An influential congressman from Ohio during the American Civil War and Reconstruction eras, John Bingham drafted the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution.
John Armor Bingham was born in Mercer, Pennsylvania, on January 21, 1815. He was the son of Hugh Bingham and Ester Bailey. Hugh Bingham was a prosperous artisan and craftsman, who also served on the local city council and the county board of commissioners. John Bingham’s mother died when he was twelve years old, and for unknown reasons, the boy moved to Cadiz, Ohio to live with his uncle, Thomas Bingham. Later, young Bingham served as a printer’s apprentice for the Luminary, an Anti-Masonic newspaper in Mercer. Upon completion of his apprenticeship, Bingham attended Mercer Academy and then Franklin College in New Athens, Ohio.
Attorney at Law
After college, Bingham returned to Mercer and studied law under two prominent Pennsylvania lawyers, John J. Pierson and William Stuart. Bingham the Ohio bar on October 14, 1841, and then returned to Cadiz, where he opened a law practice.
In 1844, Bingham married his first cousin, Amanda Bingham, Thomas Bingham’s daughter. Their marriage lasted forty-seven years until Mrs. Bingham’s death in 1891. The marriage produced three children.
While living in Cadiz, Bingham became active in politics as a member of the Whig Party. He gained some local notoriety campaigning for presidential candidate William Henry Harrison in 1840. In 1846, Tuscarawas County voters elected Bingham to the office of prosecuting attorney, a position he held until 1849. Five years later, voters from Ohio’s Twenty-first Congressional District elected Bingham to the United States House of Representatives. Reelected to three more successive terms, Bingham served in the Thirty-fourth through the Thirty-seventh Congresses from March 1857 to March 1863. During his early years in Congress, Bingham consistently supported anti-slavery legislation. After the American Civil War began, he staunchly defended the Union cause and drifted toward the more radical element of the Republican Party.
In 1862, Ohio lost two seats in the House of Representatives as a result of the Seventh Congressional Reapportionment based on the 1860 national census. Because the Twenty-first District was eliminated, Bingham ran for election to the Thirty-eighth Congress from the Sixteenth District. Bolstered by the surging peace movement in Ohio, Democratic candidate Joseph W. White defeated Bingham in his bid to return to Congress in 1862.
After leaving Congress, President Abraham Lincoln appointed Bingham as a major in the Union Army, where the Ohioan served briefly as a judge advocate. Later that year, Bingham defeated incumbent Democratic Representative Joseph W. White in the fall Congressional elections. Bingham subsequently represented Ohio’s Sixteenth Congressional District in the Fortieth through Forty-second Congresses from March 1865 to March 1873.
Shortly after the beginning of Bingham’s second tenure in Congress began, John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln. Secretary of War Edwin Stanton appointed Bingham to serve on the government’s three-person team that prosecuted Booth’s co-conspirators during their trial before a military tribunal. Bingham served in that capacity from early May through late June when the trial concluded.
During Bingham’s second tenure in Congress, he generally aligned himself with moderate radicals over issues regarding Reconstruction. He staunchly supported the supremacy of Congress in establishing Reconstruction policy, but unlike radicals in his party, Bingham desired re-establishing the Union as quickly as possible. His Reconstruction goals did not include oppressing the South.
In December 1865, the Republican leaders selected Bingham as one of nine congressmen to represent the House on the influential Joint Committee on Reconstruction. In that capacity, on Friday, January 12, 1866, Bingham introduced a proposal that the United States Constitution be amended to establish that “The Congress shall have the power to make all laws necessary and proper to secure to all persons in every state within this Union equal protection in their rights of life, liberty and property.” Bingham’s proposal subsequently became the basis for the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, which was approved by Congress in June 1866 and ratified by the states in July 1868.
Bingham and other moderates viewed ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment as the key requirement for readmitting former Confederate states to Congress. Despite embracing the extension of civil rights for former slaves, moderates like Bingham did not necessarily support federal legislation guaranteeing voting rights for blacks. The enfranchisement of blacks was highly controversial among Bingham’s constituents back in Ohio, where blacks were still not allowed to vote. As a result, Bingham voted against early efforts to make black enfranchisement a condition for the restoration of home rule in the South. Later events, such as Southern resistance to the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment, coupled with increased violence towards blacks, convinced moderates to endorse the radical agenda of implementing military rule in the South and enacting federal legislation to prohibit racial discrimination at the polls.
President Johnson’s Impeachment
As Bingham migrated toward the adoption of Radical Reconstruction measures, his support for President Andrew Johnson diminished. Bingham opposed early efforts to impeach the President, but in 1868, he changed his position after Johnson violated the Tenure of Office Act. On February 24, 1868, Bingham voted with the majority of Republicans in the House of Representatives to impeach the President. On the same day, House members selected Bingham to serve on a committee of seven to draft formal impeachment charges against the President. The committee prepared eleven articles of impeachment, and on March 2, 1868, Bingham voted with the majority to indict Johnson on all counts. On the same day, House members selected Bingham as one of seven “managers to conduct the impeachment against Andrew Johnson, President of the United States, on the part of the House.” Bingham chaired the committee of managers and presented the prosecution’s closing, three-day summation in Johnson’s trial before the Senate.
After his participation in the impeachment proceedings, Bingham served in the House for another four years. During those years, he continued to support Congressional Reconstruction measures, including the Fifteenth Amendment, which was approved by Congress in February 1869 and ratified by the states in March 1870.
Loss of Congressional Seat
As the 1872 national elections approached, the Republican Party split into two factions. Conservative members supported President Ulysses S. Grant and the continuation of military Reconstruction. Members of the newly-formed Liberal Republican Party were critical of Grant and supported the end of military occupation of the South. In Ohio, Bingham received neither the support nor the nomination of either faction. In the November election, Republican candidate Lorenzo Danford unseated Bingham in his bid to continue to represent Ohio’s Sixteenth District in Congress.
United States Minister to Japan
Following Bingham’s election defeat, President Grant then appointed him as United States Minister to Japan. Bingham served overseas from May 31, 1873, until July 2, 1885, when he was recalled by newly-elected Democratic President Grover Cleveland.
Retirement and Death
Bingham returned to Cadiz and continued to speak out for equal rights in the face of Jim Crow Laws enacted in the South to circumvent the intent of the Reconstruction Amendments. When Bingham’s health began to fail in 1898, Congress granted him a pension for his military service during the Civil War. Bingham lived two more years and died in Cadiz on March 19, 1900. Bingham was interred in Union Cemetery in Cadiz. In 1901, the citizens of Harrison County, Ohio erected a bronze statue honoring Bingham in Cadiz.