Benjamin Bristow

Benjamin Bristow
30th United States Secretary of the Treasury
In office
June 4, 1874  June 20, 1876
President Ulysses S. Grant
Preceded by William Richardson
Succeeded by Lot M. Morrill
1st Solicitor General of the United States
In office
October 1, 1870  November 12, 1872
President Ulysses S. Grant
Preceded by Position established
Succeeded by Samuel F. Phillips
Personal details
Born Benjamin Helm Bristow
(1832-06-20)June 20, 1832
Elkton, Kentucky, U.S.
Died June 22, 1896(1896-06-22) (aged 64)
New York City, New York, U.S.
Political party Whig (Before 1860)
Republican (1860–1896)
Education Washington and Jefferson College (BA)
Military service
Allegiance  United States
Service/branch  United States Army
Years of service 1861–1863
Rank Colonel
Battles/wars American Civil War
  Battle of Shiloh

Benjamin Helm Bristow (June 20, 1832 – June 22, 1896) was the 30th U.S. Treasury Secretary, the first Solicitor General, an American lawyer, a Union military officer, Republican Party politician, reformer, and civil rights advocate. Bristow, during his tenure as Secretary of Treasury, is primarily known for breaking up and prosecuting the Whiskey Ring, a corrupt tax evasion profiteering ring that depleted the national treasury, having President Ulysses S. Grant's permission. Additionally, Bristow promoted gold standard currency rather than paper. Bristow was one of Grant's most popular Cabinet members among reformers. Bristow supported Grant's Resumption of Specie Act of 1875, that helped stabilize the economy during the Panic of 1873. As the United States' first solicitor general, Bristow aided President Ulysses S. Grant and Attorney General Amos T. Akerman's vigorous and thorough prosecution and destruction of the Ku Klux Klan in the Reconstructed South.[1] Solicitor General Bristow advocated African American citizens in Kentucky be allowed to testify in a white man's court case and that education was for all races to be paid for by public funding.

A native of Kentucky, Bristow was the son of a prominent Whig Unionist and attorney. Having graduated Jefferson College in Pennsylvania in 1851, Bristow studied law and passed the bar in 1853, working as an attorney until the outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861. Fighting for the Union, Bristow served in the army during the American Civil War and was promoted to colonel. Wounded at the Battle of Shiloh, Bristow recuperated and would be promoted to lieutenant colonel. In 1863, Bristow was elected Kentucky state Senator, serving only one term. At the end of the Civil War, Bristow was appointed assistant to the U.S. District Attorney serving in the Louisville area, In 1866, Bristow was appointed U.S. District attorney serving in the Louisville area.

In 1870, Bristow was appointed the United States' first U.S. Solicitor General, who aided the U.S. Attorney General by arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1874, Bristow was appointed U.S. Secretary of the Treasury by President Ulysses S. Grant. Initially Grant gave Bristow his full support during Bristow's popular prosecution of the Whiskey Ring. However, when Bristow and Grant's Attorney General Edwards Pierrepont, another reforming Cabinet member, uncovered that Orville Babcock, Grant's personal secretary, was involved in the ring, Grant's relationship with Bristow cooled. In June 1876, due to friction over Bristow's zealous prosecution of the Whiskey Ring and rumor that Bristow was interested in running for the U.S. Presidency, Bristow resigned from President Grant's Cabinet. During the presidential election of 1876, Bristow made an unsuccessful attempt at gaining the Republican presidential ticket, running as a Republican reformer; the Republicans, however, chose Rutherford B. Hayes. After the 1876 presidential election, Bristow returned to private practice in New York, forming a successful law practice in 1878, often arguing cases before the U.S. Supreme Court until his death in 1896.

Early life

Benjamin Helm Bristow was born in Edwards Hall on June 20, 1832 in Elkton, Kentucky.[2][3] Bristow was the son of Francis M. Bristow and his wife Emily Helm.[4][2] Francis was a prominent lawyer and Whig member of Congress in 1854–1855 and 1859–1861.[4][2] Edwards Hall was the home of his late grandfather, Benjamin Edwards.[3] Bristow graduated at Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1851, studied law under his father, and was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1853.[4][5] For a while Bristow worked as a law partner for his father.[2] His father later became a strong anti-slavery Unionist. [2] His father's political anti-slavery and Whig views strongly influenced Bristow's own political outlook. [2]

Marriage and family

On November 21, 1854, Bristow married Abbie S. Briscoe.[2] Benjamin and Abbie had two children one son, William A. Bristow, and one daughter Nannie Bristow. [6] William was an attorney who worked in Bristow's New York law firm Bristow, Opdyke, & Willcox.[6] In June 1896 William was in London recovering from typhoid fever.[6] Nannie married Eben S. Sumner a Massachusetts textile businessman and politician. [6]

Kentucky law practice

In 1858, Bristow and his wife Abbie moved to Hopkinsville, Kentucky.[2] Bristow practiced law until the outbreak of the Civil War.[1][2]

American Civil War

At the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, Bristow joined the Union Army. On September 21, 1861 he was appointed lieutenant colonel of the 25th Kentucky Infantry.[5] In April 1862, he was severely wounded by an exploding shell at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee and temporarily forced to retire from field duty in order to recover from his injury.[1][5] After his recuperation, Bristow returned to field service during the summer of 1862 and helped recruit the 8th Kentucky Cavalry.[5] On September 8, 1862 Bristow was commissioned lieutenant colonel over the 8th Kentucky Cavalry.[5] Bristow assumed command of the 8th Kentucky Cavalry in January, 1863 after Col. James M. Shackleford, the previous commander, was promoted brigadier general.[5] On April 1, 1863 Bristow was promoted to colonel and continued his command over the 8th Kentucky Cavalry.[5] In July, 1863 Col. Bristow and the Kentucky 8th Cavalry assisted in the capture of John Hunt Morgan during his July 1863 raid through Indiana and Ohio.[5]

Kentucky state senator

On September 23, 1863, Bristow was honorably discharged from service in the Union Army; having been elected Kentucky State Senator by Christian County. Bristow had not known he had been elected and served one term as State Senator until 1865, having resigned office.[1] Bristow supported all Union war effort legislation, the presidential election of Abraham Lincoln in 1864, and the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment that outlawed slavery.[1]

U.S. District Attorney

In 1865, Bristow was appointed assistant to the United States Attorney. In 1866, Bristow was appointed district attorney for the Louisville, Kentucky district. As district attorney, he was renowned for his vigor in enforcing the 1866 U.S. Civil Rights Act.[5] Bristow served as district attorney until 1870 and spent a few months practicing law in partnership with future United States Supreme Court Justice John Harlan.[5]

First U.S. Solicitor General

Prosecuted Ku Klux Klan

In 1870, Congress created the U.S. Department of Justice, in part, to aid in the enforcement of U.S. Congressional Reconstruction laws and U.S. Constitutional amendments. On October 4, 1870, Bristow was appointed the first incumbent U.S. Solicitor General by President Ulysses S. Grant and served until November 12, 1872, having resigned the office.[5][7][8] Bristow and U.S. Attorney General Amos Akerman prosecuted thousands of Klansmen that resulted in a brief two-year quiet period during the turbulent Reconstruction Era in the South. In 1873 President Grant nominated him Attorney General of the United States in case then Attorney General George H. Williams was confirmed as Chief Justice of the United States, a contingency which did not arise.[4]

Kentucky civil rights and education speech

In 1871, Bristow traveled to his native Kentucky state and in a speech advocated African American civil rights. Bristow advocated that blacks be given the right to testify in juries. At this time Kentucky law forbade the 225,000 black U.S. citizens from testifying in any civil or criminal case involving a white man. He stated the Kentucky law that denied African Americans the right to testify in a white man's case had roots in slavery and was a "monstrous and grievous wrong to both races." Bristow stated that the Ku Klux Klan Act and the previous Civil Rights acts passed by the U.S. Congress were designed to protect the "humblest citizens" from lawbreakers. Bristow stated he would "tax the rich man's property to educate his poor neighbor's child", and he would "tax the white man's property to educate the black man's child." Bristow advocated free universal education and all property in Kentucky be taxed to pay for schools.[9]

Secretary of the Treasury

On June 3, 1874 President Grant appointed Bristow Secretary of the Treasury after William A. Richardson was removed in light of the Sanborn incident that involved Treasury contract scandals.[10][11] Bristow was hailed by the press as a much needed reformer. [11]

Internal reforms made

Fulfilling the press's reformer expectation, Bristow immediately went to work.[11] He drastically reorganized the Treasury Department,[11] abolished the corrupt office of supervising architect made famous by Alfred B. Mullett, and [11] dismissed the second-comptroller and his subordinates for inefficiency. Bristow shook up the detective force and consolidated collection districts in the Customs and Internal Revenue Services. [11] He dismissed over 700 people and implemented civil service rules in the Treasury Department.[12]

Prosecuted Whiskey Ring corruption

Bristow's greatest work in the Treasury Department came in prosecution and break up of the notorious Whiskey Ring headquartered in St. Louis [11] The Whisky Ring was powerful and corrupt machine started by western distillers and their allies in the Internal Revenue Service; it profiteered by evading the collection of taxes on whisky production.[11] Despite Washington rumors of its existence, the ring seemed to be impregnable to prosecution. [11] George W. Fishback, owner of the St. Louis Democrat advised Bristow on how to expose the ring and to bypass any corrupt federal appointees who would tip other ring partners of a federal investigation. [11] Investigative reporters were assigned by Bristow outside of the Treasury Department who obtained a vast supply of evidence in St. Louis of frauds committed by the ring. [11] To keep the investigation secret, Bristow gave the reporters a cipher different from the Treasury code.[11] Similar investigative work was done in Chicago and Milwaukee. [11] On May 10, 1875, Bristow struck hard shattering the ring at one blow.[11] Corrupt distilleries and rectifying houses in these three cities were seized and shut down.[11] Books and papers were confiscated that proved and identified individual ring members guilt. [11] Bristow instituted almost 250 federal civil and criminal lawsuits against ring members.[11] Within a year, Bristow had recovered 3,150,000 in unpaid taxes, had indicted 176 men, and had obtained 110 convictions on ring members.[11]


Largely owing to friction between himself and the president, Bristow resigned his portfolio in June 1876; as Secretary of the Treasury he advocated the resumption of specie payments and at least a partial retirement of "greenbacks"; and he was also an advocate of civil service reform.[4]

Presidential run (1876)

Bristow was a prominent reforming candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1876 (see U.S. presidential election, 1876). He was defeated at the Republican convention; Rutherford B. Hayes received the nomination. During the 1876 Republican Presidential Convention, Stalwart members of the Republican party, friends of President Grant, believed Bristow had been disloyal to Grant during the Whiskey Ring prosecutions, by going after Babcock. Rumor spread that Bristow had prosecuted the Whiskey Ring in an attempt to gain the 1876 Presidential Republican nomination. Bristow, however, proved to be a loyal statesman and had desired to keep President Grant and the nation from scandal. When Sec. Bristow testified in front of a congressional committee on the Whiskey Ring, he would not give any specific information regarding his conversations with President Grant, having claimed executive privilege.

New York attorney

Bistow was upset over not winning the Republican presidential nomination and over the rumor he had been disloyal to President Grant. Bristow retired from politics, never again to run for political office.[1] After 1878, he practiced law in New York City[4] and on October 16 he established the law partnership of Bristow, Peet, Burnett, & Opdyke.[1] Bristow was a prominent leader of the Eastern bar and was elected the second president of the American Bar Association in 1879. Having remained an advocate of civil service reform, Bristow was vice president of the Civil Service Reform Association.[1] Bristow often ably argued in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.[1]

Death and burial

In 1896, Bristow suffered appendicitis and died at his home on June 22, 1896.[1] He was buried at Woodlawn Cemetery, Bronx, New York.[13]

Historical reputation

Historians primarily admire Bristow's prosecution and shutting down the Whiskey Ring during his term as Grant's Secretary of Treasury.[14] Although a lawyer by trade and having no financial training, he was able to rid the Internal Revenue Department of corruption.[14] Bristow demonstrated his ability and in striking down the Whiskey Ring that was supported by powerful political forces.[14] His prosecutions offended the social and political Republican Party stalwarts who supported patronage, forcing him out of office.[14] As the first Solicitor General Bristow aided in prosecuting the Ku Klux Klan that enabled African Americans in the South to vote freely without fear of violent retaliation. He was born a Southerner in Kentucky, but he lived the remaining years of his life in New York.[14]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Department of Justice, Benjamin Bristow
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 Nevins 1929, p. 55.
  3. 1 2 Boone, George Street. National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination: Edwards Hall. National Park Service, 1973-07-10, 3.
  4. 1 2 3 4 5 6  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Bristow, Benjamin Helm". Encyclopædia Britannica (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. This work in turn cites:
    • Willcox, David, Memorial of Benjamin Helm Bristow, Cambridge, Mass., privately printed, 1897.
    • Whiskey Frauds, 44th Congress, 1st Session, Mis. Doc. No. 186.
    • McDonald, John, Secrets of the Great Whiskey Ring, Chicago, 1880. A book by one concerned and to be considered in that light: John McDonald was supervisor of internal revenue at St Louis for nearly six years.
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Find A Grave (July 3, 2003), Benjamin Helm Bristow
  6. 1 2 3 4 NYT 06-23-1896.
  7. Willcox 1897, pp. 9-10.
  8. Rossiter 1904.
  9. New York Times (June 16, 1876), Nomination of Benjamin H. Bristow
  10. Willcox 1897, p. 10.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 Nevins 1929, p. 56.
  12. Smith, p. 583.
  13. Benjamin Bristow at Find a Grave
  14. 1 2 3 4 5 Engineering and Mining Journal 1896, p. 623.




New York Times

Further reading

  • Encyclopedia of Kentucky. New York City, New York: Somerset Publishers. 1987. pp. 125–127. ISBN 0-403-09981-1. 
  • Webb, Ross A., Benjamin Helm Bristow, border state politician, University Press of Kentucky (1969).
Legal offices
New title Solicitor General of the United States
Succeeded by
Samuel F. Phillips
Political offices
Preceded by
William A. Richardson
U.S. Secretary of the Treasury
Served under: Ulysses S. Grant

Succeeded by
Lot M. Morrill
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