Jean-Baptiste Colbert
Lord of Vandières and Cernay
Portrait de Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1655)
by Philippe de Champaigne
First Minister of State
In office
9 March 1661 – 6 September 1683
MonarchLouis XIV
Preceded byJules Raymond Mazarin
Succeeded byThe Marquis of Louvois
Secretary of State of the Navy
In office
7 March 1669 – 6 September 1683
MonarchLouis XIV
Preceded byThe Marquis of Fresnes
Succeeded byThe Marquis of Seignelay
Secretary of State of the Maison du Roi
In office
16 February 1669 – 6 September 1683
MonarchLouis XIV
Preceded byAntoine de Ratabon
Succeeded byThe Marquis of Louvois
Controller-General of Finances
In office
12 December 1665 – 6 September 1683
MonarchLouis XIV
Preceded byLouis Le Tonnelier
Succeeded byClaude Le Peletier
Personal details
Born(1619-08-29)29 August 1619
Reims, France
Died6 September 1683(1683-09-06) (aged 64)
Paris, France
Resting placeSaint-Eustache, Paris
Marie Charron
(m. 1648⁠–⁠1683)
Nickname(s)Le Grand Colbert
(The Great Colbert)
Academic career
School or
AwardsOrder of the Holy Spirit

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (French: [ʒɑ̃.ba.tist kɔl.bɛʁ]; 29 August 1619 – 6 September 1683) was a French statesman who served as First Minister of State from 1661 until his death in 1683 under the rule of King Louis XIV. His lasting impact on the organization of the country's politics and markets, known as Colbertism, a doctrine often characterized as a variant of mercantilism, earned him the nickname le Grand Colbert ([lə ɡʁɑ̃ kɔl.bɛʁ]; "the Great Colbert").

A native of Reims, he was appointed Intendant of Finances on 4 May 1661. Colbert took over as Controller-General of Finances, a newly created position, in the aftermath of the arrest of Nicolas Fouquet for embezzlement, an event that led to the abolishment of the office of Superintendent of Finances. He worked to develop the domestic economy by raising tariffs and encouraging major public works projects, as well as to ensure that the French East India Company had access to foreign markets, so that they could always obtain coffee, cotton, dyewoods, fur, pepper, and sugar. He acted to create a favorable balance of trade and increase colonial holdings. As there was slavery in the colonies, in 1682, Colbert commissioned the beginning of a project that would become the Code Noir two years after his death in 1683.[1] In addition, he founded France's merchant navy (marine marchande), becoming Secretary of State of the Navy in 1669.

His effective market reforms included the foundation of the Manufacture royale de glaces de miroirs in 1665 to supplant the importation of Venetian glass, which was forbidden in 1672 as soon as the national glass manufacturing industry was on sound footing. Also encouraging the technical expertise of Flemish cloth manufacturing in France, he founded royal tapestry works at Gobelins and supported those at Beauvais. He issued more than 150 edicts to regulate the guilds.[2] The Académie des sciences was founded in 1666 at his suggestion; he was a member of the Académie française from 1 March 1667 to his death, where he occupied the 24th seat, to which Jean de La Fontaine was later elected. His son Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Marquis de Seignelay (1651–1690), succeeded him as Navy Secretary.


Early life

Colbert's father and grandfather were merchants in his birthplace of Reims, France. He claimed to have Scottish ancestry. A widespread (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.

Before the age of 20, Colbert had a post in the war office, a position generally attributed to the marriage of an uncle to the sister of Secretary of War Michel Le Tellier. Colbert spent some time as an inspector of troops, eventually becoming the personal secretary of Le Tellier. In 1647, through unknown means, Colbert acquired the confiscated goods of an uncle, Pussort. In 1648, he and his wife Marie Charron, received 40,000 crowns from an unknown source; and in 1649 Colbert became the councilor of state, i.e. a political minister.

In 1657, he purchased the Barony of Seignelay.

Rise to power

Colbert was recommended to King Louis XIV by Mazarin. While Cardinal Mazarin was in exile, Louis's 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 less than half of the taxes paid by the people reached the King. The paper also contained an attack on Nicolas Fouquet. The postmaster of Paris, a spy of Fouquet's, read the letter, leading to a dispute which Mazarin attempted to suppress.[3]

In 1661, Mazarin died and Colbert "made sure of the King's favor" 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.[3]

A great financial and fiscal reform now 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 rural poor. 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 secured Colbert's own advancement.[3]

Economic reform

Colbert en grande tenue

After the abolition of the office of superintendent and of many other offices dependent upon it, control of France's finances fell to a royal council. The sovereign functioned as its president, but Colbert, though only an intendant for the first four years, operated as its ruling spirit, enjoying as he did king's favor and confidence.

His ruthlessness in the execution of his functions may have set a dangerous precedent, but it probably struck him necessary in that the council could not defer to individual interests. This way of administering his policies was particularly in evidence in his preparation and enforcement of his forestry ordinance of 1669.[4] When he had severely punished guilty officials, he turned his attention to the government's fraudulent creditors. Here he had a simple way of operating. He repudiated some of the public loans and reduced the interest rate on others. The amount of the reduction was initially his own decision but ultimately that of a council he established to examine all claims against the state.

Much more serious difficulties met his attempts to introduce equality in taxation among the various classes. Cutting back the number of the privileged proved impossible, but Colbert firmly resisted false claims for exemption and lightened direct taxation by increasing indirect taxes, from which the privileged could not escape. At the same time, he undertook improvements to the way taxes were collected.

Colbert's relentless hard work and thrift made him an esteemed minister. He achieved a reputation for improving the state of French manufacturing and bringing the economy back from the brink of bankruptcy. Nevertheless, despite his best efforts, France grew increasingly impoverished because of the King's excessive spending on wars.[5]

Economic theory

Further information: Colbertism and Protectionism

Having introduced a measure of order and economy into the workings of the government, Colbert called for the enrichment of the country by means of commerce. Through Colbert's dirigiste policies,[citation needed] France 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.[3]

To maintain the character of French goods in foreign markets as well as to afford a guarantee to the domestic consumer, Colbert had the quality and quantity of each article fixed by law, punishing breaches of the regulations by public exposure of the delinquent and destruction of the goods concerned, and, on the third offense, by the pillory. Colbert prohibited the production of certain products that might have suited consumers, and the time-consuming supervision he imposed on commercial enterprises may have acted as a hindrance to improvement. Other parts of Colbert's schemes have met with less equivocal condemnation.[3]

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.[3]

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.[3] Currency exchange rates still remained between these provinces despite a policy focusing on the unification of French trade.[citation needed] His régime improved roads and canals. Pierre Paul Riquet (1604–1680) planned and constructed the Canal du Midi under Colbert's patronage.[3]

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.[3]

Promoter of culture

Colbert took much interest in art and literature. He possessed a remarkably fine private library, which he delighted to fill with valuable manuscripts from every part of Europe and the Near East where France had placed a consul. He employed Pierre de Carcavi and Étienne Baluze as librarians. Colbert's grandson sold the manuscript collection in 1732 to the Bibliothèque Royale.[6]

Colbert founded a number of institutions:

He reorganised the Academy of Painting and Sculpture which Mazarin had established. Wishing to increase the prestige of the image of France and the French royal family, Colbert played an active role in bringing the great Italian architect-sculptor, Gian Lorenzo Bernini, to Paris (June–October 1665), in order to design the new East Facade of the Louvre. This was a striking coup and caused a sensation because Bernini, the most famous artist in all of Europe, had never before (or after) consented to travel any significant distance to meet a patron, however highly ranked, but had to agree in this case for reasons of diplomacy between France and the Holy See. While in France, Bernini also sculpted a marble portrait bust of Louis XIV (Versailles palace). However the relations between the two strong-willed men, Colbert and Bernini, proved melodramatically stormy. Bernini's Louvre design was ultimately rejected.[7]

Colbert 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 Roberto 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.


The tomb of Colbert, by Antoine Coysevox and Jean-Baptiste Tuby, 1685, in Église Saint-Eustache, Paris[8]

Colbert worked incessantly hard until his final hours. Work was his religion; he once pondered whether it was better to rise early and work or retire very late and work. He concluded that rising early and retiring late would be the ideal combination. Towards the end of his life 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 64 he was bedridden and died seven days after his birthday. The surgeons who examined him found that he had been suffering from kidney stones. A huge stone was found in his urinary tract, which would explain his pain.


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Colbert played a subordinate role 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 reducing the number of persons devoted to clerical and monastic life, by increasing the age for taking the vows.

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 and revoked the Edict of Nantes,[9] he followed him and urged his subordinates to do all that they could to promote conversions.


Coat of arms of the Colbert family

Colbert had nine children, including :

His policies inspired those of Alexander Hamilton, the first treasury secretary of the United States.[10]

Six ships of the French Navy bore his name:

In literature, the power struggle between Colbert and Fouquet is one of the main plotlines of Alexandre Dumas, père's novel The Vicomte of Bragelonne, the second sequel to The Three Musketeers. Dumas paints Colbert as an uncouth and ruthless schemer who stops at little, in contrast to the more refined Fouquet, counselled by Aramis, but also as a visionary patriot.

Colbert's statue stands outside the Assemblée nationale. It was vandalized in 2020 due to Colbert's part in drafting the Code noir.[11] The main building of the Ministry of the Economy and Finance building, completed in 1989, is named after him.


See also


  1. ^ Richardt, Aimé (1997). Colbert et le colbertisme (in French). Tallandier. p. 261. ISBN 9782235021562. Promulgué deux ans après la mort de Colbert (en 1685), le code noir avait été conçu par lui sous le nom de code des colonies.
  2. ^ 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.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i Chisholm 1911.
  4. ^ Bamford, Paul Walden (1955). "French Forest Legislation and Administration, 1660-1789". Agricultural History. 29 (3): 97–107. ISSN 0002-1482.
  5. ^ Gavin John Adams (2012). Letters to John Law. Newton Page. p. xxiii. ISBN 978-1934619087.
  6. ^ Busby, Keith (1993). Les Manuscrits de Chrétien de Troyes. Rodopi. pp. 113–114. ISBN 978-9051836035.
  7. ^ For Colbert and Bernini in Paris in 1665, see Franco Mormando, Bernini: His Life and His Rome (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), pp. 245–288. [ISBN missing]
  8. ^ The tomb, commissioned by Colbert's widow in 1685, was designed by Charles Le Brun, director of official arts in France; Tuby assisted Colbert, providing one of the accompanying figures; the tomb was dismantled at the French Revolution and reinstated, in rearranged form, in 1818.
  9. ^ "The Edict of Nantes | History Today". Retrieved 2022-02-07.
  10. ^ Chernow, Ron (2004). Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin Press. pp. 170. ISBN 9781594200090.
  11. ^ "France Colbert row: Statue vandalised over slavery code". BBC News. BBC. 2020-06-24.
  12. ^ Arvind Subramanian (2011). Eclipse: Living in the Shadow of China's Economic Dominance. Peterson Institute. p. 126. ISBN 978-0-88132-641-3.
  13. ^ Roman Frydman; Kenneth Murphy; Andrzej Rapaczyński (1998). Capitalism With a Comrade's Face: Studies in the Postcommunist Transition. Central European University Press. ISBN 978-963-9116-06-1.


Lettres, instructions, et Memoires de Colbert, (eight volumes, Paris, 1861–82)
Histoire de Colbert et son administration, edited by Mademoiselle Clément, (Paris, 1874)

Further reading