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American Founding Son

American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment

Gerard N. Magliocca
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    American Founding Son
    Book Description:

    John Bingham was the architect of the rebirth of the United States following the Civil War. A leading antislavery lawyer and congressman from Ohio, Bingham wrote the most important part of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution, which guarantees fundamental rights and equality to all Americans. He was also at the center of two of the greatest trials in history, giving the closing argument in the military prosecution of John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and in the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. And more than any other man, Bingham played the key role in shaping the Union's policy towards the occupied ex-Confederate States, with consequences that still haunt our politics.American Founding Sonprovides the most complete portrait yet of this remarkable statesman. Drawing on his personal letters and speeches, the book traces Bingham's life from his humble roots in Pennsylvania through his career as a leader of the Republican Party. Gerard N. Magliocca argues that Bingham and his congressional colleagues transformed the Constitution that the Founding Fathers created, and did so with the same ingenuity that their forbears used to create a more perfect union in the 1780s. In this book, Magliocca restores Bingham to his rightful place as one of our great leaders.Gerard N. Maglioccais the Samuel R. Rosen Professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law. He is the author of three books on constitutional law, and his work on Andrew Jackson was the subject of an hour-long program on C-Span'sBook TV.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-6146-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-X)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Measuring a Man
    (pp. 1-4)

    Americans are of two minds about their past. When the subject is military history, the Civil War holds a special place in our national life. When it comes to political and legal history, the Founding Fathers and the birth of the Constitution are sacred. Most people know who Robert E. Lee and Alexander Hamilton were and want to learn more about them. Turn this pairing around, however, and a strange thing happens. Interest in the Revolutionary War is less common: George Washington is the only general who stands out. Likewise, the politicians who led the Civil War are largely unknown,...

    (pp. 5-10)

    John Bingham and the abolitionist dream that was his life’s pursuit were both rooted in the emerald hills of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. The Bingham family traced its origins to another John Bingham, a knight who marched with William the Conqueror, but its American patriarch was Hugh Bingham, who came from Ireland in 1736. Hugh settled in central Pennsylvania (near what is now York) and married Martha Armor, who was the source of her great-grandson’s middle name. Hugh and Martha had six children, including Mary Bingham, the great-grandmother of President William McKinley, and Hugh Jr., John’s grandfather.¹ The younger...

    (pp. 11-19)

    In 1835, John Bingham enrolled at Franklin College in New Athens, Ohio, about six miles from Cadiz.¹ His decision was probably based on the school’s proximity to his family, the fact that his former pastor was on the faculty, and the role that his friend Matthew Simpson had played as a founding trustee.² While Franklin’s evangelical and abolitionist cast was not new to Bingham, his college years were exceptional. One of his classmates was an ex-slave, Titus Basfield, who was one of the first African Americans to obtain a bachelor’s degree in Ohio and would be Bingham’s friend for the...

    (pp. 20-38)

    Like almost every young lawyer, John Bingham was eager to make contacts and establish a reputation when he returned to Cadiz. Politics was one way to accomplish those goals, and so before he could even practice law, Bingham took the stump for the Whigs in the 1840 presidential election. He stayed loyal to the Whig Party into the 1850s even as he worked as a grassroots activist against slavery. The tension between these roles became more acute over time because the Whigs were unwilling to alienate conservative voters, and Bingham’s unease about that posture reflected the views of many who...

    (pp. 39-65)

    The passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act opened the door for John Bingham’s rise to power. In January 1854, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois proposed a bill to allow slavery in those territories if the inhabitants there so desired and thereby repeal the Missouri Compromise of 1820, which excluded human property from any territory north of 36.5 degrees latitude (36°30′).¹ This provocative expansion of slavery convinced many moderates in the North that compromise with the South was now impossible.² Bingham seized on this shift in public sentiment and severed his ties with the Whigs to run as a Republican. Soon after...

    (pp. 66-88)

    The Civil War marked John Bingham’s transition from dissenter to legislator. Lincoln’s election in 1860 gave the Republicans control of Washington for the first time, and the congressman from Ohio was one of the president’s most fervent supporters. From his perch on the House Judiciary Committee, Bingham designed legislation to support the Union army, suspend the writ of habeas corpus, and undo various pro-slavery policies.¹ The redrawing of his congressional district led to Bingham’s defeat in 1862—a setback that made him a little more cautious for the rest of his career. After two years in the political wilderness, during...

    (pp. 89-107)

    On March 4, 1865, John Bingham stood among the crowd at the Capitol to hear the president’s Second Inaugural Address. “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right,” Lincoln said, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan—to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”¹ Bingham was moved by the...

    (pp. 108-127)

    John Bingham’s great contribution to constitutional democracy was Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment, which committed the nation to fair and equal treatment for all.¹ As a member of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction in Congress, he wrote the key language of Section One and led the fight for its ratification in the House.² With respect to the meaning of this new text, Bingham expanded on the ideas that he laid out in the 1850s by arguing for the application of the entire Bill of Rights to all of the states, which was a conceptual leap from the vision of...

    (pp. 128-153)

    John Bingham’s influence reached its zenith in 1867 as Congress grappled with how to win the hearts and minds of the former Confederate States. At one extreme was President Johnson, who would not accept the Fourteenth Amendment and used all of the power at his disposal to block its ratification.¹ Thaddeus Stevens was in the other corner, arguing that only reforms that went far beyond the Fourteenth Amendment, including redistributing wealth to the freed slaves, would lead to equality.² Bingham steered the nation on a middle course based on the judgment that public opinion—North and South—would not stand...

    (pp. 154-166)

    The extension and protection of voting rights dominated the final years of Bingham’s congressional career. After barely retaining his seat in 1868, he joined his Republican colleagues to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment, though he believed that its ban on racial discrimination at the polls did not go far enough.¹ As the chair of the House Judiciary Committee from 1869 to 1873, Bingham dealt with the question of women’s suffrage, moved legislation that admitted the remaining former Confederate States, and attempted to suppress a guerrilla movement in the South, led by the Ku Klux Klan, that used violence to prevent the...

    (pp. 167-177)

    After thirty years of political seasoning in Ohio and Washington, John Bingham was ready to step onto the world stage. In June 1873, President Grant appointed (and the Senate confirmed) him as the first American minister plenipotentiary to Japan.¹ Over the next twelve years, Bingham served with distinction and took a firm anticolonial stance, arguing that Japan should be freed from one-sided foreign trade treaties that limited its sovereignty.² His time in Tokyo was also a happy one, as most of his family lived with him, and he was able to expand his cultural and aesthetic horizons. Back home, though,...

  15. 11 OBSCURITY
    (pp. 178-184)

    Retirement was not kind to John Bingham. He had the gift of robust health until he was past eighty, but ended up outliving his income.¹ Amanda passed away in 1891, and his two daughters feuded when they were not spending their father’s money.² During his final years, mental decay and poverty took such a toll that Congress was pressed to give him a special pension.³ Meanwhile, the Supreme Court kept on construing the Fourteenth Amendment in a manner contrary to his broad design, culminating inMaxwell v. Dow, a case decided while Bingham was on his deathbed, which rejected the...

  16. CONCLUSION: Legacy
    (pp. 185-188)

    Enoch Powell, a member of the House of Commons who advised Margaret Thatcher, once wrote that “[a]ll political lives, unless they are cut off in midstream at a happy juncture, end in failure, because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.”¹ Powell’s maxim can be applied to John Bingham’s political life as it appeared in 1900. The states were still free, with just one exception, to violate the Bill of Rights.² African Americans in the South lived in fear of lynchings and other horrors that made a mockery of his pledge that Section One of the Fourteenth...

  17. APPENDIX: The Reconstruction Amendments
    (pp. 189-190)
  18. NOTES
    (pp. 191-276)
    (pp. 277-284)
  20. INDEX
    (pp. 285-294)
    (pp. 295-295)