This Day in History: Roosevelt & Bonaparte conspire to create the FBI
On this day in 1908, the Attorney General of the United States hires a “corps of special agents.” This force would eventually become the foundation for the institution that we know as the FBI.
Believe it or not, you can give partial credit to Napoleon Bonaparte’s great-nephew for starting the FBI. Yes, really! Charles Bonaparte was the grandson of Napoleon’s youngest brother. Teddy Roosevelt appointed him as Attorney General in 1906, and it was Bonaparte who took action so long ago.
The Department of Justice had long hired private detectives or investigators from other federal agencies when it needed to investigate federal crimes. (Of course, there were far fewer federal laws to violate back then.) By 1907, the DOJ was relying heavily on Secret Service agents to fulfill these needs. Bonaparte became frustrated with the situation. He was most likely egged on by Roosevelt, who wanted to prosecute some land fraud allegations.
Either way, the DOJ wanted its own team of agents! Bonaparte complained to Congress:
“[T]he Department of Justice has no executive force, and, more particularly, no permanent detective force under its immediate control. . . . [A] Department of Justice with no force of permanent police in any form under its control is assuredly not fully equipped for its work.”
Congress was unimpressed. It feared that the new force would be a “secret police” that would spy on Americans—or even on members of Congress. On May 27, 1908, it voted to prevent the DOJ from hiring Secret Service agents as investigators.
Roosevelt and Bonaparte were not to be foiled. They waited for Congress to go into recess. Then Bonaparte used “general appropriations placed under [DOJ’s] control” to create a “corps of special agents.” Bonaparte hired the agents on June 29, and his action was formalized with an official order on July 26. This latter document ordered his new agents to report to the Chief Examiner. And it wasn’t too long before Roosevelt was publicly complaining about the vote that Congress had taken on May 27.
That vote, Roosevelt told the American people, if “deliberately introduced for the purpose of diminishing the effectiveness of war against crime it could not have been better devised to this end. . . . The chief argument in favor of the provision was that the Congressmen did not themselves wish to be investigated by Secret Service men.”
You guessed it. It wasn’t too long before Congress caved and began funding the new agency that it had once opposed.
Despite its doubtful beginnings, most Americans respect and admire FBI agents—and with good reason! These men and women are highly trained and work hard to earn their positions. On the other hand, the number of federal crimes has grown—a lot—in recent decades. And that means that the FBI has more and more work to do. Every federal agency seems to know how to grow at an exponential rate. The FBI has been no exception.
An agency that started off with 34 employees in 1908 had 650 employees by 1924. Today, the FBI has about 35,000 employees, and its budget is more than $8 billion. Doubtless, a good portion of the FBI’s work is extremely valuable to our country. But if the federal criminal code were reduced, one wonders how much the size and cost of this agency could also reduce, proportionately.
Athan G. Theoharis, The FBI: A Comprehensive Reference Guide (1998)
Athan G. Theoharis, The FBI and American Democracy: A Brief Critical History (2004)
Charles Bonaparte, United States Dept. of Justice, Annual Report of the Attorney General of the United States (1907) (reprint can be found HERE)
Henry M. Holden, FBI 100 Years (2008)
James B. Comey, FBI Budget Requests for Fiscal Year 2017 (Feb. 25, 2016)
Theodore Roosevelt, Eighth Annual Message (Dec. 8, 1908)
Tim Weiner, Enemies: A History of the FBI (2012)
Timeline of FBI History (FBI website)
The FBI: A Centennial History, 1908-2008 (2d printing; 2008)
The Nation Calls, 1908-1923 (FBI website)