The French statesman Léon Bourgeois (1851-1925) was one of the earliest proponents of the League of Nations and winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1920.
Léon Bourgeois was born on May 29, 1851, in Paris. He studied law in Paris and entered the civil service in 1876. By 1887 he was prefect of police for the department of the Seine.
Bourgeois's political career began in 1888, when he represented the Marne Department in the Chamber of Deputies. He established a reputation as one of the young leaders of the Radicals in the Chamber. From 1888 to 1895 he urged a number of social and economic reforms and established an independent position that was not identified with the old Radical program. He served as a Cabinet minister in several governments before 1895.
Because of his emphasis on a specific and comprehensive program of reform as constituting the very essence of radicalism, Bourgeois gained support from the left and organized a government. On Nov. 1, 1895, he became premier. As a result of opposition in the conservative Senate against any plan of social reform, a constitutional struggle developed over the Senate's right to veto budgetary supply, and Bourgeois was forced to resign on April 21, 1896.
The program of Bourgeois's government centered on reforms specifically directed toward the underprivileged: a progressive income tax, the extension of pension plans and of social security, and insurance programs. Bourgeois and his program were not socialist, though this accusation was leveled against him many times. His government was unable to achieve any of its specific goals, but it did encourage the cause of reform and was the first government to be supported by the Socialists.
Bourgeois served as head of the French delegations to the First and Second Hague Conferences in 1899 and 1907, where, according to a colleague, he "expressed commonplace thoughts in a mellow voice." He was elected to the Senate in 1905. In 1916 and 1917 he was for a time minister of labor in Aristide Briand's wartime Cabinet. Bourgeois was president of the Senate from 1920 to 1923.
Bourgeois had been one of the original proponents of a league of nations. When the Paris Peace Conference took up the question in 1919, the French government designated him as the representative to the special committee whose task was the drafting of the Covenant of the League of Nations. When the League was in operation, he became the chief representative for France and served in both the Council and Assembly.
In 1923 Bourgeois gave up his position in the League because of illness. He died at his country estate near Épernay on Sept. 25, 1925.
Further Reading on Léon Bourgeois
Guy Chapman, The Third Republic of France (1962), includes a scholarly evaluation of Bourgeois's political influence as well as some biographical information. See also Edward Mead Earle, ed., Modern France: Problems of the Third and Fourth Republic (1951). H. Schück and others, Nobel: The Man and His Prizes (1950; 2d ed. 1962), and Mortimer Lipsky, Quest for Peace: The Story of the Nobel Award (1966), discuss Bourgeois's work for peace.