Wednesday, February 16, 2011

John Bingham

Gerard N. Magliocca

I'm working on a biography of John Bingham, the primary drafter of the Fourteenth Amendment. While my research is not complete, I thought I'd provide an update on how things are going. Specifically, I want to share what I've learned so far that seems important.

First, Bingham attended Franklin College, which was one of the few racially integrated schools at the time. Furthermore, one of his closest friends there was Titus Basfield, an African-American who became a minister and a lifelong confident. These college years almost certainly played a significant role in shaping Bingham's viewpoint on racial issues. It also explains, I think, why he was collaborating with Salmon P. Chase as early as 1845 to combat slavery (I found a letter in the Chase Archives on this point).

Second, Bingham's image as a civil libertarian is at odds with his performance as a prosecutor in the Lincoln conspiracy trial and as a House Manager in Andrew Johnson's impeachment trial. In the Lincoln trial, Bingham put forward a broad interpretation of military jurisdiction and presidential authority to counter claims by the defendants that they were not receiving the protections of the Bill of Rights (e.g., jury trial). And in the Johnson Trial, he argued that the Alien and Sedition Acts were consistent with the First Amendment (largely to support his claim that Johnson had engaged in impeachable sedition by attacking Congress).

Third, I can find no statements by Bingham supporting segregation. That doesn't mean that he didn't (there is, after all, a voting record to scrutinize), but that omission strikes me as interesting. I want to take a closer look at his views about the Freedman's Bureau and other remedial measures for African-Americans to get a sense of his attitude towards race-conscious policies, but I have not formed a conclusion about that yet.

Fourth, Bingham wanted the Fifteenth Amendment to be much broader than what ended up in the text. Indeed, his proposal would have barred states from discriminating against voting based on religion or wealth (as well as race).

Finally, Bingham said nothing about the Fourteenth Amendment after he left Congress in 1873. Since he lived until 1900, this is quite odd. I am also beginning to think that his departure from Washington just as the Supreme Court was starting to interpret the text was rather important and suggests that the Credit Mobilier scandal, which sullied Bingham's reputation and helped end his political career, may be more important than we've thought.

Older Posts
Newer Posts