The Legacy of John Bingham: Architect of the Fourteenth Amendment
Discovering the journey of John Bingham, the man who prosecuted Booth's co-conspirators, led the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, and authored critical language in the 14th Amendment.
American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment by Gerard N. Magliocca is about a forgotten man and a forgotten moment. The book shares the story of Bingham, a representative from Ohio, and his journey to fulfill the idea from our founding that every citizen is entitled to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
Bingham served the majority of his time in office during the reconstruction period immediately following the Civil War. The book gives readers a glimpse into the man before studying his mind. Explaining Bingham's early abolitionist roots before exploring his thoughts about liberty and the Constitution. This book is a must-read for those interested in understanding the difference of principles from our first and second founding.
This issue of Out of the Best Books serves as a summary of American Founding Son, told in narrative forms, with additional insights offered by myself and supplementary history gleaned from the congressional record to give depth to the story.
The Legacy of John Bingham
In the mid-19th century, a period marked by turmoil and transformation, there emerged a figure whose contributions to American law and civil rights would resonate through the ages.
John Bingham is referred to by some as the James Madison of his era and by others as just another “railroad lawyer.” His life was marred by tragedy, losing six of his eight children, and when he died, he died alone and helpless. He prosecuted John Wilkes Booth and his eight co-conspirators for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and he led the impeachment trial of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson. He is most known as the featured author of the Fourteenth Amendment, Section One, the due process clause.
This is the story of John Bingham, a man whose name may not be as familiar as Lincoln or Douglas, yet whose impact on the United States Constitution endures powerfully to this day.
Born in 1815 in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, John Bingham grew up in a time when the United States was growing increasingly divided. His early life was shaped by modesty and education. He attended Franklin College in Ohio, where he met Titus Basfield, who broke the color barrier at Franklin. Titus was born a slave in Virginia, owned by eight masters and taken from his mother as a child. The friendship between Bingham and Basfield reinforced Bingham’s conviction in extending the rights forged by the ideals of the American Revolution and the promise of the Constitution to all citizens.
Bingham's legal career began in Ohio, but his ambitions soon led him to the national stage. Elected to Congress as a representative from Ohio’s 16th district, he became known for his eloquent speeches and staunch anti-slavery stance. As the nation edged closer to civil war, Bingham's voice grew louder in the halls of the Capitol, advocating for the rights of all men, regardless of color.
The Civil War tested the nation's soul and Bingham's resolve. He served as a judge advocate in the Union Army, witnessing firsthand the horrors of war and the scourge of slavery. These experiences hardened his determination to ensure that the nation's laws protected the liberties of all its citizens.
In the war's aftermath, as America grappled with Reconstruction, Bingham took on the monumental task of drafting the 14th Amendment to the Constitution as part of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction, comprising members of both houses of Congress. His goal was “to secure to the citizen of each State all the privileges and immunities of the citizens of the United States in the several States.” Bingham used language from Article Four, and his desire was to extend the Bill of Rights as part of the privileges or immunities Congress should be empowered to protect.
After intense debate and revision, Congress passed the 14th Amendment in 1866. However, its journey was far from over. It needed ratification by three-fourths of the states to become part of the Constitution. The final language of section one was:
“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.”
Many in the South, and even some in the North, resisted the changes it embodied. But Bingham, ever the orator and strategist, fought tirelessly, persuading, negotiating, and standing firm on his principles.
He and other Republicans crafted the Military Reconstruction Acts, a series of laws that laid out the process for readmitting Southern states into the Union after the Civil War. Bingham said, “Unless you put [the South] in terror of your laws, made efficient by the solemn act of the whole people to punish the violators of oaths, they will defy your restricted legislative power when reconstructed.” The acts divided the South into military districts, each governed by a Union general. They required Southern states to draft new constitutions guaranteeing African American men the right to vote. Additionally, the acts stipulated that Southern states had to ratify the 14th Amendment as a condition for rejoining the Union.
Not everyone agreed with the forceable measures Republicans took. George Shanklin, a Democrat from Georgia, while speaking on the congressional floor, made the point that the North had just fought a war to keep the South part of the Union, but now the North was keeping them out of the Union unless they agreed to the new rules. The war was justified by the North’s interpretation of the constitution because secession was not a power granted to the States in the constitution, and therefore, the South was not a free and sovereign nation when they left but a group of rebels intent on overthrowing the Union.
However, that argument falls apart when looking at the reality of the situation: whether the South was allowed to leave the Union or not, they did. And if they wanted back in, they needed to agree to terms. There would be no more compromise of morals to unite the Union.
Gradually, the tide began to turn. One by one, Southern states, under the pressure of military Reconstruction and the lure of regaining representation in Congress, began to ratify the Amendment. The process was fraught with political pressure, negotiations, and resistance, but on July 9, 1868, with the ratification by the required number of states, the 14th Amendment became part of the Constitution.
The ratification of the 14th Amendment marked a significant transformation in American constitutional law. It redefined the concept of citizenship, extended civil rights protections, and laid the groundwork for future legal battles over equality and civil liberties.
By 1873, John Bingham was out of Congress. He was implicated in the Crédit Mobilier scandal, the districts were redrawn, and the Republican bosses pushed him out. He would then serve under four successive Republican Presidents as ambassador to Japan, a well-paid position that, nevertheless, effectively removed him from domestic American politics for the rest of his life.
John Bingham was a man of principle and persistence. His education and experiences shaped him. But was he the James Madison of his era? No, not really. While Bingham was thoughtful and creative with his political thought, he fell into the same trap as most politicians. Where Madison understood that finding compromise and understanding of a majority of factions was important for lasting government, Bingham stood on the side of “right” but used force to achieve his goals.
Where Madison specialized in a multiplicity of political issues, Bingham had one main focus. Some might say it was necessary when dealing with a rebel faction that refused to acknowledge the humanity of our brothers and denied them the freedom our founders intended for all citizens. Still, history shows us that when force is used to achieve political goals, it has lasting ramifications, and the passage of the 14th Amendment was no different.
The early years of the 14th Amendment were marked by optimism. It was a tool intended to reshape American society to guarantee the rights of the freedmen. But this promise was soon clouded by the harsh realities of the era. The rise of Jim Crow laws in the South, sanctioned by Plessy v. Ferguson, and the rise of the modern corporation twisted the Amendment's meaning. Segregation under the guise of "separate but equal" stood in stark contrast to the Amendment's promise, creating a century-long struggle for equality. It wouldn’t be until the mid-20th century Civil Rights Movement before the 14th Amendment would have the impact Bingham intended.
The story of the 14th Amendment is an ongoing saga of a nation's struggle with its ideals. It is a testament to the enduring quest for equality and justice, a reminder that the pursuit of liberty is a journey, not a destination. As the nation moves forward, the 14th Amendment continues to be a guiding light, but more is required to secure the rights of individual citizens.
John Bingham may not be a household name, but his legacy is alive in every courtroom where justice is sought, in every protest for equality, and in the very fabric of the Constitution. As an architect of the Fourteenth Amendment, his work continues to shape the American legal landscape, reminding us that the fight for justice is never truly over and that the pen can indeed be mightier than the sword.
Jeff Mayhugh is the co-founder of the Madisonian Republicans and a former Congressional Candidate for VA10. @Jmayhugh28
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