John Bingham and the Color-Blind Principle

I noted in a prior post that John Bingham was not satisfied with the final version of the Fifteenth Amendment, even though he did end up voting for it.  He supported broader federal constitutional protection for suffrage, which he framed as:

“The right of citizens of the United States to vote and hold office shall not be denied or abridged by any State on account of race, color, nativity, property, creed, or previous condition of servitude.”

More interesting is Bingham’s explanation for his unhappiness with the Fifteenth Amendment as proposed by the Senate, which became the final version:

“[E]quality of the law is the very rock of American institutions, and the reason why I desire to amend this proposition of the Senate is that as it stands it sweeps away that rock of defense by providing only against State usurpation in favor of colored citizens, to the neglect of equal protection of white citizens.  While colored citizens are equal in rights with every other class of citizens in America, I am unwilling to set them above every other class of citizens by amending the Constitution exclusively in their interest.  The import of my amendment is to protect all classes alike, and I ask a vote upon it.”

What makes this interesting is that it is the closest Bingham ever came to endorsing what we would now call a color-blind equality principle as opposed to a remedial one. Now note that this interpretation can be challenged on at least two grounds.  First, he was talking about the Fifteenth Amendment rather than the Fourteenth.  Second, he was talking about the Article Five process and not about interpretation.

The search goes on . . .

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2 Responses

  1. Brett Bellmore says:

    The first point seems relevant, but the second? Who proposes an amendment in the spirit that they want it adopted with one meaning in mind, but have no interest in how it’s interpreted?

    We’re all originalists when we’re writing amendments…

  2. Gerard Magliocca says:

    Well, what I meant was that he ultimately voted for the version that he opposed, which muddies the water. Perhaps he changed his mind, for example.