J.B. Colbert
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Jean Baptiste Colbert

Jean Baptiste Colbert was one of the "most important" collaborators of the king during these first and formative years of the regime. Colbert reflected his firmness, his austerity,his secretiveness, perhaps even his brutality. There can be no question about his being an alter ego of the king. For more than two decades of the reign this "cold, humorless, hardworking, honest, narrow, devoted" man was both a workhorse and a driving wheel in the government of Louis XIV. Where Louis could put off a request with his famous "We shall see," Colbert had no difficulty in refusing of ignoring requests or proposals that were inopportune or unwanted; where Louis was the "politician" anxious to keep his fences mended, his minister could be the "hatchet man" driving ruthlessly toward a desired goal.
When Mazarin died, Colbert was the cardinal's intendant for his personal affairs, secretary of the orders of the queen, and counselor in the king's councils; he had acquired the fief of Seignelay that gave him the rank of a baron. This closeness to Mazarin and the trusts that were given to him were the surest signs of his coming greatness. Within a decade after Louis assumed personal power, Colbert had become intendant of finances (1661), superintendent of the department of buildings (1665), superintendent general of commerce (1665), secretary of state in charge of the navy, the galleys, commerce, horse raising, forests and waters, and a share of internal administration including fortification of the coastal towns. By 1671 he also had charge of the royal household, the general affairs of the clergy, and a dozen lesser things. His correspondence gives evidence that his interests and influence roamed the entire business of the king, both at home and abroad. it is an incredible career that we follow; Colbert seems always to have already exercised the power before he was given the commission; he took on one new area of activity after another without ever giving up the things that he had been doing. We cannot but ask: how could one man do so many things? How could he cheerfully, even gleefully, add more to the already impossible load that he carried? Nor was this man an administrator who could easily push work onto another; while Louis tells his son that he would have liked to do all the work himself, Colbert, in fact, seems actually to have done it all himself. Here was a man after the king's own image, a man willing to work long hours to achieve his own gloire, to regulate the affairs of his master's kingdom.
At the height of his power Colbert probably handled more of the king's business than Mazarin had ever had under his control, but he never forgot that he was the agent of the king rather than master of the affairs in his own right. colbert must have complained that the king seemed to prefer the Le Telliers before himself; Louis knew how much his favor caused jealousy: "It is necessary," he wrote, "to divide <favor></favor>equitably ... men are jealous of the things that come from the sovereign. ..." But Colbert understood that he was not to oppose his king after a decision was taken.
This cannot be construed to mean that Colbert was simply a tool of his king. Louis was actually only marginally interested in the details of internal government that occupied most of Colbert's time, and there can be no doubt about the origin of the policies that we associate with Colbert's name. Colbert proposed and directed the reforms that brought some order out of the fiscal system, codified some of the laws of the kingdom, gave a modicum of rational direction to an anarchistic and chaotic economy, and organized the artistic, literary, and scientific talents of the era as a frame for the reign of his king. In all this Louis supported his minister, shared his enthusiasms, and recognized his talents, but Louis was more interested in the increased revenue at his disposal than in the measures that produced it, and he would never allow his finance minister to curb the king's projects by petty talk about lack of money. Thus Colbert, while he was undoubtedly one of the architects of the era of Louis XIV, was not the man who organized the great projects dear to the king's heart that were to be both the monuments of the age and the tragedy of the king's life.
Colbert did find the money that gave Louis the opportunity to build his armies and navies, to bribe foreign and domestic potentates, to repair the old châteaus and build new ones - in short, that enabled Louis to shine in the world as the great king of the age. In doing this, however, Colbert also raised for his master a sackful of enemies who hated both the king and his minister during their lifetimes, and who would attempt to blacken their memories and undo their works. The first of these was the result of the work of the court that Louis brought together to try Fouquet. Not only Fouquet, but also the entire financial world of Paris and the other great commercial cities came under its scrutiny and lash. This court looked into the financial misdemeanors of a whole generation of financiers who had supplied the king with the money to fight his enemies, and who had also feathered their own nests, perhaps outrageously, in the process. When their accounts were looked into and they were called upon to disgorge their gains, their cries of distress and pain could be heard throughout the kingdom, and indeed even down to our times. Small wonder! They were forced to return millions of livres to the king's treasury and a number of them suffered the further indignity of imprisonment. Nor did Colbert's hunting of the unearned wealth of the bourgeoisie stop there. He also carefully scrutinized the funds in the hôtel de ville and drastically reduced the payments of the rentes. Since he was also responsible for alterations of the coinage, his enemies insist that he started his career by declaring the king bankrupt and ended it as a counterfeiter. This is not the place to analyse the justice of these allegations; like all such claims there is enough truth to give them verisimilitude and enough falsehood to make them absurd.
Colbert's reputation as a statesman varies with the political assumptions of the men who discuss his career. To those committed to laissez faire, Colbert is the arch example of regulation that failed; those who look with sympathy upon attempts to control the disorder of the marketplace or who see him fighting an economic crisis with the only weapons available, regard him as an enlightened adviser of his king. He was confronted with enormous problems. The king's treasury was empty, the future revenues were mortgaged, the machinery for the collection of taxes was bled by financiers accustomed to finding their own wealth at the expense of the king. Even if the taxes could be collected, the tax structure was cumbersome, unequal, and inefficient. Nor was that the end of his troubles. The economy of the western world was in the doldrums throughout the latter seventeenth century; the economy of France was troubled by the periodic crisis in agriculture, by antiquated tolls and tariffs, by dishonest, inefficient, and unskillful workers and entrepreneurs who put shoddy goods on the market, by the effective competition of the Dutch. It this economy were to yield more revenue for its king, severe reforms and drastic measures were necessary.
It has often been pointed out that Colbert was not a statesman with the vision necessary to bring order out of the chaos of royal fiscal administration. While this is undoubtedly true, perhaps it is also meaningless, for only a revolution that could overthrow social and political forms could really reform this system. Like Sully before him and the reformers of the eighteenth century who were to follow, Colbert had to work within a socio-economic frame of reference that defied reorganization. Furthermore, like every finance minister who served the Bourbons, he served a king who was quite uninterested in the details of financial reform. Louis may have pretended to "work as his own superintendent of finance", but at bottom he was interested only in having the revenue needed for his projects - not in bringing order out of the system. How could it have been otherwise? Louis had been educated by Mazarin who taught him that the great political goals were the proper aims of politics and that government must never limit its objectives simply because the grubby men of the marketplace might not want to supply the money. Whether it was for the creation of a monumental palace, or the prosecution of a great war, or the sponsorship of culture, Louis was not one to check his course merely because the finance minister found it hard to raise money. This fact made it impossible for Colbert or any of his successors to reform the system, even if they had the will to do so. There were few years during the reign of Louis XIV in which the demands for money did not require the development of "extraordinary" fiscal measures as well as the exploitation of all "ordinary" ones. Under such conditions, the finance minister who succeeded in forcing the collectors and farmers to make reasonably complete returns and who could think up "expedients" to raise additional money was a great financier. This is the basis for Colbert's reputation as a fiscal administrator.
Colbert may not have been a great statesman, but at least he did have appreciation for the ideas of men who were striving to break through the mass of past practices and create states' policy. Louis XIV often chided him in council with the remark, "And now Colbert will tell us that the late Cardinal Richelieu proposed. ..." Whether it was Richelieu of one of the others who was trying to find the relationship between states' policy and economic well-being (abundance) makes little difference; Colbert was seeking advice from men who did conceive of states' interest, and he was striving to reform the economy of the kingdom to bring abundance for all - including the king. His "New Deal" legislation has been praised as well as condemned; both of these attitudes miss the point, for they fail to take into account the fact that Colbert, supported by the king, was trying to find the elusive formula that would bring some sort of order ( and thus assure prosperity ) to the economy. Like his fiscal policies, his reform measures had to depend upon the political forces of the reign, and unhappily these included wars that lasted longer than was expected and produced results that were equally unexpected. In addition to the disorder of wars, his policies were also always confronted by inertia, inefficiency, ineffective agents, and deliberate sabotage. The King of France did not have a political machine that could readily translate either his will, or that of his minister,into action. Colbert found this just as did Le Tellier and Louvois. There was always friction in the machinery of state in the seventeenth century.
In the early days of the new regime, Colbert's troubles were further aggravated by the fact that while he was a minister of the king, he was not secretary of state, and thus much of his official correspondence dealing with trade, commerce, and other affairs under his supervision had to be channeled through the secretary who owned the charge responsible for writing the letters. This led to no end of confusion and disorder, until Colbert succeeded in buying the charge of secretary of state; perhaps all creative governments are disorderly and operate in a cloud of confusion, because in order to succeed creative governments have to break down established patterns of action.


© Elena Steingrad     2000 -

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