The Invention of Financial Politics by Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683) Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, 1655

Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683)
Portrait by Philippe de Champaigne, 1655

On August 29, 1619, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, who served as Minister of Finances under the rule of Louis XIV., was born. Colbert‘s innovative financial politics was one of the basic pillars of French absolutism and was about to change the world into a modern economy.

“The art of taxation consists of plucking the goose so as to obtain the most feathers with the least hissing” – Colbert

Jean-Baptiste Colbert basically did not have any other chance than going into finances. His father and grandfather were active as merchants, which influenced him critically. Jean-Baptiste himself spent his early working years at a war office and as a troop inspector. At the age of 30, Colbert became the counselor of state. Three years later, he was recommended by Cardinal Mazarin, who hired him to administer the Cardinal’s affairs while being gone. He made up a great reputation early when he suggested a tax reform, not hesitating to criticize other politicians. After the death of Cardinal Mazarin, Colbert could climb the ladder of success. He became the superintendent of buildings, followed by several promotions up to a point where he had powerful positions in every political section but the war department.

When the financial department was transformed into the royal council, Colbert took the lead due to his authoritarian personality. Jean-Baptiste Colbert was fighting against corruption, he did not hesitate to reveal the dishonesty of politicians in office. He was also very active in the field of taxes and the way they were collected. He stood for an equality of taxes throughout the social classes and the reduction of the higher class.

Colbert Presenting the Members of the Royal Academy of Sciences to Louis XIV in 1667

Colbert Presenting the Members of the Royal Academy of Sciences to Louis XIV in 1667

Colbert made many chances in the financial system, however, not all of them were as successful as he had wished. To support trade and economy, the government helped companies financially, they hired qualified employees from abroad and prohibited French workers to emigrate. Contrary to the council’s believe, these efforts caused several disadvantages. The general consumption decreased and many improvements could not take place. Nevertheless he could help improving the many French provinces through building roads and canals as a support of trade and currency exchange.

Colbert was known to always work very hard, even until his final days. Unfortunately, he suffered from stomach aches during his later life which caused him to be bedridden by the age of 64. He died on September 6, 1683. After his death, it was found that his stomach pain probably was caused by large kidney stones.

However, Colbert was an important representative of the mercantilism and was able to chance the French economy enormously into the direction of a modern and less corrupt system. At yovisto academic video search you may enjoy the lecture ‘Deficit, or How the French Invented Financial Politics’ by Jacob Soll at Columbia University.

References and Further Reading


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