Léon Bourgeois


Léon Victor Auguste Bourgeois (May 21, 1851-September 29, 1925), the «spiritual father» of the League of Nations, was a man of prodigious capabilities and diversified interests. A statesman, jurist, artist, and scholar, Léon Bourgeois, in the course of a long career, held almost every major office available in the French government of the Third Republic.

The son of a clock-maker of Jurassian and Burgundian descent, Bourgeois lived most of his life in Paris in an eighteenth-century townhouse on the rue Palatine. He was an insatiable student, reflective, diligent, enthusiastic, and possessed of a happy propensity for becoming involved in whatever he did. Concerned throughout his life with the improvement of man’s condition through education, justice under the law, medical care, and the abolition of war, he was that political anomaly, a politician without personal ambition, who twice refused to run for the presidency of the Republic despite assurances that he could easily capture it.

As a schoolboy at the Massin Institution in Paris, Bourgeois displayed his intelligence, leadership, and oratorical flair early. He continued his education at the Lycée Charlemagne, and, after fighting in an artillery regiment during the Franco-Prussian War, enrolled in the Law School of the University of Paris. His education was remarkably broad. He studied Hinduism and Sanskrit, worked in the fine arts, becoming knowledgeable in music and adept in sculpture – indeed, at the height of his political career he exercised his talent as a craftsman, so it is reported, by drawing caricatures of his colleagues in cabinet meetings.

In 1876, after having practiced law for several years, he assumed his first public office as deputy head of the Claims Department in the Ministry of Public Works. In rapid succession he became secretary-general of the Prefecture of the Marne (1877), under-prefect of Reims (1880), prefect of the Tarn (1882), secretary-general of the Seine (1883), prefect of the Haute-Garonne (1885), director of personnel in the Ministry of the Interior (1886), director of departmental and communal affairs (1887). In November of 1887, at the age of thirty-six, he was appointed chief commissioner of the Paris police.

When in February, 1888, Bourgeois defeated the formidable General Boulanger to become deputy from the Marne, his political future was assured. He joined the Left in the Chamber, attending the congresses of the Radical-Socialist Party and rapidly becoming their most renowned orator. He was named undersecretary of state in Floquet’s cabinet (1888), elected deputy from Reims (1889), chosen minister of the Interior in the Tirard cabinet (1890).

As minister of public instruction in Freycinet’s cabinet from 1890 to 1892 and again in 1898 under Brisson, Bourgeois instituted major reforms in the educational structure, reconstituting the universities by regrouping the faculties, reforming both the secondary and primary systems, and extending the availability of postgraduate instruction. When he gave up the education portfolio in 1892, he accepted that of the Ministry of Justice for two years.

On November 1, 1895, Bourgeois formed his own government. His political program included the enactment of a general income tax, the establishment of a retirement plan for workers, and implementation of plans for the separation of church and state, but his government succumbed, not quite six months old, to a constitutional fight over finances.

Chairman of the French delegation to the first Hague Peace Conference in 1899, Bourgeois presided over the Third Commission, which dealt with international arbitration, and, together with the chairmen of the British and American delegations, was responsible for the success of the proposal adopted by the Conference to establish a Permanent Court of Arbitration. In early 1903, after the Court had become a reality, he was designated a member.

Bourgeois became president of the Chamber of Deputies in 1902; briefly withdrew from public life in 1904 because of poor health; traveled for a time in Spain, Italy, and the Near East; resisted the urging of his friends to run for the presidency; sought and won election as senator from the Marne in 1905, an office to which he was continuously elected until his death; became minister of foreign affairs under Sarrien in 1906.

In 1907, Bourgeois represented his country at the second Hague Peace Conference where he served as chairman of the First Commission on questions relating to arbitration, boards of inquiry, and pacific settlement of disputes. His speeches at The Hague and at other peace conferences were published in 1910 under the title Pour la Société des Nations.

Soon after the turn of the century, Bourgeois twice declined the invitation of the president of the Republic to form governments, but he continued his services to the nation in other posts. He was minister of public works under Poincaré (1912), minister of foreign affairs under Ribot (1914), minister of state during the war, minister of public works (1917).

In January of 1918, heading an official commission of inquiry on the question of a League of Nations, he presented a draft for such an organization. President of a newly formed French Association for the League of Nations, he attended the 1919 international congress, convened in Paris, of various organizations interested in establishing a League, and in the same year served as the French representative on the League of Nations Commission chaired by Woodrow Wilson. He brought out another collection of his speeches at this time, Le Pacte de 1919 et la Société des Nations.

The culmination of Bourgeois’ career came in 1920 when he assumed the presidency of the French Senate, was unanimously elected the first president of the Council of the League of Nations, and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

Because of deteriorating health and approaching blindness, he was unable to travel to Oslo to accept the prize in person, and in 1923 he retired from the Senate. He died at Château d’Oger, near Epérnay, of uremic poisoning at the age of seventy-four. The French people honored him with a public funeral.

Selected Bibliography
Boulen, Alfred-Georges, «Exposé de la doctrine de M. Bourgeois: La Pente socialiste», in Les Idées solidaristes de Proudhom, pp. 23 -74. Paris, Marchal & Godde, 1912.
Bourgeois, Léon, L’Oeuvre de la Société des Nations, 1920-1923. Paris, Payot, 1923.
Bourgeois, Léon, Le Pacte de 1919 et la Société des Nations. Paris, Charpentier, 1919.
Bourgeois, Léon, Pour la Société des Nations. Paris, Charpentier, 1910.
Bourgeois, Léon, Solidarité. Paris, Colin, 1896.
Brisson, Adolphe, «M. Léon Bourgeois», in Les Prophètes, pp. 268-286. Paris, Tallandier & Flammarion, [1903].
Buisson, Ferdinand, La Politique radicale: Étude sur les doctrines du parti radical et radical socialiste. Paris, Giard & Brière, 1908.
Dictionnaire de biographic française.
Hamburger, Maurice, Léon Bourgeois, 1885-1925. Paris, Librairie des sciences politiques et sociales, 1932.
Obituaries: Journal des Économistes, 82 (octobre, 1925) 247-249; (London) Times (September 30, 1925); New York Times (September 30, 1925).
Schou, August, Histoire de l’internationalisme III: Du Congrès de Vienne jusqu’à la première guerre mondiale (1914), pp. 449-451. Publications de l’lnstitut Nobel Norvégien, Tome VIII. Oslo, Aschehoug, 1963.
Scott, James Brown, «Léon Bourgeois, 1851-1925», in American Journal of International Law, 19 (October, 1925) 774-776.

From Nobel Lectures, Peace 1901-1925, Editor Frederick W. Haberman, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1972

This autobiography/biography was written at the time of the award and first published in the book series Les Prix Nobel. It was later edited and republished in Nobel Lectures. To cite this document, always state the source as shown above.

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