Without [John] Bingham’s revisions to Section 1 [of the 14th Amendment], it’s entirely possible that the equal protection clause would have outlawed only racial discrimination—a major addition to our Constitution, to be sure, but a long way from the provision that we have today. Instead, Bingham incorporated into our Constitution the broad promise of the Declaration of Independence that “all men are created equal”. Better still, he perfected and universalized it by substituting the word “person” for Jefferson’s “men”.
In recent weeks, our nation has commemorated two other important anniversaries—the end of the Civil War and President Lincoln’s assassination. To mark these occasions, President Barack Obama issued a proclamation, commentators penned countless op-eds, and various historical sites hosted events throughout the country. While these activities are wholly justified, it’s important not to forget about our nation’s post-Civil War story.In our collective reverence for Lincoln, we often give short shrift to the generation of leaders who succeeded him and who radically improved our nation’s founding charter after his death. These forgotten Americans—leaders like John Bingham, Thaddeus Stevens, and Charles Sumner, among others—shared Lincoln’s goal of securing a “new birth of freedom” for all Americans and pushed for the ratification of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments. It’s no wonder that scholars often refer to this period as our nation’s “second founding“.