John Bingham was an important writer of the 14th Amendment and a key player in two important post-Civil War trials. Gerard N. Magliocca’s new book examines a forgotten but remarkable statesman.
Magliocca joined National Constitution Center CEO Jeffrey Rosen in Philadelphia on October, 2013, to discuss Bingham, his importance in the 1860s, and his relevance today, at a lunchtime public event.
Magliocca’s new book, American Founding Son, provides the most complete portrait yet of Bingham. It draws on his personal letters and speeches, and traces Bingham’s life from his humble roots in Pennsylvania and Ohio through his career as a leader of the Republican Party in the 1860s.
Bingham was a leading antislavery lawyer and congressman from Ohio. He wrote what many consider the most important part of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, the Equal Protection Clause that guarantees fundamental rights and equality to all Americans.
He was also involved in two of the biggest trials in history. Bingham gave the closing argument in the prosecution of John Wilkes Booth’s co-conspirators for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and he also a prosecutor in the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson in 1868.
And more than any other man, Bingham played the key role in shaping the Union’s policy towards the occupied ex-Confederate States, with consequences that still haunt our politics.
Magliocca said that Bingham was the most important constitutional philosopher after Lincoln because of his role in writing the Equal Protection Clause.
“He was trying to guarantee fundamental rights to all Americans, black and white. He liked to say in the years leading up to the Civil War when he was a member of Congress that the word ‘white’ was not in the Constitution,” Magliocca said.
“Bingham’s view was that the entire Bill of Rights should apply to all Americans against the actions of the federal government and state governments,” he said, pointing out that in Bingham’s time, some states could censor speech legally.
But as a member of impeachment team against President Johnson, Bingham had some views that are startling today.
For example, Magliocca said that Bingham considered getting rid of the Supreme Court if it opposed the 14th Amendment, like President Johnson had done in office.
“He talked about ‘wiping them out,’ although he never made clear what that meant,” Magliocca said.
Bingham also opposed the Dred Scott decision and certain Court actions against Lincoln.
To hear more fascinating stories about Bingham, including his friendship with and patronage of George Armstrong Custer, and how Bingham would deal with situations today like the tribunals at Guantanamo Bay, watch the full video of the event here.
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