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Another Perspective

A Forgotten American Hero

John Armor Bingham (1815-1900) is one of those historical figures who dedicated his life to making living conditions better for all people, succeeded, and then was forgotten. I wish I was related to him, perhaps named after him, but I’m not.

Yale constitutional law professor Akhil Reed Amar wrote of Bingham:
Even as Madison is often labeled the ‘Father of the Constitution’
and recognized as the primary author of the Bill of Rights, most
Americans ignore the Second Founder who most worked to realize the
universal promise of Madison’s Bill and Jefferson’s Declaration.

John Bingham was the author of the Fourteen Amendment to the American Constitution.
In 1865 he wrote:
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 any person within its jurisdiction
the equal protection of the laws.

This sentence became the legal basis for the Supreme Court’s decisions to desegregate public schools, secure legal equality for women, and create the right to sexual privacy. Both The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and Ruth Bader Ginsburg used Bingham’s words to change established law and life.

Bingham was born in Pennsylvania and grew up in Ohio. He was an abolitionist who regarded slavery as “an infernal atrocity.” After receiving his law degree, he became active in the Whig Party. At the 1848 national convention, Bingham introduced a plank to the Whig platform that committed their candidates to resisting the extension of slavery into the territories.

After the Whig party imploded, Bingham became a Republican. He was elected to Congress in 1854 and repeatedly spoke out against slavery using the Fifth Amendment’s Due Process Clause. He argued no person should be deprived of liberty without first being given the legal processes a person accused of a crime receives. After all, the Constitution protects “each human being within its jurisdiction in the free and full enjoyment of his natural rights.” Since the Constitution refers to slaves as persons, “the equal protection of each” is a “principle of our Constitution.” Bingham noted the Constitution doesn’t contain the word ‘white’ and its “omission wasn’t accidental, but intentional.” After all, “Black men helped make the Constitution, as well as achieve the independence of the country by the terrible trial of battle.”

In 1862 the Civil War wasn’t going well for the Union. Bingham, being a strong supporter of Lincoln, lost his seat in Congress. However, he was elected again following the war and was one of three military prosecutors of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators. He gave the closing argument in one of the trials of the century.

In 1865 Bingham was appointed to the Joint Committee charged with setting the conditions for the South’s return to the Union. It was at this time he crafted the words to the Fourteenth Amendment. The Amendment was needed, he argued, so officials of States that conspired together to enact laws that refused equal protection to life, liberty, or property could be held accountable for their transgressions in national courts.

When the Confederate States refused to ratify the Fourteenth Amendment, Bingham devised a plan that ordered the Union Army to organize new elections across the South that included Blacks. Speaking on the floor of the House, he warned his colleagues that “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 oath, they will defy your restricted legislative power when reconstructed.”

This, of course, is exactly what happened.

After Bingham left Congress, President Grant appointed him the Ambassador to Japan, a post he filled for twelve years. He spent the remaining years of his life in Ohio.

In the struggle for equal rights, John A. Bingham is an American hero that we should celebrate, not forget.
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