Colbert was born in Reims, France, where his father and grandfather were merchants. He claimed to be have Scottish ancestry. It is generally believed (but unconfirmed) that he spent his early youth at a Jesuit college, working for a Parisian banker; as well as, the father of Jean Chapelain. Before he was 20 years old, Colbert worked in the war office; a position generally attributed to the marriage of an uncle to the sister of Secretary of War Le Tellier[?]. Colbert spent some time as an inspector of troops, eventually becoming the personal secretary of Le Tellier. In 1647, through some means or other, Colbert acquired the confiscated goods of an uncle, Pussort[?]. In 1648, he (and his wife Marie Charron[?]) received 40,000 crowns from some source or other; and, in 1649, Colbert became the councilor of state.
The Fronde lasted from 1648-1653; and, following 1651, when Cardinal Mazarin left Paris, Colbert served as an advisor. In April 1655, Colbert published a notable letter in defense of the cardinal. In 1659, Colbert helped supress the revolts in Normandy, Anjou and Poitou, events which resulted in the execution of Bonnesson[?].
Colbert's earliest recorded attempt at tax reform was 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 Fouquet. The letter was read by the postmaster of Paris, a spy of Fouquet's, leading to a dispute which Mazarin worked to supress.
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; in 1669, he became minister of the marine; he was also appointed minister of commerce, the colonies and the palace. In short, Colbert 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 waslightened 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 French 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 Le 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 colonists of Quebec 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 the Vatican 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 fetes, 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 Giovanni 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, Nimes and many other towns, and he reorganized the Academy of Painting and Sculpture which Mazarin had established. He was a member of the Académie Française; 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 Moliere, Corneille, Racine, Boileau, PD Huet (1630-1721) and Antoine Varillas[?] (1626-1696), and even foreigners, as Huygens, 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.
- "It is simply, and solely, the abundance of money within a state [which] makes the difference in its grandeur and power." (MH - p.53)