For The Record

Except among constitutional scholars like Richmond Law professor Kurt Lash and Yale Law School’s Akhil Amar, John Bingham isn’t typically considered a household name. But as Amar noted in Richmond Law’s inaugural John Bingham Lecture, the Ohio Congressman was crucial in how “a structurally pro-slavery [United States] constitution became, in a flash, stunningly antislavery.”

“America’s Civil War Constitution sharply departed from America’s antebellum Constitution, yet legal reformers led by John Bingham managed to maintain formal continuity with the prior legal and institutional order,” Amar said at the October event, which was part of the Richmond Program on the American Constitution and organized by Lash, his former student.

Amar detailed how Bingham, a “preeminent Union Reconstruction lawyer” admired by President Abraham Lincoln, used shrewd legal strategy to frame and ratify the 14th Amendment, including the equal protection clause. Bingham and his allies used Article V of the Constitution to assert that Southern states in the period immediately following the Civil War didn’t have the standing to challenge the citizenship of formerly enslaved African Americans.

“Bingham understood that he and his colleagues were sailing into uncharted waters as they tried to improvise a sensible constitutional response to what was a singularly unprecedented event [the Civil War] in its magnitude and meaning,” Amar said. “But good lawyers look for and often find plausible precedence and knowledge, familiar if dim stars to steer by, and barely glimpsed landmarks on the distant horizon that might guide the journey ahead.”