During the 17th century, the French economy experienced a prolonged period of stagnation. Colbert, appointed Louis’ controller-general of finances in 1665, only achieved limited success in regards to his economic objectives and failed to reverse this period of economic stagnation. He was however, successful in his primary aim of providing Louis with the funds to do as he wished as his financial polices to increase tax revenue were very successful. Contrasting this success, his objectives in trade and commerce were only partly achieved and he failed to provide the country with long term prosperity.
In 1671 Colbert received a letter1 from Louis criticising him for speaking out against the King. Although at face value this criticism may appear to mean that Colbert failed in his primary objective of pleasing the King and providing him with the necessary funds to do as he pleased, this letter is significant in proving the contrary. The letter describes how Loius ‘overwhelmed [Colbert] with benefits’ and had ‘a very friendly feeling towards you [Colbert]’. The fact that Louis had provided Colbert with benefits proves that he had earned the support of the King and was being rewarded for succeeding in his primary objective. The second significant point about the letter to prove Colbert’s success in pleasing the King is the fact that it is a private letter. Although Colbert had spoken out against the King’s judgement in public, Louis respected Colbert so much that he didn’t publicly disgrace his minister like he had done to Fouquet, Colbert’s predecessor, but kept it private in order to protect Colbert’s status at court.. This is very significant as it proves that Colbert had gained an amount of respect and trust from Louis that nearly every other Frenchmen could only dream of having, this is supported by the fact that Colbert kept his office until his death, a clear indicator that Colbert was very successful in achieving his primary economic objective.
Colbert’s summary of the King’s finances for the year 16802 is a very valuable source in strongly supporting this claim as well. The summary shows that Louis spent 1,917,413 livres purely on his food and drink account, a further 817,489 livres on his royal stables and over 3 million livres on his personal household, on top of 2,030,092 livres of ready cash for his personal use. Considering that Louis’ total expenditure on the whole of France in this year was 95,964,011, these are significant sums of money which strongly support the claim that Colbert was very successful in providing the King with the money required to live a lavish lifestyle. Similarly historian Tim Blanning describes how Louis ‘appeared in a coat encrusted with 14,000,000 livres-worth of diamonds’. This huge figure is very significant evidence of Colbert’s success, as Louis was able to spend a substantial proportion of France’s annual expenditure on a coat purely to demonstrate his absolutism. It is clear that Colbert completely achieved his primary economic objective of providing his King with the necessary funds to live such an impressive and lavish lifestyle.
In order to provide Louis with such a lifestyle, Colbert had to improve the state of the King’s finances by increasing tax revenue. Geoffrery Treasure asserts that ‘There can be no doubt about the magnitude of Colbert’s achievement. During these years, with the doubling of ‘free income’ the crown regained solvency and control’ 4. This is strong evidence to support the claim that Colbert enjoyed considerable success in increasing tax revenue, or ‘free income’ as described by Treasure. Colbert was extremely successful as he aimed to reduce the tax burden on the peasants and to tap into the wealth of the nobles by putting more emphasis on indirect taxes instead of direct taxes, specifically the taille. Historian Peter Campbell provides figures which strongly support Colbert’s success. He describes how ‘the taille was reduced from 50 million livres annually to 32 million’. This was Colbert’s most successful financial policy, as by reducing the burden on people and increasing the efficiency of collecting the taille it now ‘produced 24 million from a levy of 32’ compared with 16 million from the wartime level of 52 million6.
Although only just above two thirds of potential revenue was raised, it was still a significant improvement. To the contrary, an English writer criticised the French system of tax collection ‘The revenues of France are only half of what the King would like the world to believe’7. Although this is referring to 1690 and may not appear to directly criticise Colbert as he died in 1683, it could be argued that it reflects on Colbert’s failure to increase tax revenue earlier on and that it had continued into the next decade. However, this judgement is unsupported and insignificant as it is clear from Colbert’s summary of the King’s finances from 1662 to 16808 that Colbert was very successful in balancing the budget and increasing revenue.
In 1679 the receipts of France totaled 126,132,816 livres compared to only 48,053,826 in 1663, so it is clear that Colbert was extremely successful in raising revenue to accommodate expenditure. Similarly in the years 1662 to 1680, the annual budget was in surplus 11 years compared with 8 years in deficit, and although the largest deficit of 4,204,655 livres appears to be a large number it is only a tiny fraction of the deficit in the decades after Colbert. By 1714, over 30 years after Colbert’s death so bearing no reflection on his policies, the King’s deficit was 227,943,589 livres9, which is a testament to the extreme success which Colbert enjoyed as he was able to predominantly keep the budget in the green. Therefore it is clear that Colbert enjoyed significant success in achieving his economic objective of increasing revenue and keeping the King’s finances healthy.
Colbert aimed to increase the prosperity of France both short and long term, however as Historian Robin Briggs argues ‘by the time of Colbert’s death in 1683 many of his projects were virtually abandoned’10. This is important because Colbert had to reverse many of successful schemes he had implemented at the beginning of his time in power, which would have helped improve France in the long term, for example ‘the abolition of 20,000 purchasable offices’11. To begin with this reform was significant in helping Colbert achieve his economic objectives as those who bought the offices became exempt from tax, so by abolishing them he could increase tax revenue and help secure long term prosperity for France. However, Louis made sure that Colbert’s primary aim was to provide the State with the necessary money by any means, and due to a series of expensive wars Colbert had to begin selling offices again to increase revenue during wartime. This is supported by the social unrest in 1675.
William Beik provides evidence to support Colbert reversing his good policies: ‘These were protests against a series of new direct taxes created by Colbert to help finance the Dutch War’12. This was a major failure for Colbert, as he was having to undo all of his good work, which would have benefited France long term, in order to satisfy the financial demands of Louis. By selling offices and introducing new direct taxes, France was reverting back to the corrupt and in-efficient systems that had been plaguing the French economy in the past. Ultimately Colbert drastically failed in his economic objective of securing long term prosperity for France, as the system of offices and heavy direct taxing were major causes of the French Revolution in 1789. Similarly, Colbert failed in reducing the poverty of the peasants in the short term.
In 1694 Fnelon wrote a letter13 to Louis pointing out the sufferings of the French People, he described ‘The whole of France is nothing but a great poor house’ because of abandoning the cultivation of the soil and the number of Frenchmen dying of hunger. Despite Fnelon being a known critic of the King, his argument carries substantial significance. Colbert had failed to reduce poverty due the fact that he had decided to ignore agriculture and focus his policies on establishing France as a commercial state. This was a failure in trying to achieve his economic objectives as Fnelon pointed out, the poor quality of the soils led to bad harvest after bad harvest, resulting in people dying of hunger. With over 85% of France relying on agriculture for their livelihood, Colbert’s decision to ignore it proved fatal in making France more prosperous. Although Colbert was on track to improving the long term economic condition of France at the start of his time in office, his primary objective to always provide the King with an endless supply of money obstructed his other objectives, and so it is clear that by his death Colbert had failed to increase either the short or long term prosperity of France.
Colbert, being a mercantilist, aimed to increase France’s share of the limited amount of bullion in the world through foreign trading. David Sturdy describes how ‘the [trading] fleet rose from 32-92’ from La Rochelle and from 11 ships trading out of Bordeaux in 1660 to over 30 in 168314. This was a great success for Colbert as previously the French had been reliant on Dutch ships to trade, and so they no longer had to share their profits with their trading rivals. Coupled with the success of his East India Trading Company, Colbert began achieving his objectives of increasing foreign trade. However, this success was limited for two major reasons; Dutch retaliation; and the attitude of French nobles. ‘The Dutch after their success in the war made reduced tariffs one of the first conditions of peace’15. Colbert was so obsessed with his objective of surpassing the Dutch as a trading nation that he had imposed heavy tariffs on Dutch products to try and deter them from trading with France, however, they did not last long as described by historian Pennington above. This source also raises the issue of the Dutch War, which the tariffs were a contributing factor enticing the Dutch to retaliate.
The huge costs of the war crippled the French economy in the following decades, and as Colbert had supported the war because of his desire to surpass the Dutch, it is clear that he not only failed in his objectives to increase trade to levels above those of the Dutch but it also led to him completely failing to secure long term prosperity for the country as the economy never truly recovered from the costs of the war. Franois Bluche describes how Colbert tried to change the attitudes towards nobles trading, ‘ A Colbertian ordinance of 1669 announced, but to not avail, that merchant endeavour did not demean noble status’16. This was a serious failure for Colbert as the nobles were the best educated and best placed financially to trade overseas, however despite his continued efforts Colbert could not overturn the prejudice provoked from noble drogeance which prevented nobles from being a part of French commerce. This was the biggest failure of Colbert in regards to his commerce objectives, he was never able to get the French nobility to imitate the successful English gentry.
To conclude, it is impossible to categorise all of Colbert’s economic objectives together. There is two distinctive groups with completely different amounts of success. It is clear that Colbert was extremely successful in addressing the financial needs of the King, by substantially increasing the tax revenue by keeping the deficit minuscule in comparison to later years. However, Colbert had objectives that had to take a back seat to the King’s needs, and as a consequence Colbert didn’t go very far at all in achieving his objectives for the long term prosperity of France, as he had to reverse his promising policies, and he only enjoyed limited success with his commerce objectives. Overall, because his primary objective was to address the financial needs of the King, it is fair to say that Colbert was successful.
William Beik, Louis XIV and Absolutism, Boston, 2000
Franois Bluche, Louis XIV, 1990
Robin Briggs, ‘Early Modern France 1560-1715’, Oxford, 1998
Peter Campbell, ‘Louis XIV’, Harlow, 1993
D H Pennington, Europe and the Seventeenth Century, Harlow, 1989
J H Shennan, Louis XIV, London, 1986
David L Smith, ‘Louis XIV’, Cambridge, 1992
David J Sturdy, Louis XIV, London, 1998
Geoffrey Treasure, ‘The Making of Modern Europe 1648-1780’, London, 2001
Richard Wilkinson, Louis XIV, France and Europe 1661-1715, 1993
OCR Past Papers
1 Louis XIV, a letter to Colbert, 1671 as quoted in OCR 2581 Jan02
2 2.4 Colbert’s summary of the King’s finances for the year 1680, in Clment vol. II (ii) quoted in David L Smith, ‘Louis XIV’, Cambridge, 1992, page 29
3 Tim C W Blanning, ‘The culture and the power of culture: old regime Europe, 1660-1789’, Oxford, 2002, page 41
4 Geoffrey Treasure, ‘The Making of Modern Europe 1648-1780’, London, 1985
5 Peter Campbell, ‘Louis XIV’, Harlow, 1993, page 35
6 Ibid. Page 35
7 Anonymous, ‘The Present Condition of France, Her Revenues Compared with her Infinite Expenses’, 1692 as quoted in OCR 2581 Jan07
8 2.5 Colbert’s summary of the King’s finances from 1662 to 1680, in Clment vol. II (ii) as quoted in David L Smith, ‘Louis XIV’, Cambridge, 1992, page 30
9 David L Smith, ‘Louis XIV’, Cambridge, 1992, page 30
10 Robin Briggs, ‘Early Modern France 1560-1715’, Oxford, 1998, page 69
11 Geoffrey Treasure, Louis XIV, London, 2001,page 155
12 William Beik, Louis XIV and Absolutism, Boston, 2000 page 156
13 Franois de la Mothe-Fnelon, Letter to the King, 1694, as quoted in OCR 2581 Jun09
14 David J Sturdy, Louis XIV, London, 1998 page 65.
15 D H Pennington, Europe and the Seventeenth Century, Harlow 1989 page 89
16 Franois Bluche, Louis XIV, 1990