See biography by R. A. Webb (1969).
Born in Elkton, Kentucky, Bristow was the son of Francis Bristow, a Whig member of Congress in 1854-1855 and 1859-1861. He graduated at Jefferson College, Washington, Pennsylvania, in 1851, studied law under his father, and was admitted to the Kentucky bar in 1853.
At the beginning of the American Civil War, he became lieutenant colonel of the 25th Kentucky Infantry; was severely wounded at the Battle of Shiloh; helped to recruit the 8th Kentucky Cavalry, of which he was lieutenant colonel and later colonel; and assisted in the capture of John Hunt Morgan during his July 1863 raid through Indiana and Ohio. From 1863 to 1865, he was a Kentucky state senator; from 1865 to 1866 he was an assistant United States Attorney, and from 1866 to 1870 district attorney for the Louisville district. As district attorney, he was renowned for his vigor in enforcing the Federal Civil Rights Acts.
From 1870 to 1872 (following a few months' practice of law with future Supreme Court Justice John M. Harlan), he served as the first appointed U.S. Solicitor General. 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. Grant later appointed him Secretary of the Treasury after William A. Richardson was removed in light of the Sanborn Incident. As Treasury Secretary, he initiated a much-needed internal reorganization of the Treasury Department, dismissing the Second-Comptroller for inefficiency, shaking up the detective force, and consolidating collection districts in the Customs and Internal Revenue Services.
He prosecuted the so-called "Whiskey Ring," which was headquartered in St. Louis, and which, beginning in 1870 or 1871, had defrauded the federal government out of a large part of its rightful revenue from the distillation of whiskey. Distillers and revenue officers in St. Louis, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and other cities were implicated, and the illicit gains, which in St. Louis alone probably amounted to more than $2,500,000 in the six years (1870–1876) were divided between the distillers and the revenue officers, who levied assessments on distillers ostensibly for a Republican campaign fund to be used in furthering Ulysses S. Grant's re-election. Prominent among the ring's alleged accomplices at Washington, D.C. was Orville E. Babcock, private secretary to President Grant, whose personal friendship for Babcock led him to indiscreet interference in the prosecution. Through Bristow's efforts more than 200 men were indicted, a number of whom were convicted, but after some months' imprisonment were pardoned. 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. He was a prominent candidate for the Republican presidential nomination in 1876 (see U.S. presidential election, 1876).
After 1878 he practiced law in New York City, where he died in June 1896.