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.
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.
Murat, Ines, Colbert, Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1984.
Trout, Andrew P., Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1978.