Charles J. Bonaparte was born into a wealthy Maryland family on June 9, 1851. His inherited wealth came from both sides of his family, who were prominent Baltimore merchants. His famous surname came from his paternal grandfather, Jerome Bonaparte, the youngest brother of Emperor Napoleon I. Jerome was serving in the French navy in 1803 and married Elizabeth Patterson while visiting Baltimore. Napoleon did not approve of the marriage and prevented Patterson, who was pregnant, from landing in continental Europe. Jerome eventually consented to end the marriage and his son, also named Jerome, was born in London, England. Mother and son, who would be Charles J. Bonaparte’s father, would return to Baltimore, and the American arm of the Bonaparte family was founded.
Bonaparte was a talented student, graduated from Harvard Law, and was admitted to the Maryland bar. Due to his financial security, Bonaparte’s law practice focused on his family’s properties and select cases that appealed to him. His oratory was highly respected and acquired him the nickname of the “Peacock of Park Avenue.” His passions were religion (he was a devoted Catholic) and civil service reform. Bonaparte helped organize the National Civil Service Reform League in 1881 and was appointed to the Baltimore board of election supervisors in 1895. Reform work brought Bonaparte into contact with Theodore Roosevelt in the 1890s when Roosevelt was a member of the Civil Service Commission.
Their work continued during the Roosevelt administration. Bonaparte served on the Board of Indian Commissioners and led a successful investigation into corruption at the Post Office Department. He joined the Cabinet in 1905 as Secretary of the Navy and closely followed Roosevelt’s priorities as the president took a strong interest in military affairs. In late 1906, Bonaparte became United States Attorney General. As attorney general, he led the regulation and prosecution of large corporations, the spearhead of Roosevelt’s famous trust busting. Bonaparte’s most lasting legacy was the establishment of an investigatory bureau within the Department of Justice in order to counter sophisticated criminal activity and end the department’s reliance on the Secret Service. Founded in 1908, the Bureau of Investigation was the precursor to the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Bonaparte served as attorney general until the end of the Roosevelt administration and then returned to his law practice in Maryland. He continued to support Roosevelt politically, including his presidential campaign with the Progressive Party in 1912. Charles J. Bonaparte passed away at his country estate, Bella Vista, on June 28, 1921.
Roosevelt's farewell to his officers, February 26, 1908. From the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs collection.
“Charles J. Bonaparte.” Miller Center. University of Virginia, n.d. Web. 17 Dec. 2013.
Gould, Lewis L. “Bonaparte, Charles Joseph.” American National Biography. Eds. John A. Garraty and Mark C. Carnes. Vol. 3. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999. Print.