Biography of Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)

French statesman, born August 29, 1619 in Reims and died in Paris on September 6, 1683. He/She was one of the main collaborators of Luis XIV, he/she served for more than two decades as Minister of finance, marine, public works and Commerce and Secretary of the King's House. Economic policy designed by Colbert played an essential role in the administrative building of the French monarchy and the consolidation of the gala hegemony over Europe.


He was born in a family of small traders of cloths. At nineteen he/she entered to work in an office of the Royal administration. After holding various positions in Paris under the orders of Le Tellier, Minister of war of Luis XIII, in 1651 became the main agent in the capital of the Prime Minister, Cardinal Mazarin, to which the rebellion of La Fronda was forced to flee to provinces. When the cardinal regained power, named Colbert its Mayor for private affairs, giving also several perks, including the barony of Seignelay. Before his death in 1661, Mazarin strongly recommended Luis XIV that you trusted him to direct the Affairs of State. Although the King decided, after the disappearance of the Cardinal, exercise power personally, Colbert committed numerous matters, both public and private. Thus began his meteoric ascension: in 1664 was appointed intendant of public works and articles; two years later, inspector general of finances; in 1668, Minister of marine, and the following year, Secretary of the House of the King and Minister of State. During the following 25 years, Colbert would handle the economic reconstruction of France at the service of glorification of Luis XIV.

The financial reform

His first objective was the sanitation of the Royal estate, led by the powerful Superintendent Nicolas Fouquet. Colbert was desirous to charge and spared no means to get it. He/She managed to ill to the King against the Superintendent, showing numerous irregularities in its management and corruption which had raised his vast fortune. Own Fouquet sealed his downfall by inviting the King to his splendid palace of Vaux-le-Vicomte, whose magnificence dazzled and angered Luis. Arrested by order of the King, Fouquet was subjected to a sham trial, directed in the shade by Colbert, and sent to prison, where he/she would die after 15 years in captivity. However, Colbert did not occupy his post, but that the King recommended the creation of a Finance Council, which he/she chaired with the office of Mayor. In 1665, he/she was promoted to inspector general.

The task of stabilize the finances of the monarchy was not easy. The restoration of the balanced budget required a comprehensive reform of the financial system. First, Colbert ordered the creation of special courts, responsible for investigating the finances of bankers and landlords of taxes, which had obtained huge profits thanks to its dealings with the Crown. It forced many of them to return part of their earnings, renegotiated the huge accumulated public debt interest and tried to reduce this through the repeal of part of the bonds of the State or their pay without interest.

Review of debt was accompanied by the reform of the tax system, heir of the middle ages and burdened by corruption and the ineffectiveness of their administrative methods. Although not introduced important changes in the tax system, Colbert made a complete reorganization of the fiscal administration, establishing new mechanisms of control officers and rigorous accounting standards. The statements were made mandatory to control monthly income and expenses and annual budgets were prepared. The aim of these measures was to establish a rigorous control over public servants and the monarch always keep abreast of the State of their financial resources.

Colbert tried to increase the tax revenue of the monarchy. To achieve this goal without increasing significantly the taxes - and especially the most important carving (taille)-, Colbert decreed a systematic review of the numerous exemptions that benefit to the nobility and the clergy. Committees were established to examine the tax privileges of toilets and determine the legitimacy of the titles, in order to put an end to the fraud of the false hidalguias. At the same time, Colbert tried to make less burdensome the size for producing classes through a distribution more fair tax because of the heritage. However, these measures met the extreme local and provincial fragmentation of the French tax system. Colbert only managed to impose a certain fiscal homogeneity in the Central of the country, closer to the monarchical regions. Their efforts were better with regard to the establishment of effective methods of control and management of taxes. He/She created detailed protocols for the management of tax offices and mechanisms of supervision over local officials, largely eliminating the old corruption, which resulted in a considerable increase of revenue of the Royal Treasury.

The economic policy of Colbert, who would soon become known as Colbertism or industrialism, rested on a strong protectionism of domestic production, aimed at punishing imports and favour the development of internal trade and exports. In 1664 he/she ordered an initial review of the tariffs, which would be completed in 1667. The countries affected by these measures responded, in turn, with the imposition of restrictions on imports of French products. This "war of the rates" ended with the outbreak of the Franco War of 1672-1678.

Through these measures, Colbert managed to double the income of the State within the period of a decade, balancing the budget of the monarchy. But the outbreak of the war with Holland and the policy of prestige of The Sun King, unloaded in part the work of the Minister. The continued war effort created a permanent deficit in the Regal Hacienda, which again had to resort to the usual mechanisms for money: loans, alienation of the Royal heritage, public debt, increased the taxes, etc. But at all times it approved the economic policy of his Minister, Luis XIV considered that the enrichment of the nation was not an end in itself, but a means for the glorification of the monarchy. Therefore, it never subordinated objectives in Europe the recommendations of Colbert.

The reform of trade and manufacturing.

As Minister of works and articles, Colbert made a great effort to develop French industry and trade. According to his economic doctrine, the strengthening of French supremacy required the presence of France in international markets increased. To achieve this goal launched a programme of naval development, which entailed a direct challenge to the main maritime and commercial power of the era, Holland, with which France began a dangerous international competition. As Minister for the Navy, he/she promoted the construction of a large fleet, both military and commercial, that ended with the effective monopoly that the Dutch ships were on the French freight. He/She granted privileges to the creation of shipyards, imposed measures punishing the use of foreign ships and others that advantages richly options of boats of nation-building, time obtaining commercial monopolies in overseas trading. To compete with English and Dutch in international trade, founded a number of companies with state capital: the French company of the West Indies and the West Indies (1644), North (1669) company, oriented towards the Baltic markets, and the Levante (1670) company for trade with the Eastern Mediterranean.

But his project was not limited to the adoption of an aggressive commercial policy, but included a program of reforms designed to improve the quality of the manufacturing production and to develop the internal market. In order to increase the quality of products, established a complete regulation of manufacture and severe penalties for the contraveners; he/she granted privileges to private manufacturing - called Manufactures Royales - to promote the export of certain products or to replace foreign imports; it hosted the establishment in France of artisans and specialized workers from other regions of Europe and founded state workshops with large subsidies and a strict control over its operation. To ensure compliance with trade regulations created a new body of inspectors of manufacturing, and since 1673, tried to generalize the corporate control boards to monitor the quality of production within the different guilds.

This policy of State control provoked the opposition of merchants and contractors, who were suspicious of the control of the monarchy and preferred to maintain their freedom of action against public authorities. However, the French people supported, in general, protection measures, which reversed in greater control over prices. But Colbert failed to vary the traditional customs of the capital investment. In a time of shortages of cash, people did not want to risk your capital by investing in the industry or trade, so the companies launched by Colbert dragged a perpetual lack of private capital, and as is the case with commercial companies, they largely depended on actual subsidies.

Marina and public works.

Colbert did not accumulate skills during his more than two decades in power. As Minister of the Navy, where he/she served since 1668, undertook the creation of a large Navy which could compete in the sea with the powerful fleets of England, Holland or Spain, and directed the fortification of the land borders and coasts of France. The development of the maritime power required labor, and to obtain it, Colbert managed a series of methods not only effective, but also cheap: it forbade under penalty of death, the French sailors to work on foreign ships, and recommended the judges to send to the gallows to common criminals, in order to enhance the French fleet in the Mediterraneanwhose main driving force was the galley slaves. This same fate was recommended for political prisoners, Protestants and the slaves of the Canada or Africa. To promote the use of national construction vessels, fixed heavy fines that punish the recruitment of foreign ships for the transport of goods. On the other hand, the shipbuilding led him to worry about the State of the timber resources of France and in 1669, enacted the Ordinance of waters and forests, which tried to establish rigid control over these sectors, whose management was one of the most corrupted administration. This Ordinance was part of the huge legislative work which developed Colbert, whose most significant examples are the criminal Ordinance (1670), the commercial code (1673), maritime Ordinance (1681) or the black code, which governed the work of the slaves in the French colonial Territories.

Its border fortification policy was one of the most remarkable and durable career achievements. Under your splint were built or strengthened dozens of fortresses along the coast and the border (Toulon, Brest, Dieppe, Saint-Malo, Calais, Dunkerque, Le Havre...). His sense of propaganda led him to worry that these fortifications were not only infallible, but also beautiful, and commissioned the leading artists of the country, such as Pierre Puget, the design and ornamentation of the buildings.

In 1669 Luis XIV appointed him Minister of the House of the King, since that could boost the cultural life of the country to the greater glory of the monarch. Colbert applied to the arts and Sciences the same principle that had guided their previous roles: the glorification of the monarchical. By then he/she was already member of the Académie française, and in 1663, he/she founded the Academy of inscriptions and letters fine, destined to choose the legends of the inscriptions and commemorative medals for the victories of the Sun King. Three years later he/she created the Academy of Sciences, whose objective was to apply scientific discoveries to the development of national resources. And, finally, in 1671, he/she opened the Royal Academy of architecture. Colbert was also the founder or the main promoter of various schools and cultural organizations, such as the Academy of France in Rome - where French artists could be formed with the best masters of his time-, school of languages, aimed at the study of Eastern languages, the botanical garden or the Paris Observatory.

Mercantilism and Colbertism

The economic practice of Colbert had its roots in the thinking of B. Laffémas, a. de Montchretien or the same Cardinal Richelieu. Colbert was not, therefore, the father of mercantilism, although their efforts to put into practice the principles of this economic doctrine and the breadth and the rigor of its policy can be considered paradigmatic examples of 17TH-century European mercantilist practice.

The objective of this policy was the enrichment of France. According to Colbert, only on this basis an effective tax system that eased the perpetual deficits of the monarchy could be built. In this way, the richness of the United support of the State and is, therefore, in the power of the monarch. Like most of the theorists of his time, Colbert believed that the wealth of a State was in the amount of cash that control. At a time of general monetary shortage, Colbert believed that the only way to retain the money in France was to get a favorable trade balance, reducing to a minimum the imports and promote exports. On this issue he/she wrote: "it is easy to agree that the abundance of money from a State is because of his greatness and power (...) There is a single amount of money which circulates throughout Europe and that, from time to time, increases with what comes from the West Indies (...) The money cannot be increased in the Kingdom without Rob, at the same time, the same amount to neighboring States (...) "It is necessary to increase the money in public trade, obtaining it from the countries where it comes from, keeping it inside the Kingdom, preventing that it flows out and offering means to men so that they make a most of it." According to this thinking, prosperity of a State could only be achieved at the expense of their neighbors and competitors. This "economic pessimism," which was one of the most characteristic features of mercantilism, rejected the idea of a joint growth and invited to develop all-out economic war.


Colbert policy influenced decisively in the modernization of the administrative structures of the French monarchy and the development of the country's economic resources. However, its results only could perceive if kept the peace, what not entered in the intentions of Luis XIV, who enzarzó to France in an endless series of European wars that left the country exhausted and on the verge of their resistance. At the end of his life, Colbert was a disappointed man, whose bitterness is revealed in the letters he/she wrote in his later years. After more than two decades of efforts, the results of its management were very far from their expectations. Tariff policy had to be repealed after the war with the Netherlands; the cost of the monarchy grew exorbitant way due to prestige policy developed by the King; Trade companies accused of the real estate problems and were disappearing between 1674 and 1690; something similar happened with real manufacturing, whose profitability fell sharply to cease official aid. Not all, however, were failures. The Merchant Navy recovered and doubled its tonnage in just two decades, ensuring a greater French presence in the international market and the consolidation of the outlying colonies, especially in America. Rightly, the physiocrats of eighteenth-century reproached Colbert have paid very little attention to agriculture. Its action focused on the sectors of the economy that was considered necessary to promote international competition, i.e., manufacturing production, naval development and commercial companies. However, it made some efforts to improve agricultural productivity, such as the promotion of livestock or crop diversification.

His personality and his work aroused, both during his life and after his death, bitter oppositions and hard polemics. Its management was the target of large number of illegal pamphlets. After his disappearance he/she was publicly maligned and criticized by Liberals and physiocrats. Its policy must be seen, however, within the framework of mercantilist conservatism that dominated the economic life of the Europe of his time. As been written C. Gómez Centurión, Colbert was "a meticulous administrator" in the service of his Overlord, not an economist. Hence their lack of economic vision of long reach.

On his death, which occurred when he/she was 64 years old, left ideally located to their progeny: his eldest son, Jean-Baptiste, Marquis de Seignelay, happened in front of the Ministry of finance; his second son, Jacques Nicolas, was Archbishop of Rouen, and the fourth, Jules Armand, Minister of public works, while his three daughters married Dukes. He/She left a series of interesting writings, including his report on the financial affairs of France (1663) and private text secret details of the life of the King.


BRAUDEL, f. & LABROUSSE, e. (dir.) Histoire économique et social de la France, II. Paris (PUF), 1970.

DEYON, P. The origins of modern Europe: the mercantilism. Barcelona (Peninsula), 1976.

CENTURIÓN, C. Luis XIV century. Madrid (notebooks 16 history), 1985.

MONGREDIEN, G. Colbert, 1619-1683. Paris (Hachette), 1963.

NECKER, J. Elogio di j-b. Colbert. Catania (Editrice Catenense di Magisterium), 1987.