The American Bonaparte

By Andrew C. A. Jampoler

Republicans such as Bonaparte were thin on the ground in early 20th-century Maryland. In the presidential election of 1904, candidate Roosevelt received only one of the state’s eight electoral college votes—and that one was Bonaparte’s—but the cabinet post was more than just a reward for service rendered. When he first joined the cabinet Bonaparte was commonly thought to be, next to Secretary of State Elihu Root, the president’s closest confidant in that select circle of advisers, a status reflecting a 15-year friendship. Roosevelt and Bonaparte had much in common: Both were wealthy and born to influence, graduates of Harvard (where they were one year apart) and of Ivy League law schools, and progressive Republicans in an era when that description wasn’t an oxymoron. Both were also activists, committed to civil-service reform and later to dismantling the trusts that dominated the American economy.

Roosevelt’s offer of the Navy post to Bonaparte evidently surprised him, prompting an oddly discursive acceptance letter two days later. Expressing his hesitancy, Bonaparte first listed five reasons why he was reluctant to join the administration, among them the necessity “to surrender my liberty,—the liberty of saying what I think about public affairs without the trammels of official propriety and responsibility,” before finally agreeing. Roosevelt promptly replied, “I understand your feelings exactly, and appreciate your acceptance.”

Bonaparte and the Navy

Charles Bonaparte’s term as the civilian chief of the U.S. Navy was brief, but not inconsequential. He had the good fortune to serve as secretary of the Navy in a rare, perfect moment when decisive victories at sea had not yet faded from popular memory, during peace in prosperous times, early in an era when sea power was understood to be essential for security, and under a president who was a devout believer in forces afloat.

Roosevelt had been a sea-power enthusiast since at least 1882, when his scholarly The Naval War of 1812 was first published. Years later he would serve 13 months as the assistant secretary of the Navy—when the role was that of deputy—at the beginning of President William McKinley’s administration. Better than most, Roosevelt knew what a president wanted from his Navy secretary.

When Bonaparte took over the secretaryship from its retiring predecessor, Paul Morton, he entered a high-level holding pattern and did not become the activist executive at the Navy Department that Roosevelt had been in 1897–98. Bonaparte remained atop the Navy only until William Moody’s move from attorney general to the Supreme Court opened that more suitable office to the lawyer. Like Bonaparte, Moody had been secretary of the Navy immediately before he became attorney general. Only two other men in history also held both jobs: Isaac Toucey and James Mason. Altogether, Bonaparte was a member of Roosevelt’s cabinet for three years and eight months. He’s best remembered today, when remembered at all, for having organized the Department of Justice’s Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of the FBI.

The years 1905–6 were a period of worldwide focus on sea power, an interest sharpened by the shattering defeat of Russian Czar Nicholas II’s navy by the Japanese in Tsushima Strait. The size, strength, and deployment of the U.S. Navy, viscerally important to the president, were interesting to the general public, too, thanks to the United States’ newfound global interests, the Navy’s impressive performance during the Spanish-American War, and rapid and visible technological changes that threatened a revolution in how war would be fought at sea. Impelled by all of this, the active U.S. Fleet grew by 10, to 187 combatant and auxiliary ships during the second half of the decade. Bonaparte, consequently, found himself in office during interesting times.

Catalog of Noteworthy Events

In 1910 Bonaparte penned an article in Century Magazine in which he recounted a number of noteworthy moments from his months at the helm of the Navy.

The low point in Bonaparte’s tenure came early—only three weeks after he took office—with the disaster that struck the Yorktown -class gunboat Bennington at anchor in the channel off San Diego. Just after 0900 on 21 July, two days after arriving from Hawaii and hastily getting ready for sea with her captain ashore, the Bennington suffered two boiler explosions, one after the other, that tore through her hull and nearly sank the ship. In the oddly precise language of the Navy’s three-officer court of inquiry, “steam escaped with terrific force into almost all parts of the ship, carrying with it water, ashes, and coal, killing or wounding 51.45 per cent. [sic] of the officers and crew, and damaging almost everything throughout the ship.”

In fact, 62 were killed by the blast and escaping steam while another 40 were injured, many seriously. This sudden loss of life exceeded that of the Navy’s most recent peacetime catastrophe, the great March 1889 cyclone in Samoa where 52 sailors from the crews of Trenton , Nipsic , and Vandalia drowned in Apia Harbor.

At first Bonaparte had urged patience until official inquiries were completed, saying, “I promise the public that nobody shall be whitewashed, and the Service that nobody shall be made a scapegoat.” On 29 August, however, he reviewed and rejected several of the court’s key findings. As revealed by the accident, the ship could not have been “in an excellent state of discipline and in good and efficient condition,” and consequently Navy Commander Lucien Young, the commanding officer, and Ensign Charles Wade, the engineering officer, were ordered before courts-martial at the Mare Island Navy Yard.

Although not included in Bonaparte’s noteworthy events, another, albeit not so grim, low point might have been the new secretary’s proposal in his first annual report that the venerable Constitution , proud victor of War of 1812 battles ­against HMS Guerriere , Java , Cyane , and Levant , and by then fully 50 years out of commissioned service, might be towed to sea and used for target practice.

Sounding very much like the lawyer and landsman he was, Bonaparte told the president in the report:

The vessel now at Charlestown [Massachusetts] is not the vessel with which Hull captured the Guerriere . Some portion of the materials from that ship was undoubtedly used in building the new one, to which her name was subsequently given, but probably only a very small part of these materials can be now identified with any confidence, and, in any event, it is quite certain that they constituted only a very small part of the structure of the new ship. To exhibit the Constitution , therefore, as the genuine ‘Old Ironsides,’ charging, as has been proposed, a fee for permission to inspect her, and using the amount thus earned to bear the expense of her preservation, would not only ill accord with the dignity of the Government, but would amount to obtaining money under false pretenses.

The further suggestion that she should be rebuilt on her old lines with new materials would involve a perfectly unjustifiable waste of public money since, when completed . . . she would be absolutely useless. Nevertheless, I think it would be wise and becoming to commemorate in some proper way the victories of the old Constitution . . . I suggest that so much of the materials of the present ship as can be shown to have belonged to the original Constitution . . . be transferred to a new [armored cruiser] to be named the Constitution , and that the remainder of the ship be broken up.

If, for purely sentimental reasons, it be thought that this supposed veteran of our old wars is entitled to a warrior’s death, she might be used as a target for some of the ships in our North Atlantic fleet and sunk by their fire.

The proposal triggered in Boston what one biographer described as a popular convulsion, a spasm especially visible on 14 December when the Massachusetts Historical Society met and took up the proposed fate for the vessel, at anchor nearby, as its first agenda item. By unanimous vote the society resolved to send protests to the state and national legislatures, and Bonaparte’s distinctly tone-deaf suggestion was hooted down.

A year later in his second and last annual report, on 26 November 1906 Bonaparte allowed that during the past year he’d discovered a mission for the Constitution , now part way through the congressionally funded overhaul he’d opposed. Once again seaworthy and under tow, she could be the centerpiece, he thought, of patriotic celebrations at seaport towns. Not altogether surprisingly, this embarrassing flurry isn’t mentioned in Bonaparte’s events catalogue.

In 1905 the issue of hazing at the Naval Academy rose all the way to the secretary’s office. On 8 November Midshipman James Branch Jr. died after going 23 rounds in the ring with Midshipman Minor Meriwether Jr. Though the tragic end to this fight was an exception, Meriwether’s court-martial soon revealed that such fights were not uncommon; rather, they were part of an informal code of conduct through which upper classmen (Branch in this instance) controlled their juniors (Meriwether).

In December Meriwether was convicted on two of three charges but sentenced only to be confined to the grounds until the next training cruise and to receive a letter of reprimand. The mild punishment for what many out of uniform believed to be manslaughter represented an institutional victory over public opinion, and also over the secretary’s instincts. A year later, however, in his second annual report, Bonaparte described hazing as “practically if not wholly extinct” at the Academy, which he credited to recent legislation permitting the secretary to dismiss midshipmen from Annapolis as punishment for this or other breaches of discipline.

Although much of the disaster-recovery burden following the horrific earthquake and firestorms in San Francisco on 18 April 1906—Bonaparte’s third noteworthy incident—fell on, or was aggressively grasped by, Army commanders and units at the Presidio or nearby, sailors and Marines also played an important role in relief operations. Participating Navy commands delivering supplies and manning shore-security detachments included several combatant ships of the Pacific Squadron, their embarked Marines, and tugs from the Mare Island shipyard. Curiously, not until 18 June did an embarrassed California Governor George Pardee recall their contribution and get around to thanking the sea services for their effort to his chief city’s stabilization on the very slow road to reconstruction.

The fourth event focused on another sacred relic of the early American Navy: the body of Captain John Paul Jones. Disinterred in 1905 from a forgotten grave in Paris after a six-year search by Ambassador Horace Porter, Jones’ body—revered in its own way, just as the Constitution was in hers—was returned to the United States. On 24 April 1906, the 128th anniversary of his defeat of HMS Drake and less than a week after San Francisco was shaken into rubble and then burned, Jones’ remains were staged for eventual reburial beneath the U.S. Naval Academy Chapel in the presence of the president, the secretary, members of the Daughters of the American Revolution, two companies of the 13th U.S. Cavalry, and a host of American and French dignitaries.

Many of the latter had come to Annapolis riding on board a Franco-American naval flotilla or in a special train from Washington, D.C., for what amounted to a day-long patriotic extravaganza. Bonaparte introduced the speakers, the chief one of whom was the president and who spoke animatedly for half an hour. Years later, in January 1913 Jones was finally installed in the chapel’s ornate crypt—a design inspired by Napoleon’s tomb at Les Invalides in Paris.

During Labor Day weekend of September 1906 the Navy conducted the second fleet review—and Bonaparte’s fifth significant event—at the entrance of Oyster Bay in the waters of Long Island Sound, not far from Roosevelt’s home at Sagamore Hill. The first review had been staged three summers before, when 22 white-painted combatants swinging at anchor in two carefully dressed lines had thrilled, and nearly deafened, the president with their thundering gun salutes. The 1906 review by the president, riding again onboard the Mayflower as he had in 1903, but this time with Secretary Bonaparte standing modestly alongside, was even grander than the first. It featured practically the whole of the Atlantic Fleet afloat, 38 combatant ships and 5 auxiliaries anchored by squadron, and, as The New York Times reported, 1,743 6-inch gun salutes to the beaming commander-in-chief.

The same chest-thumping naval display, rows of handsome, white-painted ships at anchor, gunfire filling the sky with smoke and the smell of cordite—a complex evolution for certain, but one uncomplicated by any kind of opposition—was repeated several more times during Roosevelt’s presidency, most notably when the 16 battleships of the Great White Fleet sailed for foreign waters in December 1907 and when they returned in February 1909.

The remaining two events in Bonaparte’s catalogue, supervising affairs in Santo Domingo and the second U.S. intervention in Cuba, were products of the same American policy—the Monroe Doctrine—as amplified in 1904 by its Roosevelt corollary and, with respect to postwar Cuba only, the Platt Amendment passed the year before. Together, these articulated Washington’s determination to keep western hemisphere republics free from outside meddling or internal instability, if necessary through preemptive American intervention. This determination was complicated by the president’s unwillingness to give Democrats or anti-imperialists any political ammunition.

The supervision Bonaparte cited arose from the fact that by the end of 1904 a bankrupt Santo Domingo (the present day Dominican Republic) had so exasperated its European creditors that some were edging toward overt action to recover the millions owed them. Roosevelt’s solution, announced in his state of the union address on 5 December 1905, had for most of the past year put Americans, many of them Navy officers, in charge of Dominican customs houses and supervising disbursements to the government and creditors. This would be the case until 1941. The agreement that put them there had been negotiated, in part, by Navy Commander A. C. Dillingham, commanding officer of the cruiser Detroit .

Finally, what Bonaparte called the United States’ second intervention in Cuban affairs eventually became a two-year-long occupation that included imposing an American as provisional governor. Rioting following Cuban elections in August 1906 led the administration reluctantly to accede to the Cuban president’s request on 8 September for troops to protect foreign lives and property on the island. The first landing force, 130 sailors and Marines from the cruiser Denver went a shore 13 September. Between then and Bonaparte’s departure in mid-December, 11 other U.S. Navy ships—a third of the Atlantic Fleet—shuttled in and out, moving men from ship to shore and back at Havana, Cienfuegos, Guantanamo Bay, and Tunas. The last didn’t leave until January 1909.

Bonaparte evidently learned or relearned several lessons during his years in the cabinet, two of which pertained to administrative issues. For good reasons, the administrative head of the Navy should not be drawn from its ranks. Additionally, he concluded “a Secretary of the Navy . . . if unwilling to be merely a more or less ornamental appendage, must work hard, think for himself, keep his own counsel, and while receiving outwardly military deference, count on many whispered maledictions.” If those whispered maledictions sounded anything like his judgment of most congressmen, whom he found on close observation to be petty, selfish, and timid, then he’d been badly served.


Annual Reports of the Navy Department for the Year 1905, 1906 . (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1906, 1907).

Joseph B. Bishop, Charles Joseph Bonaparte: His Life and Public Services (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922).

Charles J. Bonaparte, “Experiences of a Cabinet Officer Under Roosevelt,” Century Magazine , March 1910, 754.

Bonaparte’s personal papers are held in the library of the Maryland Historical Society at 201 West Monument Street in Baltimore, MD, as MS No. 141.

Eric F. Goldman, C. J. Bonaparte, Patrician Reformer: His Earlier Career (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1943.)

Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company, The Locomotive , vol. 26 (January 1906), 22–27.

Clarence Edward Macartney and Gordon Dorrance, The Bonapartes in America (Philadelphia: Dorrance and Co., 1939).



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