Ohio History Journal

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John A

John A. Bingham

and Reconstruction:

The Dilemma of a Moderate



Congressman John A. Bingham of Ohio was one of the foremost Republi-

can politicians in the period following the Civil War. Yet he is almost un-

known to historians and students not primarily concerned with the Re-

construction era. The names of Thaddeus Stevens, Benjamin Butler, Charles

Sumner, or Benjamin Wade more readily come to mind. As a spokesman

for moderation, Bingham occupied a place of equal importance to that of

the Radical leaders. Until recently, moderate Republicans have not received

much attention. A study of Bingham's career underscores tile importance

of their role in shaping early reconstruction legislation and demonstrates

the difficulties encountered by those politicians who endeavored to avoid

extremism in a period of rapidly changing political conditions.

Rivaled only by General Robert C. Schenck, Bingham was the most prom-

inent member of the Ohio delegation in the House, to which Rutherford B.

Hayes also belonged, 1865-67. In broad outlines, his background was al-

most a composite of the typical midwestern politician. He was the son of a

Mercer, Pennsylvania, carpenter and moved to Ohio with his family at an

early age. After attending elementary school and serving a few years as a

printer's apprentice, he attended Franklin College in New Athens, Ohio.

Having completed two years of college, Bingham read law and was ad-

mitted to the bar in Cadiz. According to his license to practice law, he was

admitted on October 14, 1841, by state supreme court judges Ebenezer Lane

and Reuben Wood (a future governor). The previous year saw Bingham

taking the stump for William Henry Harrison and engaging in a debate

with Edwin Stanton, who was then practicing law in Steubenville. In his

twilight years, Bingham stated that he had known Stanton since 1837 when

the latter was residing in Cadiz. Bingham's first public office was prose-

cutor in neighboring Tuscarawas County. He was first elected to the United

States House of Representatives in 1854 and was reelected seven times,

suffering one defeat in 1862.1 As a Judge Advocate Bingham came to na-

tional attention in January 1864. His first important case was the court

martial of Surgeon General William Hammond. Edwin Stanton, whom

Bingham assisted in becoming Secretary of War, entrusted the prosecution

to his Ohio friend. The rising young attorney subsequently served as first

assistant to Judge Advocate General Joseph Holt in the trial of Mary Sur-

ratt and seven others accused in the conspiracy to murder Abraham Lin-