John Bingham’s role in 14th Amendment still resonates today
CADIZ — Just outside the Harrison County Courthouse in Cadiz is a bronze statue of John Bingham standing high above the village square with his right arm outstretched and a quizzical look on his face.
The mid-19th century congressman is widely viewed as the father of birthright citizenship and due process after he authored the first section of the 14th Amendment that guarantees equal protection under the law to any person born in the United States.
“My impression is we don’t know exactly what he was thinking,” Scott Pendleton, president of Harrison County Historical Society, said. “I think we can safely say, with hindsight, that he had no idea how far-reaching (the impact of) what they were doing.”
Bingham, a staunch abolitionist, was the driver of the 14th Amendment that provided birthright citizenship as a vessel for people born into slavery to have equal rights as Americans after they were freed by the 13th Amendment a few years earlier. The 14th Amendment, which was officially adopted 151 years ago last week, also ensures due process protection for everyone in the American legal system.
But besides lawyers and historians, not many people know about Bingham or his incredible impact on what it means to be an American, and who can be one. It’s a topic that continues to inspire legal debates and discussions, especially with the issues swirling today around immigration.
“Guys like me, it’s fascinating and amazing because I love history. But the general public might pass by and wonder who that statue is by the courthouse,” Pendleton said of the bronze likeness of Bingham at Main and Market streets that can be seen from the historical society’s front window. “But it wasn’t a one-time event. It’s very important, still affecting our country today. Like a lot of history, it’s just there.”
Bingham was born in 1815 and attended Franklin College in New Athens a few miles from his hometown of Cadiz. The Rev. John Walker, a Presbyterian minister and an abolitionist, founded the school, making it a perfect location for Bingham to study, where he graduated in the early 1840s.
“He was basically born an abolitionist,” Pendleton said of Bingham. “He cared very much for African-Americans and their citizenship. I don’t think you can understand Bingham without John Walker. He’s the embodiment of the (secessionist movement).”
Bingham was elected to Congress in 1856 and represented the district that included Carroll, Columbiana, Harrison and Jefferson counties. He lost re-election in 1862 after redistricting, but regained his Congressional seat two years later and also served as a military prosecutor appointed by President Abraham Lincoln. That position would prove historic when he prosecuted some of the Lincoln assassination conspirators the following year.
With the 13th Amendment ratified, Congress looked to codify who was an American citizen and what rights they could expect.
Bingham passionately advocated for the amendment in 1866, writing most of the first section. It passed both chambers of Congress before moving to the states for ratification and was officially adopted July 28, 1868.
“It was an elegant solution to an inelegant problem,” Pendleton said. “How do these people become citizens and have the right to vote? There’s before the 14th amendment and after – socially and politically.”
And the amendment still resonates “socially and politically” today. Some politicians, including President Donald Trump, routinely criticize birthright citizenship while discussing immigration.
Just last week, an 18-year-old Dallas man was released from a 23-day detention at a U.S. Customs and Border Protection immigration center. Francisco Erwin Galicia said he provided his birth certificate, driver’s license and a Social Security card showing he was born in the United States and is a citizen, but was still hauled away by border patrol agents during a June 27 traffic stop in Texas.
“It says a lot of things,” Pendleton said of the continued debate over the amendment. “First of all, we repeat history. I think it’s also true that we still have not settled these questions, whether it’s citizenship or due process. We’re still a work in progress, and that’s what a constitutional democracy is. It shows we’re still struggling to get it right, whatever right may be.”
But as much as modern-day Americans may be struggling with the citizenship issue of the day, Bingham wouldn’t be one of them, Pendleton said.
“He was pretty dogmatic and inflexible as a personality,” he said. “I think he would be scratching his head today.”
Bingham left office in 1873 after losing a primary election, but soon was appointed to serve as the American ambassador to Japan for the next 12 years. He retired from public service in 1885 and spent the remaining years of his life in Cadiz, where he died in 1900 at age 85.
Pendleton said Bingham’s legacy lives on in the years since the 14th Amendment’s ratification, even if his name isn’t as well known.
“He affects our lives every day, either through birthright citizenship, but more importantly, through due process,” Pendleton said. “He’s one of those people who has been lost to history, even though that 14th Amendment is in our lives every day.”