Happy Birthday John Bingham!
Today is the 201st anniversary of John Bingham’s birth. This is an excellent time to announce that my biography of him is coming out in paperback and is now available for pre-order.
I’ve reflected further on Bingham’s life since writing the book and wanted to share my thoughts. The book concentrated on explaining the development of Bingham’s thinking to help those seeking to understand Section One of the Fourteenth Amendment. I also wanted to show that Bingham was the central figure in shaping America’s policy during Reconstruction, in contrast to the orthodox view that Thaddeus Stevens was the dominant figure.
I think, though, I did not fully capture how innovative Bingham was. Part of the problem with his Reconstruction policy was that it was far ahead of its time. He emphasized individual rights (including the incorporation of what he called the Bill of Rights), voting rights, and the power of textual limitations on racism. These things eventually came to pass, but not in his era. When we say that a scientist, an artist, or an author is ahead of her time, that is a compliment. For a politician, it’s a criticism. Bingham was unable to see that Stevens was right in focusing attention on addressing economic inequality in the South. Perhaps that strategy could not have succeeded, but then again Bingham’s also did not in his time.
In this presidential election cycle filled with many dispiriting statements, I want to repeat a quote from Bingham that closed the book and best expresses his creed:
When the vital principle of our government, the equality of the human race, shall be fully realized, when every fetter within our borders shall be broken, where the holy Temple of Freedom, the foundations of which our fathers laid amidst prayers, and sacrifices, and battles and tears, shall be complete, lifting its head-stone of beauty above the towers of watch and war, then conscious of duty performed, and a noble mission fulfilled, we may call to the down-trodden and oppressed of all lands–come.