Charles Joseph Bonaparte

Charles Joseph Bonaparte
37th United States Secretary of the Navy
In office
July 1, 1905  December 16, 1906
President Theodore Roosevelt
Preceded by Paul Morton
Succeeded by Victor H. Metcalf
46th United States Attorney General
In office
December 17, 1906  March 4, 1909
President Theodore Roosevelt
Preceded by William H. Moody
Succeeded by George W. Wickersham
Personal details
Born (1851-06-09)June 9, 1851
Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.
Died June 28, 1921(1921-06-28) (aged 70)
Baltimore County, Maryland, U.S.
Political party Republican
Spouse(s) Ellen Channing Day Bonaparte
Alma mater Harvard University
Profession Lawyer
Religion Roman Catholic[1]

Charles Joseph Bonaparte (/ɑːrlz ˈsəf ˈbnəˌpɑːrt/; French pronunciation: [ʃaʁlə ʒozɛf bɔnapaʁt]; June 9, 1851  June 28, 1921) was an American lawyer and political activist for progressive and liberal causes. Originally from Baltimore, Maryland, he served in the cabinet of the 26th U.S. President, Theodore Roosevelt.

Bonaparte was the U.S. Secretary of the Navy and later the U.S. Attorney General.[2] During his tenure as the attorney general, he created the Bureau of Investigation which later grew and expanded by the 1920s under the director J. Edgar Hoover, (1895–1972), as the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), of which it was renamed as such in 1935. He was a great-nephew of Emperor Napoleon.[3][4][5][6][7]

Bonaparte was one of the founders, and for a time the president, of the National Municipal League. He was also a long time activist for the rights of black residents of his city.

Early life and education

Coat of Arms of Charles Joseph Bonaparte

Bonaparte was born in Baltimore, Maryland on June 9, 1851, the son of Jerome ("Bo") Napoleon Bonaparte, (1805–1870) and Susan May Williams (1812–1881), from whom the American line of the Bonaparte family descended, and a grandson of Jérôme Bonaparte, the youngest brother of French Emperor Napoleon I and King of Westphalia, 1807–1813. However, the American Bonapartes were not considered part of the dynasty and never used any titles.

He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, across from Boston, where he later served as a university overseer. He practiced law in Baltimore and became prominent in municipal and national reform movements.


In 1899, Bonaparte was the keynote speaker for the first graduating class of the Roman Catholic women's institution run by the Order of the School Sisters of Notre Dame, the College of Notre Dame of Maryland, (today renamed the Notre Dame of Maryland University). He spoke on "The Significance of the Bachelor's Degree":

Today, and here for the first time in America, a Catholic college for the education of young ladies bestows the bachelor's degree...

The Style of Scholarship...which benefits the recipient of the bachelor's degree has two distinctive and essential marks. It implies in the first place a broad, generous sympathy with every form of honest, rational and disinterested study or research.
A Scholar who is also, and first of all, a gentleman may be...specially interested is some particular field of knowledge, but he is indifferent to none. He knows how to value every successful effort to master truth; how to look beyond the little things of the great things - God's handiwork as seen in nature, God's mind as shadowed in the workings of the minds of men.

Young ladies, if this degree has such meaning for your brothers, what meaning has it for you.[8]
Bella Vista in 1907

Bonaparte lived in a townhouse in the north Baltimore neighborhood of Mount Vernon-Belvedere and had a country estate in suburban Baltimore County, Maryland, which surrounds the city on the west, north and east. His home, Bella Vista, was designed by the architects James Bosley Noel Wyatt, (1847-1926) and William G. Nolting, (1866–1940), in the prominent local architectural partnership firm of Wyatt & Nolting in 1896.[9] It lies east of the Harford Road (Maryland Route 147) in an area called Glen Arm. The house was not electrified since Bonaparte refused to have electricity or telegraph lines installed due to a dislike of technology, verified by his use of horse-drawn coach until his death in the early 1920s.[10]


A founder of the Reform League of Baltimore, organized in 1885, which eventually led to a certain amount of efficient municipal government with a clean sweep of an election by 1895 in which long-time minority progressive liberal Republicans ousted the long-time Democratic machine politicians in heavily Democratic wards of Baltimore City and ruled with a clean hand for a brief time. He was a member of the Board of Indian Commissioners from 1902 to 1904, chairman of the National Civil Service Reform League in 1904 and appointed a trustee of The Catholic University of America in northeast Washington, D.C.. Maryland voters elected him to be one of their presidential electors in 1904.[11]

In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Bonaparte Secretary of the Navy. In 1906 Bonaparte moved to the office of Attorney General, which he held until the end of Roosevelt's term. He was active in suits brought against the trusts and was largely responsible for breaking up the tobacco monopoly. He became known as "Charlie, the Crook Chaser". In 1908, Bonaparte established a Bureau of Investigation (BOI) within the Department of Justice which had been earlier established in 1870 under the direction of the Attorney General himself. By the 1920s, under its long-time director, J. Edgar Hoover, the Bureau had again been cleaned up and streamlined and in 1935 was renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).


Bonaparte died in Bella Vista, and is interred at southwest Baltimore's landmark Loudon Park Cemetery.[12] He died of "Saint Vitus Dance" (today called chorea). A nearby street in Baltimore County bears the name of Bonaparte Avenue

After Bonaparte's death the house was later owned by bootleggers Peter and Michael Kelly. After they left, it was destroyed in a fire caused by faulty wiring on January 20, 1933. The site was replaced by a poured concrete mansion, but a large carriage house dating back to 1896 is still on the estate.[9]

Personal life

On September 1, 1875, Bonaparte married the former Ellen Channing Day (1852–1924), daughter of attorney Thomas Mills Day and Anna Jones Dunn. They had no children.



  1. Charles G. Herbermann et al., ed., "The Catholic Encyclopedia: An International Work of Reference on the Constitution, Doctrine, Discipline, and History of the Catholic Church", Fifteen Volumes, Volume II (New York: Encyclopedia Press Inc., 1913), p. 231.
  2. Annual Report of the Maryland State Bar Association, vol. 26. Maryland State Bar Association. 1921. pp. 43–45.
  3. McLynn, Frank (1998). Napoleon. Pimlico. p. 2. ISBN 0-7126-6247-2. ASIN 0712662472.
  4. "FBI — 1935 Washington Star Article". Archived from the original on 2010-04-11. Retrieved 2013-08-16.
  5. Shahab Keshavarz. "Charles J. Bonaparte". Retrieved 2013-08-16.
  6. "National Italian American Foundation". Retrieved 2013-08-16.
  7. Philbin, Anne Scarborough. "The Past and the Promised" p. 58
  8. 1 2 Kelly, Jacques. "Houses – Bella Vista". Baltimore County Public Library Legacy Web. Archived from the original on 2011-09-30. Retrieved 2011-10-12.
  9. Don Bloch (August 18, 1935). "Bonaparte Founded G-Men". FBI. Archived from the original on 2010-06-06. Retrieved 6 June 2012.
  10. Too Close to Call: Presidential Electors and Elections in Maryland, featuring the Presidential Election of 1904. Archives of Maryland Documents for the Classroom.
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Charles Joseph Bonaparte
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Non-profit organization positions
Preceded by
Chairman of the National Civil Service Reform League
Succeeded by
Preceded by
James C. Carter
President of the National Municipal League
Succeeded by
William D. Foulke
Government offices
Preceded by
Paul Morton
37th United States Secretary of the Navy
July 1, 1905 – December 16, 1906
Succeeded by
Victor H. Metcalf
Legal offices
Preceded by
William H. Moody
U.S. Attorney General
Served under: Theodore Roosevelt

December 17, 1906March 4, 1909
Succeeded by
George W. Wickersham
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