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Saturday, December 10, 2011

John Bingham--Moderate or Radical?

Gerard N. Magliocca

I'm now about half-way through my draft of the Bingham biography, and I wanted to post about an insight into his political profile that I think others have overlooked.

One of the most vexing questions for scholars of Reconstruction is whether Bingham was a moderate or a radical. You can find evidence that points both ways, which may suggest that the inquiry is pointless. Another way to think about the issue, though, is that Bingham was one of the most radical Republicans in the House of Representatives prior to the Civil War, while after the war he often opposed the more extreme faction led by Thaddeus Stevens and was considered a leading moderate. Did Bingham mellow with age? What other explanation could there be?

Here's one possibility. Take a look at his share of the popular vote in his congressional races before the War:

1854: 65%
1856: 58%
1858: 57%
1860: 64%

Now look at his shares during and after the War:

1862: 45%
1864: 52%
1866: 52%
1868: 52%
1870: 50%

In 1862, Bingham's congressional district was redrawn and became more conservative. He lost that election in part because troops from the district who were in the field could not vote. Indeed, in 1864 Bingham again lost the votes of men residing in the district and won only because of military votes. After that, every election was touch-and-go until he left Congress in 1873.

Thus, it may be that the "moderate" John Bingham of Reconstruction was a politician who needed to be more cautious to retain his majority. This is consistent with the man who supported the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 initially because he thought that was where public opinion in Ohio was, even though privately he wrote letters saying that the Act was horrific. Such is politics.

Comments:

Bingham's support of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act is most telling. Daniel Webster was scorned my many in MA for his role in the Act.

John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame became aware of the Act, writing to his wife "It now seems the fugitive slave law was to be the means of making more abolitionists than all the lectures we have had for years. It really looks as if God had his hand in this wickedness also." ("'Fire from the Midst of You' A Religious Life of John Brown" by Louis A. DeCaro, Jr. New York University Press (2002), page 187). DeCaro states (page 188): "Rather than be upset by the bad news [the Act], John Brown saw the handwriting on the wall and believed it was Providential script."
 

If this post were over at the Volokh conspiracy, we'd all be drunk by now.
 

Query: Was Oberlin (with its activist abolitionists) not part of Bingham's district?
 

John Brown of Harpers Ferry fame became aware of the Act, writing to his wife "It now seems the fugitive slave law was to be the means of making more abolitionists than all the lectures we have had for years. It really looks as if God had his hand in this wickedness also.
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