Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Benjamin H. Bristow (1874–1876): Secretary of the Treasury

Benjamin Helm Bristow was born in 1832 in Elkton, Kentucky. He graduated from Jefferson College (Cannonsburg, Pennsylvania) in 1851, studied the law, was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1853, and then practiced law. When the Civil War erupted, Bristow recruited soldiers and then, as lieutenant colonel, served as head of the Twenty-Fifth Kentucky Infantry. He saw action in several battles, was wounded at Shiloh, and, following his recovery, helped form and then lead the Eighth Kentucky cavalry, doing so as colonel.

After his exemplary service, Bristow was offered the rank of brigadier general but refused it, leaving the military in 1863 to serve in the Kentucky state senate. He resigned after two years and was appointed assistant U.S. attorney for the district of Kentucky before assuming the top slot in 1866. Bristow made a failed bid for the United States Senate before resigning from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in 1870 to resume his legal career. Soon, however, he was practicing law for the U.S government and serving as an adviser to the attorney general as the first solicitor general within the newly created Department of Justice. Bristow remained in this position for two years before becoming general counsel for the Texas and Pacific Railway Company.

By 1874, President Ulysses S. Grant had tapped Bristow to be his secretary of the treasury. During his two-year tenure in the position, Bristow brought 253 indictments against members of the Whiskey Ring and returned over $2 million dollars to the United States Treasury. Despite his actions -- and largely because of them -- Bristow was unpopular in some political circles; opponents prevented him from running as the Republican nominee for President in 1876. He resigned his cabinet post that year and devoted his energies to the election of Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes.

As President of the United States, Hayes offered Bristow both a cabinet position in his administration and a place on the United States Supreme Court. Bristow declined both offers, helping instead to found the American Bar Association and the Civil Service Reform Association. Benjamin Helm Bristow died in 1896.