Benjamin Bristow (Benjamin Helm Bristow)

Benjamin Bristow

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. Benjamin 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, Benjamin 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. Sol. Gen. 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, Benjamin 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 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 Benjamin 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.

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Born

  • June, 20, 1832
  • USA
  • Elkton, Kentucky

Died

  • June, 22, 1896
  • USA
  • New York, New York

Cause of Death

  • appendicitis

Cemetery

  • Woodlawn Cemetery
  • Bronx, New York
  • USA

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