John Bingham


After I finish my book on Populist and Progressive era constitutionalism, my next book will be a biography of John Bingham (1815-1900), the principal drafter of Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment. It’s a bit daunting, as I’ve never written a biography before and much of the relevant material is scattered around the country. Nevertheless, given his importance (Hugo Black called Bingham the “James Madison of the Fourteenth Amendment”), he really deserves a full-fledged biography (not to mention an HBO miniseries, if anyone wants to buy the rights from me). There was one written by Erving Beauregard about twenty years ago, but it is pretty obscure and was based on an inaccurate view of Bingham’s role that dates back to Charles Fairman’s flawed scholarship in the 1940s.

To give you some highlights, Bingham was an abolitionist member of Congress from 1855-73 (with a gap between 1863-65). He was also one of the three JAG prosecutors in the military trial of Lincoln’s assassins (Bingham is on the left in the picture). And he served as one of the impeachment managers during Andrew Johnson’s trial before closing his career as Ambassador to Japan from 1873-85. But his main claim to fame comes from his work on Reconstruction and on the Fourteenth Amendment, as he was at the center of almost every major debate during that time.

The lack of a serious Bingham biography is part of an odd dichotomy in our historiography. The Civil War is the most popular topic in American history — far more so than the Revolutionary War. (Go look in any bookstore). Yet the Founding Fathers get a lot more attention than the leaders of Reconstruction — books about Thaddeus Stevens, Charles Sumner, or Lyman Trumbull are rare compared to what you see about Hamilton, Jefferson, or Madison. Why is that?

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9 Responses

  1. Ben says:

    There was a large segment of the country that for 100 years did not want to talk about the statesmen of the civil war and reconstruction era. That would be my guess at least.

    Easier to write about Grant as a general without talking too much about slavery. Downright preferable to talk about Lee without engaging with slavery. But Stevens and Sumner, how could you write about them without dealing with slavery.

  2. Bruce Boyden says:

    I think Ben is right up until about the 1960s. But I think since then, there’s a different reason why Bingham et al. aren’t celebrated: the 14th Amendment and Reconstruction are now seen as massive missed opportunities — failures, in other words, at least for the first 100 years. It’d be like celebrating the Articles of Confederation.

  3. Jake says:

    Look forward very much to your Bingham biography, as I’ve always desired to learn more about the man.

  4. Brett Bellmore says:

    They also can’t be celebrated because they’re pretty unambiguous about the 14th amendment intending to protect at least one right a large portion of the legal community really wishes didn’t exist, and so can’t acknowledge any evidence of. This makes them problematic to deal with.

  5. A.W. says:


    What right to you mean?

    btw, if you are wondering why these men look very grim, you have to understand that this was a time i jokingly refer to as “before smiles were invented.” That is flippant and misleading, but the real problem was that cameras back then had to be held open for something like a minute and half to get the picture. so if you moved, it looked really bad, with a very blurred effect. Thus, you didn’t smile, because you would have to maintain it for a full minute and a half.

  6. A.W. says:

    Btw, there have been five biographies of stevens that i know of. Woodley wrote one that was positive. Richard Current wrote frankly a hatchet job on him, basically saying he was evil. Ralph Korngold wrote a wonderful biography that does a good, but factual job defending stevens, and telling a few unconfortable (to confederates) truths about that era. Fawn Brodie wrote one pschoanalyzing him and there was one more in 1997 or so that was so forgettable, that i can’t even recall the author.

    so why some interest in stevens and not bingham? I would say because Stevens was much more of a lightning rod, in part because he was handicapped, so thus stereotyped as sort of a “bitter cripple.” indeed, some people used to believe his handicap was a sign he was descended from the Devil himself. Silly, yes, but a real and prevalent attitude. So some hated him unfairly. And others, recognizing this injustice, felt a unique desire to defend him. Woodley’s book, for instance, makes in very oblique terms the accusation that Stevens faced discrimination because of his disability, and frankly some of these events are much easier to understand if prejudice was in play. For instance, when he went to join the York County bar, they changed the rules specifically to exclude him, which is naturally suspicious.


  7. Stuart Buck says:

    Awesome. I’ve always wondered why there wasn’t a good biography of Bingham, when there’s certainly no shortage of material on 1) other constitutional framers, not to mention 2) Lincoln.

  8. Dredge Slug says:

    Was Bingham by any chance a Mason?

  9. Ken Burns says:

    Dredge, no, no, but he was a lizard person. *rolls eyes*