Colbert. I. Jean Baptiste, marquis de Sei-gnelay, a French statesman, born at Rheims, Aug. 29, 1619, died in Paris, Sept. 6, 1683. The son of a merchant, he obtained employment as a clerk in an Italian banking house at Paris, at the recommendation of Mazarin, who soon after intrusted him with the management of his private affairs. On his deathbed the cardinal said to Louis XIV.: " Sire, I am indebted to you for all.that I possess; but I think I am requiting all your majesty's favors by giving you Colbert." At once admitted to the king's confidence, he began by exposing the maladministration of Fouquet, whom he succeeded in 1661 as comptroller general. Colbert's administration became a blessing to France. Order was restored in the finances, the revenue was increased, and the treasury was enabled to furnish the means for foreign wars as well as for internal improvements. The public debt was greatly reduced, and the manufacturing interest was revived. Several large manufactories were established at the expense of the government, the most celebrated of which was that of the Gobelins. Land taxes were lessened and more justly assessed; the excise upon salt was reduced; highways and roads were kept in repair, and new ones established; the Atlantic was united to the Mediterranean by the canal of Languedoc, and water communications were extended through nearly all parts of France. He was appointed minister of the navy in 1669, and the French fleet, which then consisted of but 50 ships, numbered in a few years 198 men-of-war. Colbert also encouraged literature, science, and art.
He founded the academies of inscriptions and belles-lettres, of science, and of architecture, sculpture, and painting, and at Rome reestablished the French school of painting. He founded the observatory and the jardin des plantes; increased the royal library and the collection of coins and medals; bestowed pensions on eminent artists and scholars; and enriched Paris with the garden of the Tuileries and the colonnade of the Louvre, and with many quays, bridges, boulevards, public buildings, triumphal arches, and monuments. He opposed the wars and follies of Louis XIV., and succeeded for many years in restraining him within the limits of reasonable ambition. But about 1670 his favor was on the wane, and the influence of Louvois, the minister of war, prevailed. Then commenced a series of European wars that partly, exhausted the wealth and resources accumulated by Colbert. He continued however serving the government, but the reckless course which was now pursued impaired his usefulness. He had been so long engaged in public affairs that he was loath to retire, but he suffered much from the ingratitude of the king.
During his last moments he gave vent to his feelings by saying: "If I had done for God what I have for that man (Louis XIV.), I would have more than deserved salvation, and I do not know now what will become of me." Thus died one of the greatest ministers of France. He was hated by his colleagues, perhaps by the king, and certainly by the people, who held him responsible for taxes which had been established notwithstanding his remonstrances, and for vexations of which he was not the author. To protect his funeral against the attacks of the mob, it took place at night, attended by a military escort. A monument was erected by his family in the church of St. Eustace, and his statue was placed in 1844 in the Palais Bourbon. Posterity has placed Colbert among the most eminent statesmen; and although his commercial policy has been the object of severe animadversion, it cannot be denied that it was perhaps the best adapted to his time and country. An edition of the Lettres, instructions et memoires de Colbert was published at Paris in 1872. II. Jean Baptiste, marquis de Seignelay, son of the preceding, born in Paris in 1651, died Nov. 3, 1690. He succeeded his father as minister of the navy, and raised the French navy to its highest power by his capacity and energy.
In 1684 he led in person the maritime expedition against Genoa.