Portrait: Jean-Baptiste Colbert, founder of mercantilism

Saturday, 2 August 2014 - 01:00 pm (CET/MEZ) Berlin | Author/Destination:
Category/Kategorie: Portrait

Jean-Baptiste Colbert by Robert Nateuil

Jean-Baptiste Colbert by Robert Nateuil

Jean-Baptiste Colbert was a French politician who served as the Minister of Finances of France from 1665 to 1683 under the rule of King Louis XIV. His relentless hard work and thrift 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. Colbert’s father and grandfather operated as merchants in his birthplace of Reims. Colbert was recommended to King Louis XIV by Mazarin. While Cardinal 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.

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 Secretary 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.

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 possessed the title only 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 though 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 that he established to examine all claims against the state. 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.

Colbert's tomb in the St Eustache church in Paris © Pline/cc-by-sa-3.0 Pavillon Colbert, part of Louvre Palace in Paris © Jebulon Jean-Baptiste Colbert by Robert Nateuil
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Colbert's tomb in the St Eustache church in Paris © Pline/cc-by-sa-3.0
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 offense, by the pillory. 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; while the lower classes found opportunities of advancement closed. He did, however, wisely consult the interests of internal commerce. Colbert’s policies can be described in three words: Mercantilism, Colbertism and Protectionism.

Read more on louis-xiv.de – Jean-Baptiste Colbert and Wikipedia Jean-Baptiste Colbert (Smart Traveler App by U.S. Department of State). Photos by Wikimedia Commons. If you have a suggestion, critique, review or comment to this blog entry, we are looking forward to receive your e-mail at comment@wingsch.net. Please name the headline of the blog post to which your e-mail refers to in the subject line.




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