Jean Baptiste Colbert

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Colbert, Jean Baptiste


Born Aug. 29, 1619, in Reims; died Sept. 6, 1683, in Paris. French statesman. The son of a wealthy merchant.

In 1651, Colbert entered the service of Cardinal Mazarin; then, recommended by the cardinal to King Louis XIV, he went into government service. Colbert uncovered abuses by the superintendent of finances, N. Fouquet, bringing about Fouquet’s resignation and trial. Colbert quickly established his career: he became a member of the Supreme Council in 1661, superintendent of buildings in 1664, superintendent of trade in 1665, controller general of finance in 1665, and secretary of state and minister of the navy in 1669; he concentrated management of France’s internal policies almost totally in his own hands.

Colbert’s economic policy, Colbertism, was one of the varieties of mercantilism. He sought to increase state revenue primarily by promoting a favorable balance of payments through creating manufactures, encouraging industry, increasing the export of industrial goods and the import of raw materials, and reducing the import of foreign-made finished products. At Colbert’s insistence, a special judicial chamber was instituted in 1661 to investigate cases of financial abuse. (The fines and property confiscations that were adjudged by it added more than 100 million livres to the treasury by 1665.) In 1667 he introduced a new customs tariff, which raised duties on foreign merchandise. At Colbert’s initiative monopolistic trading companies were organized for foreign trade, mainly for colonial trade (the West India, East India, Levantine, Senegalese, and other companies). He promoted the improvement of roads and the digging of canals (for instance, the Languedoc Canal [Canal du Midi] in 1666–81). Under Colbert the navy increased from 18 vessels in 1661 to 276 in 1683. Concerning himself with the development of industry, Colbert left the interests of agriculture in the background. The taille (direct tax on peasant lands) was lowered somewhat, but indirect taxes—the gabelle (salt tax) and the tobacco tax—were sharply increased and a stamp duty was collected.

Colbert’s policies caused a series of peasant revolts (1664, 1666–69, 1670, 1674–75), which were brutally suppressed. Colbert strove to increase central authority. All administrative power in the provinces was turned over to intendants, and the rights of the parlements (royal tribunals) were curtailed. Colbert founded the Academy of Inscriptions and Literature (under the name “Little Academy”) in 1663, the Academy of Sciences (”Royal Academy of Sciences”) in 1666, the Royal Academy of Music in 1669, and the Royal Academy of Architecture in 1671. In 1667, Colbert became a member of the Académie Française.


Lettres, instructions et mémoires, vols. 1–8. Paris, 1861–82.


Barshchevskaia, N. E. “Promyshlennaia politika Kol’bere.” Nauch. zap. Voroshilovgradskogo ped. in-ta, 1940, no. 1.
Porshnev, B. F. “Narodnye vosstaniia vo Frantsii pri Kol’bere.” In the collection Srednie veka, no. 2. Moscow-Leningrad, 1946.
Farrère, Cl. J.-B. Colbert. Paris, 1954.
Mongrédien, G. J.-B. Colbert. Paris, 1963.
Sargent, A. J. The Economic Policy of Colbert. New York [1968].


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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