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Jean-Baptiste Colbert

(Reims 29 aug. 1619 – Parijs 5 sept. 1683), Frans staatsman, zoon van een lakenkoper, was eerst in de handel werkzaam. Reeds spoedig ging hij over in staatsdienst en trok de aandacht van Mazarin. Zijn scherpe kritiek op het slordige en corrupte beheer van de staatsfinanciën door Nicolas Fouquet, op wiens functie hij aasde, droeg in sterke mate bij tot diens val. In 1661 werd Colbert aangesteld tot intendant der financiën (in 1665 werd de titel ‘controleur général des finances’), in 1668/1669 tevens tot staatssecretaris van marine en het koninklijk hof. Hij deed zich in deze functies kennen als een systematisch hervormer, die zich met al zijn energie inzette voor een structurele verbetering van de Franse financiën, economie, marine, wetenschap en cultuur, met als doel de staatsmacht te versterken.
Zijn eerste zorg gold de hervorming van de belastingheffing. Dit geschiedde door het uitroeien van misbruiken, het unificeren van het belastingstelsel, het herverdelen van de belastingdruk en het verbeteren van de belastinginning. Het resultaat was een aanzienlijke vergroting van de opbrengst.
De versterking van het staatsgezag en de vermeerdering van de inkomsten stonden ook centraal bij zijn hervorming van de economie. Nationale rijkdom viel slechts te verwerven door een gunstige handelsbalans, dwz. door te zorgen voor een grotere uitvoer dan invoer van goederen. Om dit doel te bereiken stimuleerde hij de industrie en handel door het oprichten van staatsbedrijven, het bevorderen van het particuliere bedrijfsleven, het controleren en reguleren van de productie, het opbouwen van een handelsvloot, het stichten van handelscompagnieën, het verbeteren van de verbindingen te land en te water en het slechten van tolmuren. Tegelijk versterkte hij de internationale concurrentiepositie door de uitvoer te stimuleren, de invoer aan banden te leggen met behulp van hoge tariefmuren (de grondstoffen waren hiervan uitgezonderd), de uitvoer van graan te verbieden ten behoeve van lage voedselprijzen en de koloniën te ontwikkelen. Deze vorm van een geleide economie, die als stedelijk verschijnsel al vele eeuwen bestond, doch op staatsniveau in Europa van recente datum was, staat bekend als het mercantilisme en wordt in de Franse vorm ook wel als colbertisme aangeduid. Als gevolg van de voor statisch gehouden internationale handel, waarin vergroting van het eigen deel alleen ten koste van andere staten tot stand kon komen, en als gevolg van de nauwe band tussen staat en economie, ging dit mercantilisme gepaard met een constante koude- oorlogssfeer, die zich maar al te gemakkelijk kon ontladen. Colberts politiek was er primair op gericht de kunstmatige economische hegemonie van Holland te ondermijnen (o.a. de Leidse lakenindustrie had het zwaar te verduren) en dat leidde tot hevige internationale spanningen, die bijdroegen tot de oorlog, de zgn. Guerre de Hollande, van 1672.
Colbert wist het staatsgezag verder te versterken door het scheppen van een belangrijke zeemacht. Door zijn toedoen werd een krachtige oorlogsvloot opgebouwd, een aantal havens versterkt, een nieuw rekruteringssysteem ingevoerd en de koopvaardijvloot aangemoedigd. De verhoging van het Franse prestige lag ten slotte eveneens ten grondslag aan zijn inspanningen de wetenschap, het onderwijs en de kunst op een hoger peil te brengen.
Ondanks alles wat hij bereikt had, was Colbert op het eind van zijn leven een teleurgesteld man. De betrekkelijk geringe staatsmacht, de kracht van de gevestigde belangen en de loodzware druk van de traditie hadden zijn pogingen tot hervorming gedeeltelijk illusoir gemaakt, terwijl Frankrijk in deze jaren bovendien in een diepe economische depressie verkeerde. Achteraf beschouwd is het eigenlijk verbazingwekkend wat hij ondanks de hevige oppositie en de wijdverspreide ongeïnteresseerdheid toch nog tot stand wist te brengen, al had een gedeelte hiervan een kunstmatig karakter en weinig levensvatbaarheid. Colberts teleurstelling kwam echter vooral voort uit de oorlogszuchtige politiek van Lodewijk XIV, die alle staatsinkomsten opslokte en veel van de door hem beoogde hervormingen onmogelijk maakte.
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 Colbert, Jean-Baptiste (b. Aug. 29, 1619, Reims, Fr.--d. Sept. 6, 1683, Paris), controller general of finance (from 1665) and secretary of state for the navy (from 1668) under King Louis XIV of France. He carried out the program of economic reconstruction that helped make France the dominant power in Europe.
Early years.
Colbert was born of a merchant family. After holding various administrative posts, his great opportunity came in 1651, when Cardinal Mazarin, the dominant political figure in France, was forced to leave Paris and take refuge in a provincial city--an episode in the Fronde, a period (1648-53) of struggle between the crown and the French parlement. Colbert became Mazarin's agent in Paris, keeping him abreast of the news and looking after his personal affairs. When Mazarin returned to power, he made Colbert his personal assistant and helped him purchase profitable appointments for both himself and his family. Colbert became wealthy; he also acquired the barony of Seignelay. On his deathbed, Mazarin recommended him to  Louis XIV, who soon gave Colbert his confidence. Thenceforth Colbert dedicated his enormous capacity for work to serving the King both in his private affairs and in the general administration of the kingdom.
The struggle with Fouquet.
For 25 years Colbert was to be concerned with the economic reconstruction of France. The first necessity was to bring order into the chaotic methods of financial administration that were then under the direction of  Nicolas Fouquet, the immensely powerful surintendant des finances. Colbert destroyed Fouquet's reputation with the King, revealing irregularities in his accounts and denouncing the financial operations by which Fouquet had enriched himself. The latter's fate was sealed when he made the mistake of receiving the King at his magnificent chateau at Vaux-le-Vicomte; the Lucullan festivities, displaying how much wealth Fouquet had amassed at the expense of the state, infuriated Louis. The King subsequently had him arrested. The criminal proceedings against him lasted three years and excited great public interest. Colbert, without any rightful standing in the case, interfered in the trial and made it his personal affair because he wanted to succeed Fouquet as finance minister. The trial itself was a parody of justice. Fouquet was sent to prison, where he spent the remaining 15 years of his life. The surintendance was replaced by a council of finance, of which Colbert became the dominant member with the title of intendant until, in 1665, he became controller general.
Financiers and tax farmers had made enormous profits from loans and advances to the state treasury, and Colbert established tribunals to make them give back some of their gains. This was well received by public opinion, which held the financiers responsible for all difficulties; it also lightened the public debt, which was further reduced by the repudiation of some government bonds and the repayment of others without interest. Private fortunes suffered, but no disturbances ensued, and the King's credit was restored.
Financial and economic affairs.
Colbert's next efforts were directed to reforming the chaotic system of taxation, a heritage of medieval times. The King derived the major part of his revenue from a tax called the  taille, levied in some districts on individuals and in other districts on land and businesses. In some districts the taille was apportioned and collected by royal officials; in others it was voted by the representatives of the province. Many persons, including clergy and nobles, were exempt from it altogether. Colbert undertook to levy the taille on all who were properly liable for it and so initiated a review of titles of nobility in order to expose those who were claiming exemption falsely; he also tried to make the tax less oppressive by a fairer distribution. He reduced the total amount of it but insisted on payment in full over a reasonable period of time. He took care to suppress many abuses of collection (confiscation of defaulters' property, seizure of peasants' livestock or bedding, imprisonment of collectors who had not been able to produce the due sums in time). These reforms and the close supervision of the officials concerned brought large sums into the treasury. Other taxes were increased, and the tariff system was revised in 1664 as part of a system of protection. The special dues that existed in the various provinces could not be swept away, but a measure of uniformity was obtained in central France.
Colbert devoted endless energy to the reorganization of industry and commerce. He believed that in order to increase French power it would be essential to increase France's share of international trade and in particular to reduce the commercial hegemony of the Dutch. This necessitated not only the production of high-quality goods that could compete with foreign products abroad but also the building up of a merchant fleet to carry them. Colbert encouraged foreign workers to bring their trade skills to France. He gave privileges to a number of private industries and founded state manufactures. To guarantee the standard of workmanship, he made regulations for every sort of manufacture and imposed severe punishments (fines and the pillory) for counterfeiting and shortcomings. He encouraged the formation of companies to build ships and tried to obtain monopolies for French commerce abroad through the formation of trading companies. The French East India and West India companies, founded in 1664, were followed by others for trade with the eastern Mediterranean and with northern Europe; but Colbert's propaganda for them, though cleverly conducted, failed to attract sufficient capital, and their existence was precarious. The protection of national industry demanded tariffs against foreign produce, and other countries replied with tariffs against French goods. This tariff warfare was one of the chief causes of the Dutch War of 1672-78. (see also Index:  mercantilism)
Colbert's system of control was resented by traders and contractors, who wanted to preserve their freedom of action and to be responsible to themselves alone. Cautious and thrifty people, moreover, still preferred the old outlets for their money (land, annuities, moneylending) to investing in industry. The period, too, was one of generally falling prices throughout the world. Colbert's success, therefore, fell short of his expectation, but what he did achieve seems all the greater in view of the obstacles in his way: he raised the output of manufactures, expanded trade, set up new permanent industries, and developed communications by road and water across France (Canal du Midi, 1666-81).
Colbert and the navy.
The controller general's sphere of activity continually expanded. He busied himself with everything, from questions of finance to the naming of Louis's illegitimate children. As secretary of state for the navy from 1668, he undertook to make France a great power at sea. This meant forming a fighting fleet, building and equipping the king's ships, fortifying ports, and encouraging the merchant navy. The Atlantic fleet was composed of sailing ships; the Mediterranean fleet, of galleys. To man the Atlantic fleet, professional sailors were required to sign on for the king's service. For the galleys, Colbert encouraged magistrates to sentence common criminals to serve in them and had no scruple about making use of other sources of manpower: political offenders, Protestants, and slaves seized from Africa and Canada. (see also Index:  French Navy)
Colbert reconstructed the works and arsenal of Toulon and founded the port and arsenal of Rochefort and naval schools at Rochefort, Dieppe, and St.-Malo. Calais, Dunkerque, Brest, and Le Havre were fortified. The need for naval construction goes far to explain Colbert's vigilance over the forests (Ordonnance des eaux et forêts, 1669), one of the most corruptly administered sectors of the royal domain. As he also wanted the French ships of the line to have a handsome appearance, in order to impress foreigners, he engaged excellent artists, such as Pierre Puget, to decorate them. Encouragement was given to the building of ships for the merchant navy by allowing a premium on those built at home and imposing a duty on those built abroad; and as French workmen were forbidden to emigrate, so French seamen were forbidden to serve foreigners on pain of death.
The arts.
In 1669 the King added still further to Colbert's dignities by making him responsible for the intellectual and artistic life of the country, as secretary of state for the king's household. He applied to the arts the same principle that had guided him previously: the enhancement of the power and prestige of France.
Colbert, himself a member of the Académie Française, founded the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (1663) to choose inscriptions for medals and monuments celebrating the king's victories; the Académie des Sciences (1666) to study how the sciences could be exploited to the kingdom's advantage; and the Académie Royale d'Architecture (1671) to lay down rules and refine the taste of French work. He also founded schools, such as the Académie de France in Rome, in which artists could be trained under some of the great masters of the time; and schools for practical purposes, such as the École des Jeunes de Langues, for the study of Oriental languages. The Observatoire de Paris, of which the Italian astronomer Giovanni Cassini was put in charge, was founded by Louis XIV at Colbert's instigation. The Italian architect G.L. Bernini was invited to submit a design for the Louvre, but its execution proved too expensive, and plans by French architects eventually were adopted.
Other spheres of activity.
Colbert encouraged emigration to Canada to form the colony of New France. He promoted legislation on many matters, such as the Ordonnance criminelle of 1670, commercial laws, and the so-called Code Noir on slave labour. In agriculture he tried to protect the peasants so far as was consistent with his general economic system, to improve the breed of horses and sheep, and to promote new crops. His concern for economic progress made him hostile to measures against the Protestants (many of whom were in business) and mistrustful of monks and even of the secular clergy (on the ground that too many men who should have been in commerce took holy orders). He himself remained a faithful Catholic.
Last years.
At the end of his life, however, Colbert was a disappointed man. For the carrying out of his far-reaching reforms, the country needed peace; but Louis XIV had been drawn into a series of wars that imposed a heavy drain on the national revenues. Even so, by energetically applying the authoritarian methods of the times, without distinction of persons or heed to public opinion, Colbert had made the monarchy stronger and the nation better equipped. The order that he had introduced into public administration was to have a lasting effect.
Colbert's eldest son, Jean-Baptiste, marquis de Seignelay, had been granted the right to succeed his father as secretary of state for the navy; the second son, Jacques-Nicholas, was archbishop of Rouen; the fourth son, Jules-Armand, marquis d'Ormoy, was surintendant des bâtiments (minister of construction); and three of his daughters were married to dukes.
(V.L.T.)
BIBLIOGRAPHY.
Writings of Colbert. Colbert left among his papers Mémoires sur les affaires de finance de France (written c. 1663); a fragment entitled Particularités secrètes de la vie du Roy; and other accounts of the earlier part of Louis XIV's reign. There is an edition of the Lettres, instructions et mémoires de Colbert, by P. Clement, 9 parts. (1861-82).
Works about Colbert.
An English-language study of Colbert's life and work is C.W. Cole, Colbert and a Century of French Mercantilism, 2 vol. (1939). Authoritative works in French include: P. Clement, Histoire de la vie et de l'administration de Colbert (1846) and Histoire de Colbert et de son administration, 3rd ed., 2 vol. (1892); C. de la Ronciere, Un Grand ministre de la marine: Colbert (1923) and Histoire de la marine française, vol. 5 (1935); C.J. Gignoux, Monsieur Colbert (1942); and G. Mongredien, Colbert, 1619-1683 (1963).

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