Jean-Baptiste Colbert was a French politician and statesman who served as Finance Minister of France from 1665 to 1683 under the rule of King Louis XIV. During his time, he achieved fame by improving the French manufacturing industry and avoiding bankruptcy in the economy (due to the King’s high spending on military campaigns). Colbert helped France increase the size of its colonies and also improve its balance of trade.
Colbert was born in Reims, France where both his father and grandfather were merchants. When he was about 20 years old, Colbert was employed with the war office; here he held several administrative posts including inspector of troops and personal secretary of the Secretary of War. Colbert’s rise to power started to come about in 1651, when Cardinal Mazarin, a dominant political figure in Paris was exiled and sent to one of the provinces. Colbert became Mazarin’s agent in Paris, handling his financial affairs and keeping him informed of news. After Cardinal Mazarin returned to power he appointed Colbert as his personal assistant and as the Cardinal started becoming wealthy, so did Colbert, and he purchased the Barony of Seignelay. On his deathbed, Mazarin recommended Colbert to King Louis XIV who took him on as helper and confidante. Colbert now had the important task of managing both the affairs of France and the personal affairs of the King. 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. He found irregularities in the tax accounts of France and calculated that less than half of the taxes were reaching the King. He blamed the powerful Superintendent of Finances, Nicolas Fouquet for this discrepancy and discredited Fouquet in the eyes of the King. The decline of Fouquet ensured Colbert’s rise to power.
After this scandal with the Superintendent, the office of the Superintendent was completely abolished and now the finances were placed at the hand of a council. Colbert was practically head of this council and he sought to remove corruption. He punished both guilty officials and corrupt creditors; some public loans he completely rejected while he cut off a percentage of others where he believed there was a suspicious claim against the state. France had a problem of tax evasion where the rich and privileged would refuse to pay taxes; Colbert fought this by firmly resisting false exemption claims and increasing the ratio of indirect to direct taxes, as no one could escape indirect taxes. Colbert boosted the manufacturing sector in France by a variety of methods; he established new industries, protected inventors, invited workmen from foreign countries, and prohibited French workmen from emigrating. Colbert also had the quality of each article fixed by law as to help France compete in international markets. He tried to regulate and equate taxes between the transfer of goods from province to province so as to increase the efficiency of trade and also tried to equate the exchange rates between provinces.
Jean-Baptiste Colbert worked hard all his life to improve the state of France, he used to rise early and work till very late in the night. Towards the end of his life he suffered from stomach aches, which caused him much distress. By the age of 64 he was bedridden and died shortly after his birthday. The surgeons who examined him found that he had been suffering from kidney stones. Colbert has left a great legacy and worked tirelessly to improve France.