BONAPARTE, CHARLES JOSEPH
Charles Joseph Bonaparte, who served as U.S. attorney general under president THEODORE ROOSEVELT, was one of the organizers of the Civic Reform League and the National Municipal League, and he helped to found a Special Agents Force within the JUSTICE DEPARTMENT that was the forerunner of the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION (FBI).
A grandson of Jerome Bonaparte, who was Napoleon’s youngest brother, Charles Joseph Bonaparte was born in Baltimore,Maryland, on July 9, 1851. After graduating from Harvard College in 1871, he attended Harvard Law School, graduating in 1874. Bonaparte returned to Baltimore and established a private practice.
At the time, public corruption of elected officials was widespread in the United States and the political situation in Maryland was considered to be the worst in the country. Bonaparte, of Italian-American descent, became interested in civic reform, commenting in an article published in Forum magazine that the politicians of that period if not technically criminals themselves, were the “allies and patrons of habitual lawbreakers.”
In 1881, Bonaparte became one of the
founders of the National Civil Service Reform
League. Along with other political reformers he
sought to raise the awareness of the electorate
regarding crimes such as BRIBERY and UNDUE
INFLUENCE and the need for fair and impartial
administration of the government. The reformers
were known in the popular parlance as “googoos”
because they sought good government.
Bonaparte also helped to found the National
Municipal League in 1894. The organization, an
amalgamation of various citywide reform
groups throughout the United States, elected
Bonaparte its president in 1905.
Bonaparte was a member of the REPUBLICAN
PARTY although not a particularly active
one. In 1892, Bonaparte and Theodore Roosevelt
met in Baltimore when they both spoke to
a local civil service reform organization. In 1902, President Roosevelt appointed Bonaparte to the
Board of Indian Commissioners. In 1905, Roosevelt
named Bonaparte secretary of the United
In his second term of office, Roosevelt found
it necessary to name a replacement for Attorney
General WILLIAM HENRY MOODY, who left in
December 1906 to become an associate justice
on the U. S. Supreme Court. Because of his
reformer passions, Bonaparte was chosen by
Roosevelt to be Moody’s successor. Roosevelt,
who had first begun his political career in New
York City by campaigning for municipal reform,
was now seeking reform on a national basis by
going after corrupt businesses and corporations
that had formed “trusts” aimed at stifling competition
and keeping wages low. Roosevelt had
become the nation’s “trust-buster,” and Bonaparte
joined the pursuit, launching antitrust
investigations aimed at corporations such as
Standard Oil and the American Tobacco Company,
and railroads including the Union Pacific.
During his tenure in office, Bonaparte argued
over 50 cases before the Supreme Court.
While pursuing his various antitrust investigations,
Bonaparte found himself hindered by
the lack of a permanent investigative staff within
the Justice Department. Temporary investigators,
who were private detectives or SECRET SERVICE
operatives on loan from the TREASURY
DEPARTMENT carried out the investigations.
Congress, under pressure from corporations to
end the investigations, enacted a law that prohibited
the Justice Department from using
members of the Secret Service for the Department’s
In 1908, Roosevelt directed Bonaparte to
create an investigative force that would be a subdivision
of the Justice Department. Before he left
office, Bonaparte suggested making the division
permanent. His suggestion was upheld by his
successor, GEORGE WICKERSHAM, who called the
group the Bureau of Investigation. The 23-
member unit developed by Bonaparte was
renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation
(FBI) in 1935.
After leaving office in March 1909, Bonaparte
continued to pursue his advocacy of civil
reform. He died on June 28, 1921, at his estate,
Bella Vista, located outside Baltimore.
Hall, Kermit L. 1989. The Magic Mirror: Law in American
History. New York: Oxford Univ. Press.
Justice Department. 1985. Attorneys General of the United
States, 1789–1985.Washington, D.C.: GPO.
“Remarks of Judge Arthur Gajarsa, U.S. Federal Circuit
Court of Appeals.” June 26, 1998. Washington, D.C.:
Italian Historical Society of America.
Federal Bureau of Investigation; Justice Department; Roosevelt, Theodore.