John Bingham and Thomas Jefferson
In 1871, John Bingham gave an address on the House floor in support of the Ku Klux Klan Act that offered a detailed explanation of his view that Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment extended the Bill of Rights to the States. At one point, Bingham declared: “Jefferson well said of the first eight articles of amendments to the Constitution of the United States, they constitute the American Bill of Rights.”
Here’s the problem: I cannot find any evidence that Jefferson said this. He was an advocate of a bill of rights after the Constitutional Convention, and many of the subjects that he wanted addressed were covered by the first set of amendments. As far as I can tell, though, he never said that the first eight were a bill of rights.
What was going on? Maybe Jefferson did say this and I can’t find the quote. Maybe Bingham thought Jefferson said this but was mistaken. Or maybe Bingham just made this up. In any event, what I find fascinating about this is that many people today believe that Jefferson must have said something like this. Why do they think that? Partly because of the importance that we attach to the Bill of Rights. It also may be that we think Jefferson said this because John Bingham told us so. In so doing, though, Bingham was changing the Constitution’s meaning.