French Colbert The Deu de Sully

The First 'Colbert': The Due de Sully, French Colbert

What Jean-Baptiste Colbert would be in the last half of the seventeenth century to Louis XIV, Maximilien de Bethune, Baron de Rosny, the due de Sully (1560-1641) was to Henry IV. The young Bethune was born a Hugue­not aristocrat, Baron de Rosny. Naturally, he too gravitated to the court of Henry of Navarre, and fough and was wounded during the religious wars. It is characteristic of Rosny that he urged Henry IV to turn Catholic in order to save his throne although he himself refused to do so.

The arrogantand ruthless Rosny quickly became Henry IV's leading min­ister as superintendent of finance, and for his services was made by his master the due de Sully. Sully's own views stem from his Memoirs (1638), written in old age as a glowing apologia for his own term in office, for Sully had been forcibly retired to private life after the assassination of his royal patron. In his Memoirs, Sully claims to have opposed the more crackpot schemes of his fellow top bureaucrat Laffemas. Thus, he writes at length of his opposition to Laffemas's silk fiasco. Silk could not readily grow in the French climate, he had warned, and also it would lead Frenchmen into undue luxury.

It is not, of course, that Sully was not a mercantilist. It is just that, instead of proceeding with the folly of force-feeding domestic luxury industries, such as silk, he would have passed laws directly against luxurious consump­tion. He was eager to ban the export of gold and silver directly, paying fees to himself and others for ferreting out evaders of the law. Some of his specific views, of course, such as on the silk scheme, might be a rewriting of history to make himself look good to contemporaries; after all, neither Laffemas nor King Henry were then alive to verify his recollections. Others might be simply the product of bureaucratic infighting with his fellow economic czar.

A dedicated absolutist, who indeed did much to entrench centralized abso­lutism in France, the Due de Sully was basically as much a protectionist as his colleague Laffemas, despite the claim of some historians that Sully (and his monarch) was some sort of 'free-trader'. The one significant case where Sully opposed a Laffemas protection scheme was the latter's proposal to ban all imports of textiles. But here the basic reason was his loyalty to the city of Lyons, the leading Protestant stronghold in south-eastern France, which would have suffered greatly from the prohibition of such trade. Throughout his career, Sully fought to uphold the fortunes and privileges of Lyons.