Colbert’s 1664 Memorandum on Trade: Analysis

BradleyCollege Papers, Undergraduate Work0 Comments

Jean-Baptiste Colbert

Jean-Baptiste Colbert

In 1664, Jean-Baptiste Colbert sent a letter to the King of France, Louis XIV, to appeal for economic reforms that would bring greater prosperity to the French people. This letter, now known as “Memorandum on Trade, 1664,” reveals the depths of the problems France faced, and Colbert’s desperation to find solutions. While writing his letter, Colbert understood that economic issues were not something the king would likely be interested in. Instead of simply listing France’s deficiencies, he presented his arguments in a way that made the economic problems of France a personal reflection of King Louis XIV’s ability to rule.

Colbert opened his letter by writing that solving the country’s economic problems would not provide the king with any immediate benefit. In fact, solving the economic problems would come at a cost. Colbert writes that reforms would require: “Your Majesty’s sacrifice of two things so dear and important to kings-one, the time that [Your Majesty] could use for his amusements or other pleasanter matters, the other, his revenue….”[1] Colbert appears to believe that the king would have little interest in receiving his message or parting with his usual revenue, so the challenge he faces is in getting and then keeping the king’s attention, as well as persuading him to act on the economic reforms he proposes. To do this, Colbert writes, “Your Majesty will find it disagreeable to hear [trade] discussed often.” This implies that the king will continue to be reminded of the economic problems, if not by Colbert then from others, and that the issues must be addressed, rather than ignored.

The previous two quotes raise the question of what Colbert thought about nobles in general. He seems to imply that all nobles want to do is have fun and make money, which is supported by the tone of the letter and the constant emotional appeals to keep the king’s attention. This could be construed as an insult to the king’s ability or intelligence, but Colbert either felt secure enough in his position or secure enough in his belief that the king would not catch the implications that he left the phrases in his letter. It is also possible that Colbert’s statements are simply an accurate reflection of society at the time and the king’s focus on leisure and the acquisition of wealth were seen as legitimate pastimes. That would better explain how Colbert was able to get away with what today might be considered insulting. It would also explain why Colbert had to make an effort to appeal to the king’s emotions, rather than to his intellect through factual reports.

King Louis XIV

King Louis XIV

After getting the king’s attention, Colbert had to find a way to maintain his interest and make the king care about the problems enough to inconvenience himself, especially since the reforms would cause him to lose revenue in the short term. Colbert’s first tactic was to make the king feel personally responsible for the economic hardships the people were facing. He writes, “…it will be well to examine in detail the condition to which trade was reduced when His Majesty took the government into his own hands.” He also writes that the manufacture of many different types of items and textiles in France “are almost entirely ruined.” At this point, Colbert first mentions the Dutch and Dutch dominance of maritime shipping. This serves a double purpose. First, it mitigates Colbert’s accusations of the king’s fiscal incompetence: the Dutch are to blame for the crisis, not the king. Secondly, it further stirs up the king’s emotions by detailing how another nation has achieved dominance over France. This is an appeal to the king’s nationalistic pride, and pride in his own sovereignty. Colbert may also have written it in the hopes that it would engage the king’s competitive spirit and give him a reason to support his economic reforms. If the king were less interested in modern day ideas of governmental responsibility, and more interested in personal accomplishment, turning the issue into a personal competition with the Dutch would be an effective way of gaining the king’s support in making economic reforms.

Colbert made sure to include the potential rewards for economic success in his letter. That reward is money, which according to Colbert’s earlier statement, is one of the two most important things to kings. This tells the king that, though he will have to make a short-term sacrifice, he can expect greater long-term gains. Colbert did not directly state that the king would personally receive large sums of money from the nation’s economic success. Colbert instead writes of the “greatness and power of the State,” which at the time was also a reflection of the greatness and power of the monarch. He first writes, “returns in money… is the only aim of trade and the sole means of increasing the greatness and power of this State.” Later in his letter he writes that only “the abundance of money in a State makes the difference in its greatness and power.” Finally, he writes that any increase in the number of French ships will proportionally increase the “greatness and power of the State,” which means the money generated by trade through shipping will greatly benefit the French state.

Why would the king care about the money being brought into the French economy? In describing the way in which the Dutch have dominated maritime trade, Colbert writes that the Dutch pay both import and export duties when bringing goods into their ports, so the implication is that maritime trade creates a new opportunity for taxation, which would satisfy the king’s desire for greater personal revenues. At the same time, Colbert writes that by improving the condition of the French economy, he will “increase the veneration and respect of his subjects and the admiration of foreigners.” In other words, the king can have his cake and eat it too: he will receive more taxes and be loved more. Colbert may have been hoping that the king would also be concerned about the character of the legacy he would leave behind in the national memory.

In his letter to King Louis XIV, Colbert walks a fine line between accusation and flattery. Colbert establishes the king’s responsibility for the economy and, through a series of emotional appeals, hopes to influence him into making positive reforms. The method Colbert uses to accomplish his task is unusual by today’s standards, but may be a reflection of the accepted reality of nobility during Colbert’s day. Appealing to a monarch in 1664 was an extremely complex process, without the protections of law or governmental regulation that is taken for granted today. It was not only necessary to state the facts, but to make personal appeals for the monarch to make the correct choice for his people, while simultaneously avoiding too heavy an implication of personal fault, since the final responsibility of all governmental decisions rested in the monarchy.


[1] This quote and following quotes are from the webpage, “Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683): Memorandum on Trade, 1664,” part of Fordham University’s Modern History Sourcebook.

Note: This was an essay written for a college English class.  It received an A for content and A for composition.


The text being analyzed:

Sire, it pleases Your Majesty to give some hours of his attention to the establishment, or rather the re-establishment of trade in his kingdom. This is a matter that purely concerns the welfare of his subjects but that cannot procure Your Majesty any advantage except for the future, after it has brought abundance and riches among his people. On the contrary, [the subject of trade] being unattractive in itself, Your Majesty will find it disagreeable to hear it discussed often, and, moreover, [efforts to re-establish) it will even lead to a decrease in current revenues. [For all these reasons] it is certain, Sire, that through Your Majesty’s sacrifice of two things so dear and important to kings-one, the time that [Your Majesty] could use for his amusements or other pleasanter matters, the other, his revenue-[Your Majesty] by these unexampled proofs of his love for his people will infinitely increase the veneration and respect of his subjects and the admiration of foreigners.

Having discussed the reasons for and against the King’s making efforts to reestablish trade, it will be well to examine in detail the condition to which trade was reduced when His Majesty took the government into his own hands [ 166 1 J.

As for internal trade and trade between [French] ports:

The manufacture of cloths and serges and other textiles of this kind, paper goods, ironware, silks, linens, soaps, and generally all other manufactures were and are almost entirely ruined.

The Dutch have inhibited them all and bring us these same manufactures, drawing from us in exchange the commodities they want for their own consumption and re-export. If these manufactures were well re-established, not only would we have enough for our own needs, so that the Dutch would have to pay us in cash for the commodities they desire, but we would even have enough to send abroad, which would also bring us returns in money-and that, in one word, is the only aim of trade and the sole means of increasing the greatness and power of this State.

As for trade by sea, whether among French ports or with foreign countries, it is certain that, even for the former, since in all French ports together only two hundred to three hundred ships belong to the subjects of the King, the Dutch draw from the kingdom every year, according to an exact accounting that has been made, four million UvresI for this carrying trade, which they take away in commodities. Since they absolutely need these commodities, they would be obliged to pay us this money in cash if we had enough ships for our own carrying trade.

***

As for foreign trade:

It is certain that except for a few ships from Marseilles that go to the Levant [the eastern Mediterranean], maritime trade in the kingdom does not exist, to the point that for the French West Indies one-hundred-fifty Dutch vessels take care of all the trade, carry there the foodstuffs that grow in Germany and the goods manufactured by themselves, and carry back sugar, tobacco, dyestuffs, which they [the Dutch] take home, where they pay customs duty on entry, have [the commodities] processed, pay export duties, and bring them back to us; and ‘the value of these goods amounts to two million Uvres every year, in return for which they take away what they need of our manufactures. Instead, if we ran our own West Indies trade, they would be obliged to bring us these two million in hard cash.

Having summarized the condition of domestic and foreign trade, it will perhaps not be inappropriate to say a few words about the advantages of trade.

I believe everyone will easily agree to this principle, that only the abundance of money in a State makes the difference in its greatness and power.

***

Aside from the advantages that the entry of a greater quantity of cash into the kingdom will produce, it is certain that, thanks to the manufactures, a million people who now languish in idleness will be able to earn a living. An equally considerable number will earn their living by navigation and in the seaports.

The almost infinite increase in the number of [French] ships will multiply to the same degree the greatness and power of the State.

These, in my opinion, are the goals that should be the aim of the King’s efforts and of his goodness and love for his people.

The means proposed for reaching these goals are:

To make His Majesty’s resolution known to all by a decree of the Council ton Commerce] meeting in the presence of His Majesty, publicized by circular letters.

***

To revive all the regulations in the kingdom for the re-establishment of manufactures.

To examine all import and export duties, and exempt raw materials and [domestic] manufactures ….

Annually to spend a considerable sum for the re-establishment of manufactures and for the good of trade, according to resolutions that will be taken in Council.

Similarly for navigation, to pay rewards to all those persons who buy or build new ships or who undertake long-distance voyages.


Source:

Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Lettres, Instructions et Memoires de Colbert, vol. 2, ed. P. Clement (Paris: Librairie Imperiale, 1863), pp. 263, 268-71. Translated by Ruth Kleinman in Core Four Sourcebook

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