Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619–1683) statesman

2011-02-09 09:05:00

Jean-Baptiste Colbert was a member of the Great Council of State and the French king Louis XIV’s intendant de finance (superintendant of finance). He was responsible for implementing mercantile reforms designed to extract New World wealth for the French Crown. After the failures of the Compagnie de la Nouvelle France (Company of New France), he established the Compagnie des Indes Occidentals (French West Indies Company) to govern New France and compete with England and Spain in the Americas. Though generally successful in managing French finances, he was never able to attract large numbers of French settlers to New France.
Born into a prosperous family from Reims, Colbert became an agent for Cardinal Mazarin in 1651. In 1661, he was appointed superintendant of finance and quickly became the most important adviser to Louis XIV, gradually taking charge of the navy, the merchant marine, commerce, the royal household, and public buildings. Colbert worked tirelessly to repair France’s financial structure, wrecked by years of corruption and neglect. He made the tax system more efficient, expanded industry, and promoted the export of French luxury goods. Through strict regulation and supervision, he tightened royal control over finance and built one of the strongest navies in Europe. The American colonies had suffered particular neglect during the previous 40 years. In order to revive American self-sufficiency, Colbert appointed Jean Talon as intendant of New France, and together they promoted immigration, economic diversification, and trade with the West Indies. In the last years of Colbert’s life, expensive wars promoted by his rival, the war minister marquis de Louvois, undermined many of the benefits of his financial reorganization. Cold and unpopular with the public, Colbert was nevertheless an incredibly efficient administrator who enhanced French power in the Americas.