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49th Annual Ceremony Commemorating Charles J. Bonaparte

Remarks by John Di Cicco, Acting Assistant Attorney General, Tax Division


Charles Joseph Bonaparte

Italian Historical Society of AmericaDOJ EEOC             June 11, 2009

Thank you Francesco for your kind introduction.  Good morning ladies and gentlemen Let me start by saying that the halls of the Department of Justice hold the portraits of our past Attorney Generals.   With few exceptions, the accomplishments of many of those men and the one woman who have lead our Department are lost except to a few of us --who either through our interest in history or in our legal work on a particular subject come to know much more about these leaders and their times. John Di Cicco

Nearly a half century ago, the Italian Historical Society of America initiated the idea to recognize the many important contributions made by our 46th Attorney General, Charles J. Bonaparte. Since that first ceremony, the Italian Historical Society of America has continued to ensure that each year we again take a few minutes from our normal routine to honor a man of wise principles and great accomplishments. 

That is a great and worthy tradition.  A tradition that has made the life of Attorney General Bonaparte better known to many of us and a tradition that has honored his principles and accomplishments.  Being of Italian heritage, I am proud of the role that the Italian Historical Society has played in the creation of this tradition.  I also understand that over the years a second tradition has developed.  That second tradition is that those who have traveled  from New York City gather after this ceremony to have a wonderful lunch at a local Italian restaurant.

And also, because I am  Italian, I am looking forward to eating that lunch, so I won’t talk too long.  But it is important to talk a little bit about the outstanding Italian American  we are honoring today,  Charles Bonaparte, the 46th Attorney General of the United States.  I doubt I will be saying anything today that you have not already heard, but even if we have all already heard  about what Charles Bonaparte stands for,  I still thinks it serves us well to reflect on the principles which guided his life–service to country, and observance of the rule of law.  These principles are not just applicable to Italian Americans, but to all Americans.  Especially at times when the Department comes under attack, you only have to look back to Charles Bonaparte for a reaffirmation of what the Department and our country stands for.  While there have been many, many Italian Americans who have helped make this country great, very few, if any, have contributed more than Charles Bonaparte.

When I think about Charles Bonaparte’s life of service, many things come to mind, but today I will just mention a few of them.  First, he excelled academically, graduating from Harvard College and Harvard Law school, where he later was appointed a University Overseer.  He had a strong appreciation of education, and over the years, he received many honorary degrees, and  served as a Trustee of the Catholic University of America.  But what strikes me most about Charles Bonaparte was his life long history of public service. 

He was a man who when he saw something that could be improved upon in his country, he didn’t just sit back and let others deal with the problem, but set out to do something about it.  He was extremely civic minded.  He was prominent in many municipal and national reform movements.  Early in his career, (1881) he helped found the National Civil Service Reform League and later he served as its chairman.  He was very concerned about the prevalence of corrupt public officials, and wanted to change that culture.    He went about doing that in a variety of ways, including raising the awareness of the electorate about  crimes such as bribery and undue influence that were being committed by public officials; and he argued for the fair and impartial administration of the Government.  He was not afraid to speak out about what he believed.  In one of his writings he observed that if the politicians of that period were not technically criminals, they were allies and patrons of habitual criminals, and he wanted to put a stop to that.  Indeed, Bonaparte acted as Special Counsel in the conviction of a prominent defendant in a Postal Fraud case.  But more importantly, he played a critical role in obtaining the adoption of the merit system in the Federal Service, a system that made it much more difficult for crime and corruption to occur within Government, and a system that has produced the finest Civil Service in the world.  That is truly one his great legacies.   But, he didn’t stop there.

He was also (1884) the founder and a president of the National Municipal League–an amalgamation of various citywide reform groups throughout the United States, and was later elected its president.  This involvement was a continuation of his goal to have government operate for the benefit of its citizens rather than for private interests.

His civic concerns brought him into contact with Theodore Roosevelt prior to Roosevelt becoming president.  Roosevelt and Bonaparte shared many of the same views.  They believed that an appropriate amount of Government intervention was necessary to produce justice. They were also convinced that efficiency and expertise, not political connections, should determine who could best serve in government.  Because of those shared ideals, Roosevelt, after becoming President, appointed Bonaparte to a number of national positions. The first was to serve on the Board of Indian Commissioners (1902-04), where, because of his legal acumen and integrity, he was charged with concluding the investigation of  land frauds in the Indian Territories. Later, President Roosevelt appointed Bonaparte to two cabinet positions. The first was Secretary of the Navy, where he joined President Roosevelt in effectively urging for both a larger Navy, and a Navy that utilized larger ships.  The second cabinet appointment was to be the 46th Attorney General of the United States. 

As Attorney General, Bonaparte accomplished much–he launched antitrust investigations aimed at large corporations such as Standard Oil, the railroads ( including the Union Pacific), and the American Tobacco company.  (He was largely responsible for breaking up the tobacco monopoly.)  In between his trust busting and other major duties, he found time to argue over 50 cases in the United States Supreme Court.  But perhaps Charles Bonaparte’s most significant, and lasting, contribution as Attorney General, was  creating the group that later became the FBI.  Soon after he took over as Attorney General, Bonaparte learned that his hands were largely tied when it came to tackling the rising tide of crime and corruption –he had no squad of investigators to call his own. 

Rather than just accepting that situation, he set about changing it. He saw the critical importance of having a federal investigative force consisting of well-disciplined experts, designed and trained to fight corruption and crime.  With that vision, he put together his own group of investigators-- and that was the start of the FBI.  His force originally included only 34 agents, but from that modest beginning, the FBI has grown to become the preeminent investigative police agency in the world.  Right now, if you were to go across the street to FBI headquarters, you would see that the auditorium where agents gather, is named the Charles J. Bonaparte auditorium.  
In sum, Bonaparte dedicated his life to making his country better.   He was forever seeking opportunities to do so-- whether it was rooting out land fraud in the Indian Territories, pursuing antitrust investigations against the largest corporations in America, prosecuting Postal Service corruption, arguing for the Government in the Supreme Court,  or forming the forerunner to the FBI, he was motivated by two things, love of country and love of the rule of law.  This passion for his country is perhaps best exemplified by his unstinting efforts to create an honest and effective Federal Civil Service–a civil service where people are selected based on their merit. 

I note that many of us here today share a common heritage with Charles Bonaparte, of which we are justifiably proud, and all of us share his commitment to justice and the rule of law. As Bonaparte himself said, “To have a popular Government we must first of all, and before all else, have good citizens”–and that is what he was, above all else–a good citizen.  We should all strive to be as good a citizens as he was.  Thank you.

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