The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The architect of the FBI was Napoleon’s great-nephew, Charles Bonaparte

Charles Joseph Bonaparte, pictured ca. 1906. (Frances Benjamin Johnston/Library of Congress)
6 min

A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Mar-a-Lago is located in Palm Springs, Fla. It is in Palm Beach, Fla. The article has been corrected.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has a French connection: The agency’s forerunner was created in 1908 by Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte’s great-nephew, Charles J. Bonaparte, when he was President Theodore Roosevelt’s attorney general.

Bonaparte had a reputation for high integrity, an image generally shared over the years by FBI agents. Since last week’s disclosure of the FBI search of former president Donald Trump’s home at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Fla., many Trump backers and Trump himself have been quick to turn on the FBI agents involved, with Trump suggesting, with no basis, they may have “planted” evidence against him. Over the weekend, Trump, who appointed current FBI director Christopher A. Wray in 2017, continued his trashing of the agency.

Recent reporting has revealed the FBI was searching for highly classified documents, some involving nuclear weapons. In his only public statement on the matter, Attorney General Merrick Garland last week defended FBI agents and federal prosecutors. “I will not stand by silently when their integrity is unfairly attacked,” Garland said. “The men and women of the FBI and the Justice Department are dedicated, patriotic public servants.”

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Before becoming attorney general, Bonaparte had been navy secretary in early 1906 when he expressed concern about whether he was doing a good enough job. Roosevelt wrote back to his fellow progressive Republican, “You are a trump!” — a term for a dependable or admirable person — and disclosed plans to nominate Bonaparte to be attorney general that year.

Bonaparte created the forerunner to the FBI because the Justice Department didn’t have its own investigators when enforcing federal laws. As a wealthy lawyer in Baltimore, he had fought corruption as head of the National Civil Service Reform League. When Roosevelt appointed Bonaparte navy secretary, cartoonists were quick to note the 1805 drubbing of Napoleon’s French naval fleet by the British in the Battle of Trafalgar off the coast of Spain. One cartoon showed the “Spirit of Napoleon” reading a telegram from Roosevelt, which stated, “I have made your grandnephew Secretary of the Navy”; Napoleon replied, “I hope he does better with ships than I did.”

As attorney general, Bonaparte led Roosevelt’s trustbusting drive, breaking up such giants as Standard Oil Company. He personally argued dozens of cases before the Supreme Court. The press gave him the nickname “Charlie the Crook Chaser.” But when it came to enforcing federal laws, he complained to Congress that the department had “no permanent detective force under its control.” Instead, he had to borrow Secret Service agents from the Treasury Department.

In May 1908, Congress banned the outside use of the Secret Service investigators — a move that just so happened to occur after two lawmakers were jailed as the result of such probes. Bonaparte saw his opening. He created a “Special Agent Force” of 31 investigators, including eight former Secret Service agents. He issued an order that “All matters relating to investigations under the Department” will be referred to the chief examiner, Stanley Finch, to decide “whether any member of the force of special agents under his direction is available for the work to be performed.” The order was dated July 26, 1908, now considered the birth date of the FBI.

The standards for special agents resembled today’s requirements. According to Finch, the Washington Star later reported, the agents “were to be well educated — preferably graduates of some college and members of the bar; they were not to be unusual in appearance, so that they could pass unnoticed in a crowd.” In a 1908 report to Congress, Bonaparte declared the force was “absolutely indispensable” to the proper discharge of the Justice Department’s duties.

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When Bonaparte left office in March 1909 as William Howard Taft moved into the White House, he recommended that the special agents be made a permanent part of the Justice Department. Taft agreed. His attorney general, George Wickersham, soon named the special force the Bureau of Investigation, or the BOI.

Agents initially focused on white-collar crime, such as land and bankruptcy fraud, antitrust violations and “matters relating to the importation of prostitutes.” In 1910, agents’ duties expanded to include enforcement of the White Slave Traffic Act, also known as the Mann Act, which outlawed transporting women over state lines for “immoral purposes.” Over the next few years, the BOI force grew to more than 300 agents.

In 1919, the agency hired its first African American agent, James Wormley Jones. He was assigned to infiltrate subversive groups. In 1922, Alaska Davidson became the first female special agent. But two years later, the agency’s new chief, 29-year-old J. Edgar Hoover, forced her resignation after her boss said he had “no particular work for a woman.”

During the 1930s, the agency was called the Division of Investigation (DOI) and gained a reputation for battling organized crime. Legend has it that gangster George Kelly Barnes, known as Machine Gun Kelly, coined the name G-men, or government men, for agents when he shouted “Don’t shoot, G-men!” while being arrested.

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In 1935, Congress agreed to Hoover’s request to give the unit a new name, the Federal Bureau of Investigation. On March 22, 1935, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the bill creating the new name and its motto “Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.”

Hoover served as FBI director until his death in 1972 at age 77. His long tenure was tarnished by racial bigotry and abuses of civil liberties. President Richard M. Nixon, among others, suggested Hoover held onto his post because he had dirt on members of Congress and other powerful people. “He’s got files on everybody, damn it,” Nixon said.

Today, the FBI has more than 30,000 agents and other professionals. The agency’s law enforcement mission ranges from white-collar crime to cybercrime and terrorism — and now to carrying out search warrants at the home of a former president. That’s a long way from the 31-man force Charles Bonaparte started 114 years ago.

The former attorney general died at his Bella Vista estate in Maryland in 1921 at age 70. In his obituary, the Baltimore American noted that Bonaparte had a pet peeve about his famous ancestor’s reputed short stature, which spawned the Napoleon complex, the theory that some short people try to compensate by being overly aggressive.

“Persons who sought to flatter Mr. Bonaparte by telling him he looked like Napoleon irritated him,” the newspaper wrote, “for he knew he was taller.”

Ronald G. Shafer is the author of “Breaking News All Over Again: The History Behind Today’s Headlines,” a collection of his Washington Post Retropolis columns.