He stemmed from a Jewish petit-bourgeoisie family. Very talented and a person of broad interests, Bourgeois held nearly all positions in the government of the Third Republic including that of prime minister (1895-1896). However, as a person not driven by personal ambition, he refused to run for presidency twice at the end of the nineteenth century.
Throughout his life he cared most about improving people’s lives through education, fair law, medical care and elimination of wars.
Starting from 1876 he began his career in the departmental public administration. In 1888 he was elected to the parliament where he associated with radical socialists. He soon became their most famous orator. In 1889 he became minister of internal affairs; in 1890 and again later in 1898 he was minister of education and carried out structural reforms from primary to higher education. His achievements included, among others, broadening the access to postgraduate studies. In 1892 he was appointed minister of justice. When he became prime minister, his agenda included introduction of an income tax, separation of church and state, as well as pension schemes. However, his government collapsed after six months during a budget debate.
He represented France during the 1st and 2nd Peace Conference in the Hague. During the first one he chaired the international arbitration commission and led to the approval of a Permanent Court of Arbitration. He became a member of the Court in 1903. In 1906 and in 1914 Bourgeois was appointed minister of foreign affairs. Another office he held twice was that of minister of public works (1912 and in 1917). He also headed the ministry of state during the war.
In 1918 he presented a plan to organize the League of Nations. In 1919 he participated in an international conference in Paris attended by different organisations interested in creating the League. Soon he became France’s representative in the Commission of the League of Nations presided by Woodrow Wilson.
The peak of his career was in the year 1920 when Bourgeois became president of the Senate and was unanimously elected the first president of the Council of the League of Nations. In the same year he received the Nobel Peace Prize. Because of poor health and approaching blindness, he was unable to travel to Oslo to accept the prize in person.