Think tanks are odd institutions. Experts solemnly line up, often to defend a specific political or economic cause, and whether they represent the Heritage Foundation or the Brookings Institution, and no matter how fine the expert, his or her findings will, most likely, be in line with the ideological leanings of the institution. From the Carnegie Foundation’s mission to “hasten the abolition of international war,” to the Brookings Institution’s focus on studying the federal government, each was founded with the idea that serious and focused research groups could solve the world’s wicked problems. Recent exposés by The New York Times and other publications of think tanks involved in questions of finance, energy regulation, environmental issues, and, of course, the cigarette companies, have shown direct think-tank involvement in twisting data, as well as the use of think-tank experts to attack scientific findings and whistleblowers or to retail government echo-chamber propaganda. It is not entirely surprising that many voters, reporters, and analysts are highly suspicious of these so-called experts, whose once-prestigious institutions have become synonymous with partisan warfare and servile analysis-for-hire.
Historically, groupings of experts to create data and reports for propaganda purposes have been powerful political tools, but these groupings also have a history of both taking cash to produce results while turning into independent forces of free thought. In Europe, the origins of think tanks go back to the 800s, when emperors and kings began arguing with the Catholic Church about taxes. A tradition of hiring teams of independent lawyers to advise monarchs about their financial and political prerogatives against the church spans from Charlemagne all the way to the 17th century, when the kings of France were still arguing about whether they had the right to appoint bishops and receive a cut of their income. During this long tradition of ecclesiastical and feudal legal wrangling, popes and monarchs turned to lawyers—often independent nobles or clerics in their own right—who gave advice while retaining a certain amount of intellectual independence. Between 1500 and 1800, during the Protestant and Catholic Reformations, teams of ecclesiastical and legal historians worked in groups to scour archives and libraries to write histories defending their princes’ religion (and, often by association, their tax rights). The Centuriators of Magdeburg were Protestant ecclesiastical historians who, between 1559 and 1574, produced a massive history, The Magdebourg Centuries, to defend their religious claims. This group of experts was seen as a threat by the Catholic Church, and, in turn, were countered by the great historian Caesar Baronius, in his later associated research team that produced Annales Ecclesiastici (1588-1607). These independently formed teams of scholars could rightly claim to be direct ancestors of today’s think tanks.
While the term “think tank” is modern, it can be traced to the humanist academies and scholarly networks of the 16th and 17th centuries. The Oxford English Dictionary defines think tank as a “body of experts, as a research organization, providing advice and ideas on specific national or commercial problems.” Pierre Richelet’s Dictionary definition of 1686 describes an academy only as a “place where persons of letters, or of certain arts, assemble, to speak about letters, or their art.” Richelet’s Dictionary defines “expert” in much the modern way, as “learned; consummate and accomplished in something: experienced.” The words expert and expertise were mainly associated with legal knowledge and decisions.
The term closest to the modern think tank was “bureau,” which was an “assemblage” of professionals, often within government. Richelet uses the term “bureau d’adresse [aides mercantiles],” in reference to Théophraste Renaudot’s (1586-1653) office in Paris that had a royal patent from Cardinal Richelieu, and which was not only a center for medical expertise and aid for the poor, but also a news and propaganda center for Richelieu’s administration. “It is a place,” explains Richelet, “where one goes to give and take advice concerning things which one needs.”
Research teams became common in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, when states often depended on independent scholars and their expertise. In the late 1630s, Richelieu, by then the prime minister of France, sent the historian and archivist Théodore Godefroy to Münster, where the powers of Europe were hammering out the treaty that would end the 30 Years’ War: in reality, 80 years of fighting that had devastated swaths of the continent. Neither a great nobleman nor a professional diplomat, Godefroy was an expert in dynastic precedence, ranks, feudal rights, canon and civil law, civil administration, political history, and international commerce. He received lucrative offices, all related to his archival skills. Louis XIII named Godefroy royal historiographer in 1613, director of the inventory of the royal archives in 1615, and chargé de mission to catalog the archives of the contentious Duchy of Lorraine in 1634, and as ambassadorial counselor and secretary at the Congress of Münster in 1643. Today, we would call him a technical expert, or even a consultant, who brought to these delicate negotiations his specialized knowledge.
The French delegation included great plenipotentiaries such as Henri II, Duke d’Orléans, the Duke de Longueville, as well as professional diplomats and experts. Those gathered were increasingly interested in a functional brand of international relations in order to cut through the centuries of feudal, ecclesiastical and dynastic rights, which, like a terrible historical umbilical cord, had strangled Europe. The legal tools they employed at Westphalia momentarily cleared the dynastic and confessional entanglement to build a framework for negotiating European peace that would be used to resolve conflicts until World War I finally washed away the last vestiges of the Ancien Régime in rivers of blood.
In France, in particular, which was famous for its academies and libraries, the crown often called on groups of scholars from the Republic of Letters—a self-styled international network of scholars and experts who corresponded, shared information, and ran archives, libraries and publication projects. When in need of an expert, kings such as Louis XIII would call on figures like Godefroy and sent them as experts and representatives to diplomatic meetings.
Godefroy’s valuable skills of legal and historical information collection and analysis grew from his network of contacts. He had worked with members of the great parliamentary family Harlay-Chanvallon as well as with famed book collector and historian Jacques-Auguste de Thou. When the monarchy hired him, it was assumed that he brought the potential to draw on his network of scholarly and legal contacts to aid their arguments. His reputation came from his working group, the Academy of the legal historian Dupuy brothers, Pierre and Jacques. The Dupuy Academy was not simply a learned group that discussed literature and science; it mixed scholarship with public policy. In other words, it was the prototype of what today would be called a think tank: a private bureau of experts who create policy papers following an ideological line or at the behest of political or industrial powers.
In its early days in the 1580s, a group of jurists and parliamentarians had met around Jacques-Auguste de Thou, often to discuss issues central to solving the religious and Civil wars that wracked France. Seeking religious tolerance, they worked for a resolution of the crisis with the Edict of Nantes in 1598, granting legal tolerance to Protestants under the newly Catholic king, Henry IV. The de Thou and Dupuy families supported the Academy’s members, acting as a central reference point through which its members could find work and materials including rare books and manuscripts, and aiding them in scholarly or political projects. They were a dissemination point for information and scientific findings—such as those of Galileo—and with the reputations and expertise their group produced, members sought official positions as librarians, official scholars, and, like Godefroy, diplomatic attachés.
The Academy was a known site of expertise to which the church, scholars from across Europe, the French parlements, and, above all, the French crown turned for counsel, professional help, and works of propaganda. Their ideology was one of a respect for moderate religion, institutions, learning, peace, and, often, early forms of nationalism. In any case, the French crown saw them as such and, by the time Godefroy went to Münster, the Dupuy Academy was one of the main centers of French policy formulation.
What made the Dupuy group and similar confederations of researchers, scholars, and lawyers new is that they were self-designed and independent. Religious groups and states could go to them for counsel, and they could also work by themselves. Members came back to the group not because it was a corporation but because it was the source of their strength and expertise; even more as it grew out of religious culture, it represented an ethic of learning and sharing information to which its members were both professionally and emotionally attached. In this sense, their group was not only a precursor to the modern think tank but to modern universities, and indeed, the two types of institutions would evolve together. It is, therefore, reasonable to situate the Dupuy Academy as one of the founding points of think-tank style institutions of learning and politics in France.
During the 1630s, the Dupuy brothers sought to change the name of their group from academy to cabinet. The definition for cabinet could mean literally a cabinet of curiosities or antiquities, and also, according to Richelet, a place where “men of letters” seek “calm, peace, and books.” Cabinet had another relevant meaning too: it was the private office where the king and his counselors made the secret decisions of state: “secreta, arcana consilia.” The Cabinet Dupuy would combine all these functions, fusing scholarship, research, contemplation, and policy-making.
The Dupuy Academy, or Cabinet, was like a college that worked alongside and within various institutions of the state. The members of the Academy not only served the state as erudite legal consultants, as did Godefroy and the main members of the Cabinet, the famous historians Jacques-Auguste de Thou and the Dupuy brothers Pierre (1582-1651) and Jacques (1591-1656) were also linked to the state by their management of state libraries and archives. To the benefit of the monarchy, a bridge formed between it and members of the magistracy in the realm of state information management. The monarchy depended on semi-independent legal scholars who worked for the crown, keeping royal records and publishing historical propaganda.
The Dupuy Academy flourished in the first half of the 17th century. However, with the rise of Louis XIV’s absolutist administration and Jean-Baptiste Colbert’s cultural policies, the external policy institute of the Dupuys was replaced with a model of internal state experts and the centralization of state information and policy-making. Indeed, in 1663, with the fears of anti-monarchical rebellion in mind, Colbert banned non-state-sanctioned academies—an unthinkable act in the days of Peiresc and Dupuy. The Dupuy Academy and the Bureau d’Adresses remained, but they would now work in a secondary fashion to the new academies and teams of researchers Colbert created within the state in his library complex.
In 1666, Colbert built a new royal library across the street from his own on the Rue Richelieu. Here he founded the Académie Royale des Sciences and he hired the mathematician, Pierre Carcavy, to manage it. He used this library complex as an institute for knowledge and government and found scholars and experts who were entirely at his orders. His primary concern, aside from war and taxes, was the relationship between religion and royal authority; a relationship that hinged on legal and historical documentation.
England had numerous research groups, such as Matthew Parker’s circle in the late 16th century and Samuel Hartlib’s circle a century later. Many of these groups were centered around institutions like Cambridge University and the Royal Society. But in France, the state became actively involved through Colbert’s unprecedented patronage and campaigning to bring such circles of learning under the control of the state. By the late 1660s, Colbert had created a cadre of in-house state-sponsored scholars who worked only for him.
Colbert did not want his scholars looking for patrons; he wanted them as permanent employees of his administration. He, therefore, found the skills of the Benedictine monks particularly appealing. These churchmen were expert textual handlers, who saw it as their responsibility to organize ecclesiastical archives that contained documents pertaining to religious, dynastic and fiscal rights. In particular, Colbert sought out the services of the most famous archivist and librarian of them all, Don Jean Mabillon (1632-1707), who had developed a methodology of “Diplomatics,” a critical approach to authenticating documents and exposing spurious ones. Under Mabillon, the Abbey of Saint-Germain became a central training ground for Colbert’s state policy experts. Mabillon trained a number of highly accomplished document gatherers and critics, experts in ancient languages, amongst them Étienne Baluze (1630-1718), who managed his personal library and archive.
Baluze stood midway in the evolutionary chain between erudite scholar and expert bureaucrat, or indeed, the director of a large think tank that answers to political interests. Colbert hired him not only because he was an internationally renowned scholar, but because he was a company man: he served Colbert’s servile ethic of scholarship and his logic of bureaucracy and state secrecy. In the end, the library and the administrators who worked for it constituted a central state bureaucracy of letters and policy. Colbert’s orders were its modus operandi, not the scientific quest for truth.
An early member of the Académie Française and former secretary to Cardinal Richelieu, the Abbé Aimable de Bourzeis (1606-1672) was another Colbertist state scholar trusted to handle secret papers of state relative to Louis XIV’s claims to the inheritance of the Spanish Netherlands. He, too, produced secret internal histories and legal reports for Colbert, such as his giant file on the inheritance rights of Louis XIV’s Spanish wife, Marie-Thérèse, relative to the Dutch War. The file is filled with secret historical reports, useful documents, and the fruits of a wide scholarly correspondence concerning the crown’s claims over Spanish Netherlands. Bourzeis’s secret file for Colbert also contained information that remained secret: reports by ambassadors, legal memos, minutes of strategy discussions, such as “Designs that His Majesty has to take parts of these countries, over which he has rights,” as well as collections of legal evidence and arguments backing the French royal case. Bourzeis informed Colbert about legal questions, Spanish policy, and general strategy. Parts of this file were eventually unified into a work of public propaganda.
Colbert drafted leading figures from the world of learning for his sometimes public, sometimes secret policy group. He harnessed skills and looked to control scholarly networks. He offered unprecedented amounts of cash. He also looked to take away intellectual liberty. The academician Jean Chapelain (1595-1674) became Colbert’s agent, searching for scholars willing to take Colbert’s money in return for royal propaganda. A man who once kept a correspondence with other members of the international republic of letters for his own interests now used his address book for Colbert.
Chapelain wrote the famous German humanist Herman Conring, asking him to work for the French crown by assembling historical documents that could be used as French propaganda. He did the same with famous Dutch scholar Nicolas Heinsius, whom he flattered by listing other great scholars, such as J. G. Vossius and Christian Huygens, who had accepted to work for the French crown. Chapelain flattered Vossius by telling him that Louis XIV himself had taken a personal interest in his works.
Chapelain also proposed his own services in writing propagandistic history. With the help of Chapelain and his growing team, Colbert organized a historical research team for political propaganda: Petite Académie, later the Académie Royale des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres, a center for propagandistic scholarship.
However, there were problems with Colbert’s historical research team. If members of Colbert’s research teams did not follow orders and produce propaganda, or if they discussed sensitive archival sources, he fired them. When one of the assistants in the royal library, Antoine Varillas, revealed to Colbert that he was using the documents of the royal collection to write a “Secret history of the house of Medici”—“I leave off where Machiavelli began,” he boasted—Colbert was horrified, and fired him and evicted him from his lodgings at the library. When Colbert’s brother, a royal librarian, protested that Varillas had nowhere to go but into the streets, Colbert said that he had found Varillas “insupportably ugly,” and that he didn’t care. He showed the same business-like impatience with the old royal historiographer, François-Eudes de Mézéray. When he published a passage in his history that was in contradiction with Colbert’s claims of royal tax prerogatives, Colbert fired him too, ignoring the entreaties of a long-serving old man with a family to support.
In 1668, Colbert commissioned Théodore Godefroy’s son, Denis II (1615-1681), to go to Lille to curate and scour the archives for documents useful to the crown. By the standards of the time, Godefroy was a lucky man. In 1668, he became “conseiller et directeur de la chambre des comptes de Lille.” He was, in fact, the most highly paid historian in France and probably in the world, for Colbert provided for him with a series of pensions totaling 13,600 pounds per annum. The archives in Lille were of critical importance to the French monarchy. In 1667 Louis invaded Flanders. He sought to legitimize his territorial aggressions through the old claim of the French crown to the Duchy of Burgundy whose ancient archives housing medieval treaties and feudal and ecclesiastical contracts were in Lille. With his annexations and territorial claims, historical documents more than ever translated into political power and legitimacy. The goal was to figure out which documents best historically illustrated the king’s claims on legitimacy in the Netherlands.
Colbert’s choice of Denis Godefroy shows the changing relationship of the scholar and the state. Denis’ father was a respected scholar who had been politely asked to put his scholarship at the service of his country. Denis, on the other hand, was a highly paid cog in Colbert’s royal propaganda machine. His job was to figure out which documents were potentially useful and get them to Colbert. His work in Flanders was a crucial part of the immense propaganda and legal campaigns that accompanied Louis’ invasions and represent the work of Colbert’s internal state think tank. At the same time, Colbert was in the process of rationalizing government finance. He needed to know not only the history of the royal tax administration but of every possible source of royal income. Part of Godefroy’s mission was to find, protect and organize important documents concerning royal rights and finances, such as the foundations of monasteries.
Yet, in spite of his pay, Denis Godefroy was not entirely satisfied with his purely servile role. A dedicated scholar, he did not just want to find documents, he also wanted to read them, write about them, and publish them. But this was not his job. If he found policy papers, or wrote about them, he only did so under Colbert’s strict orders.
With Colbert’s death in 1683 also went the greater part of the royal patronage that had sustained the Godefroy family and tied it to policy-making. Perhaps due to Louis’ expensive military ventures, or perhaps due to a lack of understanding, Colbert’s successors did not continue his vast cultural program. By the mid-eighteenth century, the Académie des Inscriptions et Belles Lettres became a hotbed of criticism against the government. Yet the idea of the state expert flourished into the 18th century. As policy thinkers and experts increasingly became critics, or beleaguered servants of the monarchy, the crown’s authority faded over the long century between Louis XIV and the French Revolution.
By the mid-18th century, and without Colbert’s stronghanded policing and generous patronage, the community of scholars, experts and philosophers once again found their independence and began using their skills to fight for political liberty. In the most extraordinary case, Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert formed a network of leading scholars, scientists, philosophers, and technicians to produce the Encyclopédie (1751-1772)—a compendium of learning and information that sought to educate while undermining traditional authority. They funded it through public subscriptions. Here was a group of dedicated, learned people, working for what they thought was the common good. Together, they would help lead the 18th-century Enlightenment. But while they showed an independent model of group research and publication could be extremely effective, they hailed their inspiration as Colbert himself. They never noted the paradox. Now, we live with it.
Modern think tanks can serve corporate and political interests. But where readers knew Colbert was paying for propaganda, today the interests guiding think-tank findings are often obscure. A study by Public-accountability.org has found major oil company support for even some of the most seemingly independent think tanks. Such collusion is an ongoing problem not just for those who do research, but for the public that has lost confidence in expertise in general.
Jacob Soll is professor of history and accounting at the University of Southern California. He is a correspondent for the Boston Globe, and a regular contributor to the New York Times, Politico, the New Republic, PBS, Salon.com and the Chronicle of Higher Education.