rigidity of the government regulations significantly contributed to this collapse, as well as the failure of the colonies, upon which Colbert had bestowed a great deal of energy and political capital
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 papacy as to the royal rights over vacant bishoprics; and he seems to have sympathised 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 fêtes, 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 (French Protestants), who were well represented among the merchant classes; 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 Paris 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 Académie française; 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 Molière, Corneille, Racine, Boileau, P D Huet (1630–1721) and Antoine Varillas (1626–1696); and even foreigners, as Huygens, Carlo Dati the Dellacruscan. 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.
Colbert worked incessantly hard until his final hours. Working was his religion; he once pondered whether it was better to rise early and work or sleep very late and work. He concluded that rising early and sleeping late would be the ideal combination. However at the age of 68 he suffered from stomach aches which caused him much distress. He was reduced to eating moist bread dipped in chicken broth for his meals. By 69 he was bedridden and 4 days after his birthday he died. The surgeons that operated on him found that he was suffering from kidney stones. A huge stone was found in his urinary tract, which would explain why he was in such writhing agony.