John Bingham

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John Armor Bingham
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 21st district
In office
March 4, 1855 – March 4, 1863
Preceded by Andrew Stuart
Succeeded by Martin A. Foran
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Ohio's 16th district
In office
March 4, 1865 – March 4, 1873
Preceded by Joseph Worthington White
Succeeded by Lorenzo Danford
7th United States Ambassador to Japan
In office
October 7, 1873 – July 2, 1885
President Ulysses Grant
Preceded by Charles E. DeLong
Succeeded by Richard B. Hubbard
Personal details
Born (1815-01-21)January 21, 1815
Mercer, Pennsylvania, U.S.
Died Script error: The function "death_date_and_age" does not exist.
Cadiz, Ohio, U.S.
Spouse(s) Amanda Bingham
Profession Politician, lawyer, judge

John Armor Bingham (January 21, 1815 – March 19, 1900) was an American Republican congressman from the U.S. state of Ohio, judge advocate in the trial of the Abraham Lincoln assassination and a prosecutor in the impeachment trials of Andrew Johnson. He is also the principal framer of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

Early and family life

Born in Mercer County, Pennsylvania, where his carpenter and bricklayer father Hugh had moved after service in the War of 1812, Bingham attended local public schools. After his mother's death in 1827, his father remarried. John moved west to Ohio to live with his merchant uncle Thomas after clashing with his new stepmother. The teenager apprenticed as a printer for two years, helping to publish the Luminary, an anti-Masonic newspaper.[1] He then returned to Pennsylvania to study at Mercer College, after which Bingham studied law at Franklin College in New Athens, Harrison County, Ohio. There, Bingham befriended former slave Titus Basfield, who became the first African American to graduate college in Ohio, and with whom he continued to correspond for many years.[2]

Both Hugh and Thomas Bingham were long time abolitionists, as well as active in local politics. They initially allied with the Anti-Masonic party, led by Pennsylvania Governor Joseph Ritner and speaker of the Pennsylvania assembly Thaddeus Stevens. Hugh became clerk of the Mercer County court, and later a perennial Whig candidate in the county, known for opposing war with Mexico.[3] Rev. John Walker, of the Associated Reform Congregational Church, ran Franklin College and was a prominent abolitionist in Ohio,[4] as well as mentor to Titus Basfield, who after further studies became a Presbyterian minister. Another of John Bingham's longtime and childhood friends was Matthew Simpson, who later became a bishop in the Methodist Episcopal Church, urged President Lincoln to issue the Emancipation Proclamation and ultimately delivered funeral orations for the assassinated President at the White House and his interment at Springfield, Illinois.

Bingham married his uncle Thomas' daughter, Amanda Bailey Bingham, in 1844. During 41 years of marriage, they raised three daughters, two of whom survived their parents, although one died in Japan.

Early legal career

After graduation, Bingham returned to Mercer, Pennsylvania to read law with John J. Pearson and William Stewart, and was admitted to the Pennsylvania bar on March 25, 1840 and the Ohio bar by year's end. Bingham then returned to Cadiz, Ohio to began his legal and political career. An active Whig, Bingham campaigned for President William Henry Harrison. His uncle Thomas Bingham, a prominent Presbyterian in the area, had served as associate judge in the Harrison County Court of Common Pleas from 1825-1839. The young lawyer's practice extended to Tuscarawas County, Ohio, and its seat, New Philadelphia, Ohio. In 1846, Bingham won his first election, as district attorney for Tuscarawas County, serving from 1846 to 1849.[5]

Congressional Career

Bingham's political activity continued despite the Whig party's decline. Campaigning as candidate of the Opposition Party, he won election to the Thirty-fourth Congress, representing the 21st Congressional District. In Washington, D.C., he roomed at the same boarding house as fellow Ohio representative Joshua Giddings, who was a prominent abolitionist and whom Bingham admired.[6] Voters reelected Bingham to the Thirty-fifth, Thirty-sixth and Thirty-seventh Congresses as a Republican. However, that district was one of two Ohio districts eliminated in the redistricting following the census of 1860. Bingham thus ran for reelection from what became the 16th District. Known for his abolitionist views, he lost to Democratic peace candidate Joseph W. White, and thus failed to return for the Thirty-eighth Congress, in part because Union soldiers (mostly-Republican leaning), who were away from home fighting in the war, were not allowed to vote by mail in Ohio at the time. Nonetheless, the House of Representatives appointed him as one of the managers of impeachment proceedings against West H. Humphreys.

During the Civil War, Bingham strongly supported the Union and became known as a Radical Republican. President Abraham Lincoln appointed him Judge Advocate of the Union Army with the rank of major during his hiatus from Congress, and Bingham briefly became solicitor of the United States Court of Claims in 1865.

Bingham defeated White in the next congressional election (Ohio had changed its law and now allowed soldiers away from home to vote by mail), thus returning to serve in the Thirty-ninth Congress, which first met on March 4, 1865.

John Bingham (left) along with Joseph Holt (center) and Henry Burnett (right) were the three prosecutors in charge of the Lincoln assassination trial.

Lincoln assassination

The following month Washington fell into chaos as John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Abraham Lincoln and Booth's co-conspirator Lewis Powell came near to assassinating Secretary of State William H. Seward on the night of April 14, 1865. Booth died on April 26, 1865 from a gunshot wound. When the trials for the conspirators involved in the Lincoln assassination were ready to start, Bingham's old friend from Cadiz, Edwin Stanton, appointed him to serve as Assistant Judge Advocate General along with General Henry Burnett, another Assistant Judge Advocate General, and Joseph Holt, the Judge Advocate General. The accused conspirators were George Atzerodt, David Herold, Lewis Powell (Paine), Samuel Arnold, Michael O'Laughlen, Edman Spangler, Samuel Mudd and Mary Surratt. The trial began on May 10, 1865. The three prosecutors spent nearly two months in court, awaiting the jury's verdict. Bingham and Holt attempted to obscure the fact that there were two plots.[citation needed] The first plot was to kidnap the president and hold him hostage in exchange for the Confederate prisoners held by the Union. The second was to assassinate the president, Vice President Andrew Johnson and Secretary of State William H. Seward and thereby throw the government into electoral chaos. The prosecution did not reveal the existence of a diary taken from Booth's body which made clear that the assassination plan dated from 14 April. The defense surprisingly did not call for Booth's diary to be produced in court.

On June 29, 1865, the eight were found guilty for their involvement in the conspiracy to kill the President. Spangler was sentenced to six years in prison; Arnold, O'Laughlen and Mudd were sentenced to life in prison; and Atzerodt, Herold, Paine and Surratt were sentenced to hang. They were executed July 7, 1865. Surratt was the first woman in American history to be executed. O'Laughlen died in prison in 1867. Arnold, Spangler and Mudd were pardoned by President Andrew Johnson in early 1869.

14th Amendment

In 1866, during the Thirty-ninth Congress, Bingham was appointed to a subcommittee of the Joint Committee on Reconstruction tasked with considering suffrage proposals. As a member of the subcommittee, Bingham submitted several versions of an amendment to the U.S. Constitution which would serve to apply the Bill of Rights to the States. His final submission, which was accepted by the Committee on April 28, 1866, read "No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Committee recommended that the language become Section 1 of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. The Amendment was introduced in the spring of 1866, passing both houses by June 1866.[7]

In the closing debate in the House, Bingham stated,

John A. Bingham and Thaddeus Stevens before the Senate addressing the vote on President Andrew Johnson's impeachment by the House of Representatives.

"[M]any instances of State injustice and oppression have already occurred in the State legislation of this Union, of flagrant violations of the guarantied privileges of citizens of the United States, for which the national Government furnished and could furnish by law no remedy whatever. Contrary to the express letter of your Constitution, 'cruel and unusual punishments' have been inflicted under State laws within this Union upon citizens, not only for crimes committed, but for sacred duty done, for which and against which the Government of the United States had provided no remedy and could provide none.

It was an opprobrium to the Republic that for fidelity to the United States they could not by national law be protected against the degrading punishment inflicted on slaves and felons by State law. That great want of the citizen and stranger, protection by national law from unconstitutional State enactments, is supplied by the first section of this amendment."[8]

Except for the addition of the first sentence of Section 1, which defined citizenship, the amendment weathered the Senate debate without substantial change. The 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868.

Despite Bingham's likely intention that the 14th Amendment apply the first eight Amendments of the Bill of Rights to the States, the U.S. Supreme Court subsequently declined to interpret it that way in the Slaughter-House Cases and United States v. Cruikshank. In the 1947 case of Adamson v. California, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black argued in his dissent that the framers' intent should control the Court's interpretation of the 14th Amendment, and he attached a lengthy appendix that quoted extensively from Bingham's congressional testimony.[9] Though the Adamson Court declined to adopt Black's interpretation, the Court during the following twenty-five years employed a doctrine of selective incorporation that succeeded in extending to the States almost of all of the protections in the Bill of Rights, as well as other, unenumerated rights. The Court, in the case of McDonald v. Chicago, decided that the Second Amendment incorporates to the states. Along with asking for selective incorporation, the petitioners are asking the Court to overturn the Slaughter-House Cases and apply total incorporation.

Ohio ratified the 14th Amendment on January 4, 1867, but Bingham continued to explain its extension of citizenship during the fall election season.[10] Over the next nearly century and a half, the 14th Amendment has vastly expanded civil rights protections and has come to be cited in more litigation than any other amendment to the U.S. Constitution.[11]

Post Civil War

Bingham continued his career as a congressman, winning reelection to the Fortieth, Forty-first and Forty-second Congresses. He served as Chairman of the Committee on Claims from 1867 to 1869 and a member of the Committee on the Judiciary from 1869 to 1873.

In 1868 Bingham was one of the House managers in the impeachment trial of President Andrew Johnson. Bingham was also implicated in the Credit Mobilier scandal and in 1872, he lost his bid for reelection. Three local Republican political bosses made a deal to cut out Bingham, instead selecting Lorenzo Danford as the party's candidate. Thus, Danford came to represent the 16th district in the Forty-third Congress, and was reelected several times, but with a hiatus.


President Ulysses Grant then appointed his ally Bingham as United States Minister to Japan, which involved a salary increase but also economic responsibilities with respect to the small embassy. Initially, Bingham tried to switch ambassadorships with John Watson Foster of Indiana, whom Grant had appointed ambassador to Mexico, but Foster declined. Bingham thus sailed with his wife and two of his three daughters to Japan.[12] Bingham ultimately served longer than any other U.S. Ambassador to that nation, for more than twelve years and under four Republican presidents, from May 31, 1873 to July 2, 1885 when his successor appointed by newly elected Democratic President Grover Cleveland arrived. (The next-longest serving American ambassador to Japan would prove to be former Speaker of the House Michael Mansfield, who served for ten years a century later]). Bingham initially moved the embassy from an unsuitable location and replaced a problematic interpreter with a Presbyterian missionary from Ohio, then mastered the art of consulting with his superiors in the State Department and trimmed the imperialistic ambitions of fellow Union veteran Charles Le Gendre.[13] Bingham came to greatly respect Japanese culture, although he also expressed his fear that Japan's military culture would hurt the country's development, which decades later seemed prescient.[14][15]

Bingham most distinguished himself from other Western diplomats by fighting against the unequal treaties imposed upon Japan by Great Britain, particularly provisions for extraterritoriality and tariff control by Westerners.[16] Initially, Bingham supported Japan's right to restrict hunting by foreigners to certain times and places, and later its right to regulate incoming ships via quarantines to restrict the spread of cholera. Bingham later negotiated return of the Shimonoseki indemnity in 1877, as well as a revision of Japan's treaty with the United States in 1879, which restored some tariff autonomy to Japan, conditioned upon other treaties with westerners.[17]

Death and Legacy

Bingham died in Cadiz, Ohio on March 19, 1900, nine years after his wife Amanda. He was interred next to her in the Old Cadiz (Union) Cemetery in Cadiz.[18] In 1901, Harrison County erected a bronze statue honoring Bingham in Cadiz.[19]


  2. Erving T. Beauregard, Ohio's First Black College Graduate, available at
  3. Richard L. Aynes, The Continuing Importance of Congressman John A. Bingham and the Fourteenth Amendment, at pp. 592-593, available at
  6. Aynes, p. 600
  7. Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 103-104 (1947)
  8. Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 107 (1947)
  9. Adamson v. California, 332 U.S. 46, 92-118 (1947)
  10. Aynes p. 615
  11. "Primary Documents in American History", Library of Congress
  12. Leonard Hammersmith, Spoilsmen in a "flowery Fairyland": The Development of the U.S. Legation in Japan (Kent State University Press) p. 108
  13. Hammersmith pp. 112-113
  14. Hammersmith p. 117 et seq.
  16. Philip Dare, John A. Bingham and Treaty Revision with Japan 1871-1885(University of Kentucky PhD thesis 1975)
  17. Erving E. Beauregard, John A. Bingham, First American Minister Plenipotentiary To Japan (1873-1885) Journal of Asian History Vol. 22, No. 2 (1988), pp. 101-130
  19. "John Armor Bingham," Ohio Civil War Central, 2015, Ohio Civil War Central. 23 Jan 2015 <>

Further reading

  • Gerard N. Magliocca, American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment. New York: New York University Press, 2013.

External links

Media related to John Bingham at Wikimedia Commons