John Armor Bingham (1815–1900)

2011-12-01 09:49:57

John Armor Bingham, an Ohio lawyer, was a prominent figure in American politics and government in the latter half of the nineteenth century. He participated in many of the key events surrounding and shortly after the Civil War. Most significantly, Bingham played a pivotal role in drafting the Fourteenth Amendment. Dissenting in Adamson v. California (1947), Justice Hugo Black referred to Bingham as ‘‘the Madison of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment.’’ Bingham’s views on the Fourteenth Amendment, particularly as those views pertain to whether it ‘‘incorporates’’ the first eight amendments of the U.S. Constitution against the states, continue to be debated.

John Bingham was born on January 21, 1815, in Mercer County, Pennsylvania. His parents were Hugh Bingham and Ester Bailey Bingham. Not much is known about his mother, who died when John was twelve. After his mother died in 1827, John relocated to Cadiz, Ohio, where he lived with his uncle, Thomas Bingham, off and on for four years. At fourteen, Bingham attended Mercer Academy, then Franklin College in New Athens, Ohio, for two years. While at Franklin College, Bingham became friends with Titus Basfield. Basfield was a former slave who became the first black person to earn a degree from an Ohio college. He and Bingham corresponded for over a quarter-century following their acquaintance at Franklin. After college, Bingham read law in Pennsylvania, the typical preparation for aspiring attorneys at the time. He studied with John J. Pearson and William Stewart, two prominent Mercer, Pennsylvania, lawyers. Bingham was admitted to practice on March 25, 1840. He returned to Cadiz that same year and four years later married his cousin Amanda Bingham (his uncle Thomas’s daughter), with whom he had three children.

Abolitionist views run like a crimson thread throughout John Bingham’s early life. Perhaps the most compelling indication of the influences shaping his assessment of slavery is a passing reference to his mother that he made in 1862. Calling ‘‘chattel slavery . . . an ‘infernal atrocity,’’’ Bingham added, ‘‘I thank God that I learned to lisp it at my mother’s knee.’’ Both Hugh and Thomas Bingham were active in abolitionist political circles. Pennsylvania Governor Joseph R. Ritner, patron of John Bingham’s politically active father, was an outspoken abolitionist who was described as a person ‘‘who appointed to high and responsible stations . . . individuals notorious for their zeal in the cause of abolition.’’ Bingham’s uncle (eventually his father-in-law), Thomas, was an associate judge of the Harrison County Court of Common Pleas. Bingham’s father and his uncle were antislavery Whigs. In time, both became ‘‘free soilers’’ opposing the extension of slavery to territories of the United States. Among John Bingham’s childhood friends was Matthew Simpson. Simpson became a very influential bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church in America. An advisor to President Abraham Lincoln and a close friend to Lincoln and General Ulysses S. Grant, Bishop Simpson was among those who urged Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation while the President was reluctant to do so. Simpson delivered the oration at two of President Lincoln’s funerals, at the White House, and in Springfield, Illinois. Franklin College, John Bingham’s alma mater, was characterized as ‘‘the fountain-head of the abolition sentiment of eastern Ohio.’’

Bingham’s career trajectory was shaped by the antislavery convictions he developed growing up in eastern Ohio and western Pennsylvania as well as by the divisions that exploded in the Civil War. The year 1856 was a tumultuous one in American history. Foreshadowing the Civil War, the border conflict known as ‘‘Bleeding Kansas’’ raged with cruel atrocities on both sides. Murderous hatred stalked the halls of the Capitol, where South Carolina Congressman Preston Brooks almost beat Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner to death with a cane after Sumner delivered a speech excoriating supporters of the pro-slavery faction in Kansas. Amid this disorder, together with his professional mentors, John J. Pearson and William Stewart, John Bingham joined the new Republican Party. Founded in 1854 in Ripon, Wisconsin, the Republican Party unsuccessfully ran John C. Fremont for president in 1856 on the slogan, ‘‘Free soil, free labor, free men.’’ Two years previously, Republican Bingham was first elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as a member of the Thirtyfourth Congress. He served four terms until March 1863. Bingham’s views during this period are illustrated by his observation on the July 21, 1861, Union defeat at the First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas): ‘‘We need these reverses to bring our people up to the peril of not abolishing slavery.’’

Defeated in his bid for a fifth term in 1864, Bingham was appointed a major in the Union Army by President Lincoln, serving as judge advocate. Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, 1865, thrust Bingham into the national spotlight. With Joseph Holt, Army judge advocate general, and Henry L. Burnett, another assistant judge advocate, Bingham argued the government’s case against the eight conspirators before a nine-man military commission. Bingham culminated his extensive summation by saying, ‘‘What these conspirators did in the execution of this conspiracy by the hand of one of their co-conspirators [John Wilkes Booth] they did themselves; his act, done in the prosecution of the common design, was the act of all the parties to the treasonable combination, because done in execution and furtherance of their guilty and treasonable agreement.’’

Bingham was again elected to Congress in 1865. Two events dominated his second term of service: the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson and drafting of the Fourteenth Amendment. The role that Bingham played in both was defined by his participation in a group of American political figures known as Radical Republicans. These prominent members of Congress and of President Lincoln’s Cabinet clashed often with Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. Their fundamental difference with President Johnson revolved around the pace and direction of post-Civil War Reconstruction. For the Radical Republicans, ‘‘reconstructing’’ the defeated southern states required basically altering the social and political landscape of the former Confederacy in ways designed to protect the rights of former slaves—alterations they saw as the precondition for readmitting these states in rebellion to the Union. Johnson took a much more conciliatory and accommodating view. Amid a series of vitriolic clashes over three pieces of Reconstruction legislation, during which Johnson also vetoed the Civil Rights Act of 1866, he fired Radical Republican Edwin M. Stanton as secretary of war, in violation of the 1867 Tenure of Office Act. In response, the House of Representatives impeached Johnson. Bingham chaired the House Committee that argued, unsuccessfully, the articles of impeachment before the Senate.

While Radical Republicans and President Johnson locked horns over congressional Reconstruction, a Joint Committee on Reconstruction was at work on a constitutional amendment. Bingham opposed the 1866 Civil Rights Bill because he wanted the federal Bill of Rights ‘‘enforced everywhere,’’ and he believed that this goal could be accomplished only by a constitutional amendment. As a Joint Committee member, he drafted (some say collaborating with Pennsylvania Representative Thaddeus Stevens) the first of the amendment’s five sections. Section 1 reads: ‘‘All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.’’

Writing in McCreary County, Kentucky v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (2005), Justice David Souter characterized the Fourteenth Amendment as ‘‘the most significant structural [constitutional] provision adopted since the original Framing.’’ Yale Law School professor Akhil Reed Amar offers this assessment of Bingham’s contribution: ‘‘It was Bingham’s generation that in effect added a closing parenthesis after the first eight . . . amendments, distinguishing these amendments from all others. As a result, Americans today can lay claim to a federal Bill of Rights set apart from everything else, and symbolically first even if textually middling.’’

Apropos of Professor Amar’s appraisal, a central controversy in the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment involves whether its language applies all, some, or none of the first eight amendments (Bill of Rights) to the states. Under the doctrine of ‘‘selective incorporation,’’ it is settled law that most of the specific guarantees do apply to the states. Other scholars and judges, notably adherents to the notion of a ‘‘Constitution in Exile,’’ reject incorporation. While Bingham’s speeches during congressional debate of the Fourteenth Amendment have been used by both sides in this debate, the weight of scholarly opinion supports the view that Bingham embraced incorporation.

Bingham left Congress in 1873. That year President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary to Japan, a post he occupied for twelve years. His appointment came at a crucial time in Japanese history, just after the Meiji restoration (1866–1869). Bingham died on March 19, 1900. He is buried in Cadiz, Ohio.


References and Further Reading

  • Amar, Akhil Reed. ‘‘Hero Worship and the Bill of Rights.’’ The American Lawyer. December 1998, p. 66
  • Aynes, Richard L., The Continuing Importance of Congressman John A. Bingham and the Fourteenth Amendment, Akron Law Review 36 (2003): 4:589
  • ———, On Misreading John Bingham and the Fourteenth Amendment, Yale Law Journal 103 (October 1993): 57
  • Beauregard, Erving E. Bingham of the Hills: Politician and Diplomat Extraordinary. New York: Peter Lang, 1989.