1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Colbert, Jean Baptiste
COLBERT, JEAN BAPTISTE (1619–1683), French statesman, was born at Reims, where his father and grandfather were merchants. He claimed to be the descendant of a noble Scottish family, but the evidence for this is lacking. His youth is said to have been spent in a Jesuit college, in the office of a Parisian banker, and in that of a Parisian notary, Chapelain, the father of the poet. But the first fact on which we can rely with confidence is that, when not yet twenty, he obtained a post in the war-office, by means of the influence that he possessed through the marriage of one of his uncles to the sister of Michel Le Tellier, the secretary of state for war. During some years he was employed in the inspection of troops and other work of the kind, but at length his ability, his extraordinary energy and his untiring laboriousness induced Le Tellier to make him his private secretary. These qualities, combined, it must be confessed, with a readiness to seize every opportunity of advancement, soon brought Colbert both wealth and influence. In 1647 we find him receiving the confiscated goods of his uncle Pussort, in 1648 obtaining 40,000 crowns with his wife Marie Charron, in 1649 appointed councillor of state.
It was the period of the wars of the Fronde; and in 1651 the triumph of the Condé family drove Cardinal Mazarin from Paris. Colbert, now aged thirty-two, was engaged to keep him acquainted with what should happen in the capital during his absence. At first Colbert’s position was far from satisfactory; for the close wary Italian treated him merely as an ordinary agent. On one occasion, for example, he offered him 1000 crowns. The gift was refused somewhat indignantly; and by giving proof of the immense value of his services, Colbert gained all that he desired. His demands were not small; for, with an ambition mingled, as his letters show, with strong family affection, he aimed at placing all his relatives in positions of affluence and dignity; and many a rich benefice and important public office was appropriated by him to that purpose. For these favours, conferred upon him by his patron with no stinted hand, his thanks were expressed in a most remarkable manner; he published a letter defending the cardinal from the charge of ingratitude which was often brought against him, by enumerating the benefits that he and his family had received from him (April 1655). Colbert obtained, besides, the higher object of his ambition; the confidence of Mazarin, so far as it was granted to any one, became his, and he was entrusted with matters of the gravest importance. In 1659 he was giving directions as to the suppression of the revolt of the gentry which threatened in Normandy, Anjou and Poitou, with characteristic decision arresting those whom he suspected, and arranging every detail of their trial, the immediate and arbitrary destruction of their castles and woods, and the execution of their chief, Bonnesson. In the same year we have evidence that he was already planning his great attempt at financial reform. His earliest tentative was the drawing up 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 Nicholas Fouquet (q.v.), and being opened by the postmaster of Paris, who happened to be a spy of Fouquet’s, it gave rise to a bitter quarrel, which, however, Mazarin repressed during his lifetime.
In 1661 the death of Mazarin allowed Colbert to take the first place in the administration, and he made sure of the king’s favour by revealing to him some of Mazarin’s hidden wealth. It was some time before he assumed official dignities; but in January 1664 he obtained the post of superintendent of buildings; in 1665 he was made controller-general; in 1669 he became minister of the marine; and he was also appointed minister of commerce, the colonies and the king’s palace. In short, he soon 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 weight 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; whose fall, in addition, secured his own advancement.
The office of superintendent and many others dependent upon it being abolished the supreme control of the finances was vested in a royal council. The sovereign was its president; but Colbert, though for four years he only possessed the title of intendant, was its ruling spirit, great personal authority being conferred upon him by the king. The career on which Colbert now entered must not be judged without constant remembrance of the utter rottenness of the previous financial administration. His ruthlessness in this case, dangerous precedent as it was, was perhaps necessary; individual interests could not be respected. Guilty officials having been severely punished, the fraudulent creditors of the government remained to be dealt with. Colbert’s method was simple. Some of the public loans were totally repudiated, and from others a percentage was cut off, 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 was impossible, but false claims to exemption were firmly resisted, and the unjust direct taxation was lightened by an increase of the indirect taxes, from which the privileged could not escape. The mode of collection was at the same time immensely improved.
Order and economy being thus introduced into the working of the government, the country, according to Colbert’s vast yet detailed plan, was to be enriched by commerce. Manufactures were fostered in every way he could devise. New industries were established, inventors protected, workmen invited from foreign countries, French workmen absolutely prohibited to emigrate. To maintain the character of French goods in foreign markets, as well as to afford a guarantee to the home consumer, the quality and measure of each article were fixed by law, breach of the regulations being punished by public exposure of the delinquent and destruction of the goods, and, on the third offence, by the pillory. But whatever advantage resulted from this rule was more than compensated by the disadvantages it entailed. The production of qualities which would have suited many purposes of consumption was prohibited, 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 deserve 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, improvement was greatly discouraged; while to the lower classes opportunities of advancement were closed. With regard to international commerce Colbert was equally unfortunate in not being in advance of his age; the tariffs he published were protective to an extreme. The interests of internal commerce were, however, wisely consulted. 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. The roads and canals were improved. The great canal of Languedoc was planned and constructed by Pierre Paul Riquet (1604–1680) under his patronage. To encourage trade with the Levant, Senegal, Guinea and other places, privileges were granted to companies; but, like the more important East India Company, all were unsuccessful. The chief cause of this failure, as well as of the failure of the colonies, on which he bestowed so much watchful care, was the narrowness and rigidity of the government regulations.
The greatest and most lasting of Colbert’s achievements was the establishment of the French marine. The royal navy owed all to him, for the king thought only of military exploits. For its 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, and 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 Havre. To supply it with recruits he invented his famous system of classes, by which each seaman, according to the class in which he was placed, gave six months’ service every three or four or five years. For three months after his term of service he was to receive half-pay; pensions were promised; and, in short, everything was done to make the navy popular. There was one department, however, that was supplied with men 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 who had been condemned to death; and the convict once chained to the bench, the expiration of his sentence was seldom allowed to bring him release. Mendicants also, against whom no crime had been proved, contraband dealers, those who had been engaged in insurrections, and others immeasurably superior to the criminal class, nay, innocent men—Turkish, Russian and negro slaves, and poor Iroquois Indians, whom the Canadians were ordered to entrap—were pressed into that terrible service. By these means the benches of the galleys were filled, and Colbert took no thought of the long unrelieved agony borne by those who filled them.
Nor was the mercantile marine forgotten. Encouragement was given to the building of ships in France by allowing a premium on those built at home, and imposing a duty on those brought from abroad; and as French workmen were forbidden to emigrate, so French seamen were forbidden to serve foreigners on pain of death.
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 Rome as to the royal rights over vacant bishoprics; and he seems to have sympathized with the proposal that was made to seize 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 those devoted to clerical and monastic life, by fixing the age for taking the vows some years later than was then customary. With heresy he was at first unwilling to interfere, for he was aware of 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 called the Institut de France), the Observatory, which he employed Claude Perrault to build and brought G. D. 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, Nîmes and many other towns, and he reorganized the Academy of Painting and Sculpture which Richelieu had established. He was a member of the French Academy; and one very characteristic rule, recorded to have been proposed by him with the intention of expediting the great Dictionary, in which he was much interested, was that no one should be accounted present at any meeting unless he arrived before the hour of commencement and remained till the hour for leaving. In 1673 he 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 Huyghens, Vossius the geographer, Carlo Dati the Dellacruscan, and Heinsius the great Dutch scholar. There is evidence to show that by this munificence he hoped to draw out praises of his sovereign and himself; but this motive certainly is far from accounting for all the splendid, if in some cases specious, services that he rendered to literature, science and art.
Indeed to everything that concerned the interests of France Colbert devoted unsparing thought and toil. Besides all that has been mentioned, he found time to do something for the better administration of justice (the codification of ordinances, the diminishing of the number of judges, the reduction of the expense and length of trials for the establishment of a superior system of police) and even for the improvement of the breed of horses and the increase of cattle. As superintendent of public buildings he enriched Paris with boulevards, quays and triumphal arches; he relaid the foundation-stone of the Louvre, and brought Bernin from Rome to be its architect; and he erected its splendid colonnade upon the plan of Claude Perrault, by whom Bernin had been replaced. He was not permitted, however, to complete the work, being compelled to yield to the king’s preference for residences outside Paris, and to devote himself to Marly and Versailles.
Amid all these public labours his private fortune was never neglected. While he was reforming the finances of the nation, and organizing its navy, he always found time to direct the management of his smallest farm. He died extremely rich, and left fine estates all over France. He had been created marquis de Seignelay, and for his eldest son he obtained the reversion of the office of minister of marine; his second son became archbishop of Rouen; and a third son, the marquis d’Ormoy, became superintendent of buildings.
To carry out his reforms, Colbert needed peace; but the war department was in the hands of his great rival Louvois, whose influence gradually supplanted that of Colbert with the king. Louis decided on a policy of conquest. He was deaf also to all the appeals against the other forms of his boundless extravagance which Colbert, with all his deference towards his sovereign, bravely ventured to make. Thus it came about that, only a few years after he had commenced to free the country from the weight of the loans and taxes which crushed her to the dust, Colbert was forced to heap upon her a new load of loans and taxes more heavy than the last. Henceforth his life was a hopeless struggle, and the financial and fiscal reform which, with the great exception of the establishment of the navy, was the most valuable service to France contemplated by him, came to nought.
Depressed by his failure, deeply wounded by the king’s favour for Louvois, and worn out by overwork, Colbert’s strength gave way at a comparatively early age. In 1680 he was the constant victim of severe fevers, from which he recovered for a time through the use of quinine prescribed by an English physician. But in 1683, at the age of sixty-four, he was seized with a fatal illness, and on the 6th of September he expired. It was said that he died of a broken heart, and a conversation with the king is reported in which Louis disparagingly compared the buildings of Versailles, which Colbert was superintending, with the works constructed by Louvois in Flanders. He took to bed, it is true, immediately afterwards, refusing to receive all messages from the king; but his constitution was utterly broken before, and a post-mortem examination proved that he had been suffering from stone. His body was interred in the secrecy of night, for fear of outrage from the Parisians, by whom his name was cordially detested.
Colbert was a great statesman, who did much for France. Yet his insight into political science was not deeper than that of his age; nor did he possess any superiority in moral qualities. His rule was a very bad example of over-government. He did not believe in popular liberty;, the parlements and the states-general received no support from him. The technicalities of justice he never allowed to interfere with his plans; but he did not hesitate to shield his friends. He trafficked in public offices for the profit of Mazarin and in his own behalf. He caused the suffering of thousands in the galleys; he had no ear, it is said, for the cry of the suppliant. There was indeed a more human side to his character, as is shown in his letters, full of wise advice and affectionate care, to his children, his brothers, his cousins even. Yet to all outside he was “the man of marble.” Madame de Sévigné called him “the North.” To diplomacy he never pretended; persuasion and deceit were not the weapons he employed; all his work was carried out by the iron hand of authority. He was a great statesman in that he conceived a magnificent yet practicable scheme for making France first among nations, and in that he possessed a matchless faculty for work, neither shrinking from the vastest undertakings nor scorning the most trivial details.
Numerous vies and éloges of Colbert have been published; but the most thorough student of his life and administration was Pierre Clément, member of the Institute, who in 1846 published his Vie de Colbert, and in 1861 the first of the 9 vols. of the Lettres, instructions, et mémoires de Colbert. The historical introductions prefixed to each of these volumes have been published by Mme. Clément under the title of the Histoire de Colbert et de son administration (3rd ed., 1892). The best short account of Colbert as a statesman is that in Lavisse, Histoire de France (1905), which gives a thorough study of the administration. Among Colbert’s papers are Mémoires sur les affaires de finance de France (written about 1663), a fragment entitled Particularités secrètes de la vie du Roy, and other accounts of the earlier part of the reign of Louis XIV. (J. T. S.)
- See especially a Mémoire presented to the king in 1666, published in the Lettres, &c., de Colbert, vol. ii.