A self-educated man with a peasant background, Proudhon worked as a cowherd in his native Besançon. He then apprenticed as a printer, rising to become managing editor of L’Impartiale, a utopian socialist newspaper. However, he resigned after only one day on the job when he learned that each edition of the paper had to pass prior censorship by the prefect of police.
In 1839 Proudhon competed for an award from the Besançon Academy by writing an essay on the creation of the Sabbath as a day of rest by Moses. His essay not only did not win the prize, it was banned from publication by the prefect of police. A year later Proudhon wrote “What Is Property?” in which he coined the nineteenth century revolutionary slogan “property is theft.” This work barely escaped public prosecution, but his subsequent essay “Warning to the Proprietors” was seized by the police and resulted in a nine-charge indictment, which included a charge of incitement to hatred of priests and judges. In 1842 a jury found him innocent because he was “working in a field of ideas inaccessible to ordinary people.” The trial gave Proudhon both fame and a loyal readership for his anarchistic writings denouncing inequalities caused by property.
During the Revolution of 1848, Proudhon wrote for the paper Le Répresentant. After it was suppressed, he wrote for Le Peuple, using his columns vehemently to attack Louis Napoleon, the Bonepartist candidate for president of the republic, until its printing presses were smashed by the national guard. Proudhon went on to found a new paper, Le Voix du peuple, in which he continued his attacks on Louis Napoleon.
Following Louis Napoleon’s electoral victory, Proudhon was charged with inciting antigovernment hatred, attacking property and the constitution, and provoking civil war—mostly due to the contents of his greatest work, De la Justice dans le révolution et dans l’Eglise (1858). His trial resulted in a three-year prison sentence, with much time spent in the isolation of solitary confinement.
From 1858 to 1862 Proudhon was permitted to go into exile in Belgium, but all his Belgium writings were banned in France. Ill and living in poverty, Proudhon was permitted to return to France in 1862, as Louis Napoleon—by then “emperor” of France—was undergoing a liberal shift. He received a full pardon, and he lived his few remaining years in Paris.