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Bingham, John A. (1815–1900)

BINGHAM, JOHN A. (1815–1900)

An Ohio attorney, John Armor Bingham was a congressman (1855–1863, 1865–1873), Army judge advocate (1864–1865), solicitor of the court of claims (1864–1865), and ambassador to Japan (1873–1885). After President abraham lincoln's assassination, President andrew johnson appointed Bingham as a special judge advocate (prosecutor) to the military commission trying the accused assassination conspirators. Bingham was particularly effective in answering defense objections during the trials and in justifying the constitutionality of trying the civilian defendants in military courts.

From 1865 to 1867 Bingham served on the joint committee on reconstruction. As a Republican moderate Bingham supported congressional reconstruction but demanded strict adherence to the Constitution and favored early readmission of the ex-Confederate states. He offered numerous amendments to moderate the civil rights act of 1866, and although these passed he still voted against the bill, because he believed Congress lacked the authority to protect freedmen in this manner. Bingham wanted very much to protect them, and during the debates over the civil rights bill he argued that a new constitutional amendment was the answer. Bingham believed that the results of the war—including the death of both slavery and state sovereignty, as well as the protection of civil liberties for blacks—could be secured only by an amendment that would nationalize the bill of rights. By working to apply the Fifth and first amendments to the states Bingham linked the antislavery arguments of the antebellum period to postbellum conditions.

In 1865 Bingham suggested an amendment that would empower Congress "to secure to all persons in every State of the Union equal protection in their rights, life, liberty, and property." Bingham believed the thirteenth amendment had not only freed blacks but also made them citizens. As citizens of the United States they were among "the People of the United States" referred to in the preamble to the Constitution and protected by the Fifth Amendment. However, Bingham was unsure whether the enforcement provision of the Thirteenth Amendment allowed Congress to guarantee and protect civil rights. Johnson's veto of the 1866 Civil Rights bill only increased Bingham's determination to place such protection beyond the reach of a presidential veto or repeal by a future Congress. Bingham therefore drafted what became section 1 of the fourteenth amendment, protecting the freedmen by explicitly making them citizens, prohibiting states from abridging their privileges and immunities as United States citizens, and guaranteeing all persons due process and equal protection of the law. In 1871 Bingham reaffirmed his belief that the amendment was designed to protect those privileges and immunities "chiefly defined in the first eight amendments to the Constitution of the United States." Thus, as Bingham saw it, the abolitionist constitutional theory of the antebellum period became part of the Constitution.

By 1867 Bingham was at least temporarily a Radical Republican. He supported thaddeus stevens's bill for military reconstruction after the ex-Confederate states refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment and after numerous outrages had been perpetrated against freedom. Initially opposed to impeachment, he was elected to the impeachment committee and was made chairman after threatening to resign unless given that position. Bingham vigorously pursued the prosecution of Johnson, and after it failed he attempted to investigate the seven Republican senators who voted against impeachment.

Bingham had initially opposed linking black suffrage to readmission to the Union, and opposed efforts by Stevens to create such a linkage. He argued that Congress lacked the constitutional authority to do this. But by 1870 he supported the fifteenth amendment and sought to extend the franchise even further, by prohibiting religious, property, or nationality limitations on the ballot. In 1871, with the three new amendments legitimizing congressional action, Bingham supported the three "force bills," which prohibited states and individuals from violating the newly acquired constitutional rights of the freedmen, gave the federal government supervisory powers over national elections, and made numerous acts federal crimes under the Ku Klux Klan Act. (See force acts.) Bingham, the careful constitutionalist and moderate Republican leader, defended these acts because they were a response to the terror being inflicted against blacks, and because they were now constitutional.

Paul Finkelman


Hyman, Harold M. and Wiecek, William M. 1982 Equal Justice under Law: Constitutional Development, 1835–1875. New York: Harper & Row.

Swift, Donald C. 1968 John A. Bingham and Reconstruction: The Dilemma of a Moderate. Ohio History 77:76–94.

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