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Review of Soll, Jacob. The Information Master: Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2009. ISBN 978-0-472-11690-4. Pp. 277. $65

Article Citation: 
XIII, 2 (2011): 201–203
Ellen McClure
Article Text: 


Jacob Soll’s extensively researched, engagingly written, and fascinating book explores Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s relentless campaign to marshal information in the defense and service of Louis XIV’s France. Soll convincingly argues that Colbert innovated not merely in the methods he used to organize information, but in the very information that he chose to gather. As Soll reminds the reader through a combination of broad brush strokes and exquisite detail, before Colbert’s tenure as the Sun King’s finance minister, information had been lovingly collected and eccentrically organized by the disinterested and genteel humanists and jurists comprising the transnational Republic of Letters, a world which existed alongside the rapidly growing world of international trade, with its rapid development of recordkeeping and finance. Colbert brought these worlds together, at times dishonestly and violently, seizing the carefully constructed libraries of prominent scholars and severely restricting outside access to state documents. Not content with collecting existing information, Colbert also worked tirelessly to create knowledge, deploying scrupulously trained and loyal intendants who were sent forth into the French countryside to count cows and assess armaments.  Colbert’s rigorous training extended to Louis XIV himself, for whom he created golden pocket notebooks containing state ledgers (64).

While Soll amply documents Colbert’s incredible success in revolutionizing state knowledge, he is careful to note the minister’s failures. The resistance that Colbert encountered during his 1666 campaign to verify the legitimacy of the aristocracy’s claims to the fiscal privileges of nobility forced him to modify and moderate his inquiries.  However, as Soll documents in a particularly fascinating section of the book, the very enthusiasm with which Colbert pursued the classification and creation of archival culture led to a curious blindness with regard to the French colonies in the New World. Since these lands lacked a preexisting bureaucracy, Colbert was at a loss as to how to begin to understand them, and completely neglected the local sources that he exploited with such success inside of his own country. As Soll concludes,  “For Colbert, there was no Atlantic world, only the weak reflection of ancient Europe, its laws and its hierarchy of power and knowledge, all of which was seated in paperwork and archives” (118).

Soll’s riveting account of managerial innovation, undertaken with the complicity and approval of Louis XIV, leads him to deploy, frequently and provocatively, the term “absolutism” to describe Colbert’s unrelenting drive towards centralization and control. This term has fallen out of use in recent scholarship, as many historians, noting its anachronism, have questioned the ability of any French king to impose his will upon a country whose traditions and alternate sites of power and resistance were not as easily bypassed as “absolutism” implies. Indeed, it could well be argued that what we refer to as absolutism would have been recognized and described during the seventeenth century, quite simply, as tyranny. Soll’s work is therefore an eloquent argument not only for the often hidden richness of archives and information management, but also for a renewed appreciation of the significance of human agency and initiative in historical narrative.

Soll’s liberal use of “absolutism” also raises the question of the precise relationship between Colbert and Louis XIV. As the book’s final chapter reveals, Colbert’s system fell apart after his death, as the king, aware of the intricate relationship between the control of information and political sovereignty, sought to regain dominance by playing the Colbert and Louvois families against each other. Louis XIV’s pointed rejection of Colbert’s methods implicitly points to the question of the minister’s motivations in reforming the French state. Was Colbert motivated by personal ambition, deep loyalty to the king, or by a love of archives and documents, which Soll clearly shares? Soll seems to imply that a sort of proto-patriotism, an emotional attachment to the state that he was in the very process of creating, lay behind the minister’s actions.  In many ways, however, as the eventual collapse of the system demonstrates, Colbert’s passionate determination seems to have been unique. Soll’s fascinating reading of the contentious correspondence between Colbert and his son, the marquis de Seignelay, demonstrates that Colbert’s system did not, in and of itself, compel enthusiasm. Combined with Soll’s equally compelling account of the career of Nicolas-Joseph Foucault, the intendant who efficiently established the controversial droit de regale in the French southwest, Seignelay’s resistance tantalizingly evokes the wide range of responses that Colbert’s rather merciless dehumanization of state service appears to have elicited among his many agents.

Of course, the desire to know more about how the intendants and other servants of the state felt about the unprecedented work they were being asked to perform is itself a demonstration of how convincingly Soll makes his argument about Colbert’s central role in the development of France. As such, The Information Master provides a beautiful and nuanced portrait of one man’s unrelenting effort to create the French state, while also gesturing to the origins of current conflicts between those who define themselves as humanists and those who seek greater efficiency and centralization through the control and manipulation of data. Soll’s groundbreaking work should be required reading for anyone interested in early modern politics, culture, and the history of administration.

Ellen McClure, University of Illinois at Chicago

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