John Bingham and the Story of American Liberty: The Lost Cause Meets the 'Lost Clause'

84 Pages Posted: 8 Nov 2002

See all articles by Michael Kent Curtis

Michael Kent Curtis

Wake Forest University - School of Law

Date Written: October 2002


For many years, the nation ignored how slavery and the Southern racial caste system undermined the nation's ideals of equality, liberty, and democracy. We celebrated the Framers of the original Constitution and of the Bill of Rights, but largely ignored our second group of framers who gave the nation the new birth of freedom in the post Civil War amendments. Most of us have never heard of the old time Republicans who framed the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, people like John A. Bingham of Ohio.

To the extent that it told the story of Reconstruction at all, the dominant view until the 1950s tended to be critical of the Republicans in Congress from 1866-1873 and critical of the Republican Southern state governments established during Reconstruction. The Southern story had a pervasive effect and reconsideration of it was slow to penetrate the law. Raoul Berger's attack on the Warren Court's incorporation decisions show the lingering effects of repressing the story of the clash between slavery on one side and liberty and democracy on the other. Berger's book shows how most Americans had long forgotten a crucial part of their history - that slavery (and the caste system that replaced it) threatened Bill of Rights liberties such as free speech, free press, free exercise of religion, freedom from unreasonable searches, and freedom from cruel and unusual punishments.

I will discuss John A. Bingham's understanding of liberty under the Constitution. I start with two speeches Bingham made in the House of Representatives in 1856. Both grew out of the controversy in Kansas. I then discuss his speeches on liberty during the Civil War, and how his views on liberty influenced his work on the Reconstruction Amendments.

Keywords: Constitutional history, Constitutional law, Reconstruction amendments

JEL Classification: N41, K30

Suggested Citation

Curtis, Michael Kent, John Bingham and the Story of American Liberty: The Lost Cause Meets the 'Lost Clause' (October 2002). Available at SSRN: or

Michael Kent Curtis (Contact Author)

Wake Forest University - School of Law ( email )

P.O. Box 7206
Winston-Salem, NC 27109
United States
336-758-5714 (Phone)
336-758-4496 (Fax)

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