John Bingham and Martin Luther King

I’m beginning the final set of edits on the Bingham biography–publication is scheduled for August–and I’ve noticed a fascinating connection between the author of the Equal Protection Clause and the man who gave it life a century later.  I’m going to try to do something with this fact in my revisions.

In 1856, Bingham gave a widely publicized antislavery speech in New York.  He argued there that the Founders intended that slavery “should die, as they had found out the great truth that a lie cannot live forever.”  Indeed, Bingham often used this line about “a lie cannot live forever” to attack slavery.  At first I thought that this was a Biblical reference, but it actually comes from the Scottish writer/philosopher Thomas Carlyle.

Why is this interesting?  Because Martin Luther King Jr. famously used this phrase to describe racism in his speech at Selma in 1965.  He said “[n]o lie can live forever,” but he was also quoting Carlyle.  I don’t think, though I’m not sure, that this was a common refrain in rhetoric.  It may just be a curious coincidence that these two great civil rights leaders happened to latch on to the same phrase.  Can anyone shed any light on this?

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1 Response

  1. Shag from Brookline says:

    “In 1856, Bingham … argued there that the Founders intended that slavery ‘should die, as they had found out the great truth that a lie cannot live forever.’”

    But just how did the Founders think slavery should die? The words “slavery,” “slave,” “slavemaster,” and the like did not appear in the original Constitution. The limit on importation can be construed as an economic protection of slavery as more and more were born in America rather than a clear intent that slavery should end (die). Clearly, the Founders’ intent fell on deaf ears in the slave states. How might originalism address this claim? It seems that the Founders’ foundation was a lie, a great lie that tainted the entire Constitution. Should the Founders be exonerated for the failure of others to recognize “the great truth”? Founders’ intent is not very strong as evidenced by originalism’s departure from it.

    Martin Luther King, Jr. can be linked to many from the past, including John Brown. Bingham may have been one of many.