“To keep an eye on Fouquet,” Louis wrote, “I associated with him Colbert as . . . intendant, a man in whom I had all possible confidence, for I knew his intelligence, application, and honesty.” 50 Fouquet’s friends thought that Colbert had pursued him vindictively; some envy may have been involved, but in all the France of that age no man rivaled Colbert in tireless devotion to the public good. Mazarin, dying, is reported to have said to the King, “Sire, I owe everything to you; but I pay my debt . . . by giving you Colbert.” 51

Jean Baptiste Colbert was the son of a clothier in Reims, and the nephew of a rich merchant. Bourgeois in blood and economist by contagion, he was trained to hate confusion and incompetence, and was fitted by nature and time to transform the economy of France from peasant changelessness and feudal fragmentation into a nationally unified system of agriculture, industry, commerce, and finance, marching with a centralized monarchy, and providing it with the material basis of grandeur and power.

Entering the war office as a minor secretary at the age of twenty (1639), Colbert toiled his way into notice, was taken into the service of Mazarin, and became the successful manager of the Cardinal’s fortune. When Fouquet fell, Colbert was given the critical task of reorganizing the nation’s finances. In 1664 he was made also superintendent of buildings, royal manufactures, commerce, and fine arts; in 1665 he was named controller general of finances; in 1669, secretary of the navy, and secretary of state for the King’s household. No other man under Louis XIV rose so rapidly, worked so hard, or accomplished so much. He sullied his rise with nepotism, dowering countless Colberts with place and pay, and remunerated himself almost in proportion to his worth. He was subject to vanity, insisting on his alleged descent from Scottish kings. Sometimes, in his hurry to get things done, he rode roughly over existing laws, and circumvented opposition with superior bribery. As his power grew he became imperious, and angered the nobility by stepping on toes that bled blue blood. In remolding the French economy he used the same dictatorial methods that Richelieu had used in remolding the French state. He was no better than a cardinal.

He began by looking into the ways of the financiers who collected taxes, supplied the army with weapons, clothing, and food, and advanced loans to feudal lords or the national treasury. Some of these bankers were as rich as kings; Samuel Bernard had 33,000,000 livres. 52 Many of them infuriated the aristocracy by marrying into it, by buying or earning titles, and by living in luxury unattainable by mere pedigree. They charged up to eighteen per cent for their loans, according to the uncertainty of repayment. At Colbert’s request the King set up a Chamber of Justice to inquire into all financial malfeasance since 1635 “by any person of any quality or condition whatsoever.” 53 All fiscal agents, tax collectors and rentiers were summoned to open their records and explain the legitimacy of their gains. Everyone had to show clean hands or suffer confiscation and other penalties. The Chamber spread its agents through France, and encouraged informers. Several men of wealth were imprisoned, some were sent to the galleys, some were hanged. The upper classes were shocked by this “Colbert Terror”; the lower classes applauded. In Burgundy the money men organized a revolt against the minister, but the populace rose in arms against them, and the government was hard put to save them from the public wrath. Some 150,000,000 francs were restored to the treasury, and fear, for a generation, tempered the corruptions of finance. 54

Colbert marched through the fisc with an economizing scythe. He dismissed half the officials in the department of finance. Probably at his suggestion Louis abolished, in the royal household, all offices that carried emoluments without duties. Twenty “secretaries to the king” were sent out to earn their bread. The number of attorneys, sergeants, ushers, and other minor functionaries at the court was drastically reduced. All fiscal agents were ordered to keep and submit accurate and intelligible accounts. Colbert converted old governmental debts into new ones at a lower rate of interest. He simplified the collection of taxes. Recognizing the difficulty of collecting arrears, he persuaded the King to cancel all taxes still due for 1647–58. He lowered the tax rate in 1661, and mourned when he had to raise it again in 1667 to finance the “War of Devolution” and the extravagance of Versailles.

His greatest failure was in retaining the old system of taxation. Perhaps a basic reconstruction would have entailed disorder endangering the flow of revenue. The state was financed chiefly by two taxes—the taille and the gabelle. In some provinces the taille (cut) was assessed on real property, in others on income. The nobles and the clergy were exempt from this tax, so that it fell entirely upon the “third estate”—which was all the rest of the population. Each district was required to collect a stated amount, and the principal citizens were held responsible for raising the allotted sum. The gabelle was a tax on salt. The government held a monopoly on its sale, and compelled all subjects to buy periodically a prescribed quantity at prices fixed by the government. To these basic taxes were added a variety of minor imposts, and the tithe of the peasant’s produce to be paid to the Church. This, however, was usually much less than a tenth, 55 and was collected with mercy.

Colbert’s reforms affected agriculture least. The technique of tillage was still so primitive that it could not support twenty million people reproducing without restraint. Many couples had twenty children; the population would have doubled every twenty years except for war, famine, disease, and infant mortality. 56 Yet Colbert, instead of seeking to increase the fertility of the soil, gave tax exemptions for early marriage, and rewards for large families: a thousand livres to parents of ten children, two thousand livres to parents of twelve. 57 He protested the multiplication of convents as a threat to the manpower of France. 58 Nevertheless the French birth rate declined during the reign, as war raised taxes and deepened poverty. Even so, war did not kill enough to keep a balance between births and food, and pestilence had to co-operate with war. Two successive crop failures could bring famine, for transportation was not developed to the point of effectively supplying the deficiencies of one region with the surplus of another. There was no year without famine somewhere in France. 59 The years 1648–51, 1660–62, 1693–94, and 1709–10 were periods of starvation terror, when, in some districts, thirty per cent of the population died. In 1662 the King imported corn, sold it at a low price or gave it to the poor, and remitted three million francs of taxes due. 60

Legislation alleviated some rural griefs. The seizure of peasants’ beasts, carts, or implements for debt was forbidden, even for debts owed the Crown; stud farms were established where the peasants might have their mares serviced without charge; hunters were forbidden to traverse sown fields; and tax exemptions were offered to those who restored abandoned lands to cultivation. But these palliatives could not reach the heart of the problem—the disbalance between human and soil fertility, and the lack of mechanical invention. All the peasantries of Europe suffered likewise, and the French paysans were probably better off than their fellows in England or Germany. 61

Colbert sacrificed agriculture to industry. To feed the rising population of the towns, and the expanding armies of the King, he kept the price of grain from rising commensurately with other staples. He took it as elementary that a government, to be strong, must have ample revenues and an army of sturdy soldiers well equipped; a peasantry inured to hardships would provide a tough infantry; a growing industry and commerce must supply the wealth and the tools. Therefore Colbert’s persisting aim was to stimulate industry. Even trade was to be subordinate; home industries were to be protected by tariffs that would exclude dangerous competition from abroad. Continuing the economic policies of Sully and Richelieu, he brought all but the minor enterprises of France under the control of the corporative state: each industry, with its guilds, finances, masters, apprentices, and journeymen, formed a corporation regulated by the government in practices, prices, wages, and sales. He established high standards for each industry, hoping to win foreign markets by the refinement of design and finish in French products. He and Louis believed that the aristocratic taste for elegance supported and improved the luxury trades; so the goldsmiths, engravers, cabinetmakers, and tapestry weavers found employment, stimulus, and renown.

Colbert completely nationalized the Gobelin factory in Paris, and made it a model of method and arrangement. He encouraged new enterprises by tax exemptions, state loans, and lowering the interest rate to five per cent. He allowed new industries a monopoly until they were well established. Inducements were offered to foreign artisans to bring their skills into France; Venetian glassworkers were settled at St.-Gobain; ironworkers were brought in from Sweden; and a Dutch Protestant, assured freedom of worship, and capital advanced by the state, established at Abbeville the manufacture of fine cloth. By 1669 there were 44,000 looms in France; Tours alone had 20,000 weavers. France planted its own mulberry trees, and was already famous for its silks. As the armies of Louis XIV grew, textile factories multiplied to clothe them. Under these stimuli French industries rapidly expanded. Many of them produced for a national or an international market, and some reached a capitalistic stage of investment, equipment, and management. The King fell in with Colbert’s industrializing mission; he visited workshops, allowed fine products to be stamped with the royal arms, raised the social status of the businessman, and ennobled great entrepreneurs.

The state encouraged or provided scientific and technical education. Workshops in the Louvre, the Tuileries, Les Gobelins, and the naval shipyards became schools for apprentices. Anticipating Diderot’s Encyclopédie, Colbert sponsored an encyclopedia of arts and crafts, and an illustrated description of all known machinery. 62 The Academy of Sciences published treatises on machines and mechanical arts; the Journal des savants recorded new industrial techniques. Perrault, building the eastern front of the Louvre, marveled at a machine that raised a stone block weighing 100,000 kilos (1,100 tons). 63 Colbert, however, opposed the introduction of machinery that would throw employees out of work. 64

Burning with a passion for order and efficiency, he nationalized, and expanded almost to suffocation, the regulation of industry by communes or guilds. Hundreds of ordinances prescribed methods of manufacture, the size, color, and quality of products, the hours and conditions of labor. Boards were established in all town halls to check defects in the output of local crafts and factories. Specimens of faulty workmanship were publicly exposed, with the name of the worker or manager attached. If the offender repeated the offense, he was censured at a meeting of the guild; if he offended a third time he was tied to a post for public exhibition and disgrace. 65 Every ablebodied male was put to work; orphans were drafted from asylums into industry; beggars were taken from the streets and placed in factories; and Colbert remarked happily to the King that now even children could earn something in the shops.

Workers were subjected to an almost military discipline. Laziness, incompetence, cursing, indecent conversation, disobedience, drunkenness, frequentation of taverns, concubinage, irreverence in church—all these were to be punished by the employer, sometimes by flogging. Working hours were long—twelve or more, with interruptions of thirty or forty minutes for meals. Wages were low, and were partly paid in goods priced by the employer. Vauban calculated the average daily wage of artisans in the large towns at twelve sous (thirty cents) a day; however, a sou could buy a pound of bread. 66 The government cut down the number of religious feast days that exempted men from work; thirty-eight such holydays remained, so that the people had ninety days of rest in the year. 67 Strikes were outlawed, meetings of workers to improve their conditions were forbidden; at Rochefort some workers were jailed for complaining that their wages were too low. The wealth of the business class grew, the revenues of the state rose; the condition of the workers was probably lower under Louis XIV than in the Middle Ages. 68 France was disciplined in industry as well as in war.

And in commerce. Colbert, like nearly all statesmen of his time, believed that the economy of a nation should produce the maximum of wealth and self-sufficiency within the nation; and that, since gold and silver were so valuable as mediums of exchange, commerce should be so regulated as to secure for the nation a “favorable balance of trade”—i.e., an excess of exports over imports, and therefore an influx of silver or gold. Only in this way could France, England, and the United Provinces, which had no gold in their soil, procure their needs, and supply their troops, in time of war. This was “mercantilism”; and though some economists ridiculed it, there was, and will be, much to be said for it in an age of frequent wars. It applied to the nation the system of protective tariffs and regulations which in the Middle Ages had been applied to the commune; the unit of protection grew when the state replaced the commune as the unit of production and government. Hence, in Colbert’s theory, the wages of workers had to be low to enable their products to compete in foreign markets and thereby bring in gold; the rewards of employers had to be high to stimulate them to industrial enterprises in manufacturing goods, especially luxuries, that would be of no use in war, but could be exported at little cost for a high return; and interest rates had to be low to tempt entrepreneurs to borrow capital. The competitive nature of man, in the lawless jungle of states, geared their nationalistic economies to the chances and needs of war. Peace is war by other means.

Therefore the function of commerce, in the view of Colbert (and, indeed, of Sully, Richelieu, and Cromwell) was to export manufactured articles in exchange for precious metal or raw materials. In 1664, and again in 1667, he raised the duties on imports that threatened to outsell in France the products of domestic industries considered necessary in war; and when such imports persisted, he forbade them completely. He laid heavy export dues upon vital materials, but reduced the tax on the export of luxuries.

Meanwhile he tried to free domestic commerce from internal tolls. He found French trade clogged by provincial, municipal, and manorial barriers and tariffs. Goods moving from Paris to the Channel, or from Switzerland to Paris, paid tolls at sixteen points; from Orléans to Nantes, at twenty-eight points. These dues may have had sense when, because of difficulties of transport, and possibilities of feudal or intercommunal strife, each locality aspired to self-sufficiency, and strove to protect its own industries. Now that France was politically unified, these internal tolls were an irritating impediment to a national economy. By an edict of 1664 Colbert tried to suppress all internal tolls. The resistance was obdurate; in half of France the tolls continued, some of them till the Revolution, of which they were a minor cause. Colbert almost nullified his work for commercial expansion by issuing complex regulations that aimed to remedy abuses but hampered trade sometimes to frustration. “Liberty,” he (or one of his critics) said, “is the soul of commerce. We must let men choose the most convenient ways” (Il faut laissez faire les hommes); 69 here was a phrase destined to make history.

He labored to open new avenues of internal transport. He began a system of royal highways, military in their primary purpose, but also a boon to commerce in general. Land travel was still arduous and slow; Mme. de Sévigné took eight days to go by coach from Paris to her estate at Vitré in Brittany. At the suggestion of Pierre Paul de Riquet, Colbert put twelve thousand men to work digging the great Languedoc Canal, 162 miles long, and rising at times to 830 feet above sea level; by 1681 the Mediterranean was connected by the Rhone, the canal, and the Garonne with the Bay of Biscay, and the commerce of France could bypass Portugal and Spain.

Colbert envied the Dutch, who had fifteen thousand of the twenty thousand commercial vessels on the seas, while France had only six hundred. He built up the French navy from its twenty ships to 270; he repaired harbors and docks; he impressed men ruthlessly into naval service; he organized or reformed trading companies for the West Indies, the East Indies, the Levant, and the northern seas. He gave these companies protective privileges, but again the regulations that he laid upon them hindered them fatally. Nevertheless foreign commerce grew; French goods competed with Dutch or English products in the Caribbean and the Near, Middle, and Far East. Marseilles, which had declined through lack of French shipping, became the biggest port on the Mediterranean. After ten years of experience, consultation and labor, Colbert issued (1681) a maritime code for French shipping and commerce; soon other nations adopted it. He organized insurance for commercial ventures overseas. He sanctioned French participation in the slave trade, but strove to mitigate it with humane regulations. 70

He encouraged exploration and the establishment of colonies, hoping to sell them manufactured articles for raw materials, and to use them as feeders to a merchant marine that would prove useful in war. French colonists were already spreading in Canada, West Africa, and the West Indies, and were entering Madagascar, India, and Ceylon. Courcelle and Frontenac explored the Great Lakes (1671–73). Cadillac founded a large French colony at what is now Detroit. La Salle (having been granted a monopoly in the slave trade in any regions that he should open up) discovered the Mississippi (1672), and descended it in a frail bark, reaching the Gulf of Mexico after two months of adventurous navigation. He took possession of the delta, and named it after the King. France now controlled the valleys of the St. Lawrence and the Mississippi through the heart of North America.

All in all—and we have noted as yet but a part of Colbert’s activity, having said nothing of his work for science, literature, and art—this was one of the most devoted and overspreading lives in history. Not since Charlemagne had a single mind so remade in so many phases so great a state. Those regulations were a nuisance, and made Colbert unpopular, but they created the economic form of modern France; and Napoleon only continued and revised Colbert in government and code. For ten years France knew such prosperity as never before. Then the faults of the system and the King brought it down. Colbert protested against the extravagance of King and court, and the disease of war that was consuming France in his old age; yet it was his high tariffs, as well as Louis’ love of power and glory, that led to some of those wars; France’s commercial rivals denounced the closing of her ports to their goods. The peasants and the artisans bore the brunt of Colbert’s reforms, and even the businessmen whom they enriched charged that his regulations clogged development; said one of them to the minister, “You found the carriage overturned on one side, and you have upset it on the other.” 71 When, broken and defeated, he died (September 6, 1683), his body had to be buried by night lest it be insulted by the people in the streets. 72

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