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John Bingham: Ohio Congressman's Diplomatic Career in Meiji Japan

October 20, 2020

--by Samuel Kidder

[This is the second part of a two-part series on the life of John Bingham. Click here for part one]

My first look at John Bingham’s life concluded with Congressman Bingham becoming interested in Japan as a diplomatic challenge and opportunity for the United States. Bingham, who is most commonly remembered today for his work drafting the Fourteenth Amendment, had a close family friend in David Thompson, a young Presbyterian missionary who arrived in Japan in 1863. From the same small Ohio hometown, the same church, and the same alma mater, Franklin College, Thompson would play a major role during Bingham’s years in Japan, where he served as head of the United States legation to Japan’s new Meiji government. For a detailed treatment of Bingham’s service in Japan please see my recent book, Of One Blood All Nations.

For Bingham and Thompson, Bingham’s assignment to Japan in 1873 was more than a government job, it was a moral commission. Thompson wrote to welcome Bingham’s selection by President Grant to head America’s diplomatic mission, quoting the Third Letter of John to support the idea that both men would now be “fellow workers in the truth.”[1] For Bingham this meant taking a bold policy course that would respect Japan’s independence and release the nation from foreign domination. For the practical day-to-day work of the legation, it would mean putting the legation on a firm institutional footing to make sure that “…all things be done decently and in good order.”[2]

David Thompson with Japanese men, front and back of photo, 1872. From Thompson papers at PHS. [Pearl ID: 83188]

The dominant policy issues in America’s relationship with Japan were revision of the hated Unequal Treaties and return of the onerous Shimonoseki Indemnity payments. Negotiated a generation before Bingham’s arrival, the Unequal Treaties had been imposed on Japan by the western powers. These provided for treaty port areas where foreigners could live and work but were not subject to Japanese law. The treaties also prohibited Japan from setting import and export duties in its trade with the foreign powers. The Shimonoseki Indemnity payments were imposed on Japan as restitution for damage claims from a naval confrontation between Japanese and foreign forces a decade earlier. When Bingham first arrived in Japan, the other foreign powers, particularly the influential British, were unwilling to yield on either of these issues.

Bingham was supported in his efforts to revise the treaty and return the indemnity by many in America’s religious and academic communities and by Grant’s successors in the White House who retained Bingham in his post. Rutherford B. Hayes, Grant’s immediate successor and a colleague of Bingham’s who had campaigned with Bingham in elections in Ohio, included the need to revise the treaty with Japan in his State of the Union messages. James Garfield, Hayes’ successor in the White House, was also an Ohioan and a confidant of Bingham. Garfield was a key player in the effort to keep the Shimonoseki Indemnity issue before the Congress. Through his lobbying within the diplomatic community in Tokyo and with political leaders in Washington, Bingham played a major role in changing the tenor of discussion on the treaty issue. As a result, by the end of his term, the European powers were actively engaged in revising their treaties and even America’s sluggish Congress was moving in the direction Bingham had advocated so successfully.

Just before Bingham was set to sail back to the United States from Japan in 1885, he was able to return to Japan’s Foreign Minister, in person, America’s portion of the Shimonoseki Indemnity payment. In 1883, a 40-foot long petition signed by virtually every influential figure in academia and the clergy in the U.S. had been presented to the Congress.[3]  Returning the indemnity monies was more than an unselfish act of political kindness. It was effective diplomacy. The Americans who, like Bingham, had pushed for repayment believed the return would build trust between Japan and America and would enhance the success of other policy goals and benefit evangelization efforts like the one David Thompson helped lead.

American Legation and Bingham Residence, Tsukiji, Tokyo. Courtesy of Library of Congress, lent by Professor Jack Hammersmith, West Virgina University.

To put the legation in “good order” Bingham had to find an appropriate location, construct a new physical plant, and hire a competent staff. When he arrived, the legation had been located on the outskirts of the capital of Tokyo, then called Edo, in a dilapidated Buddhist temple. Just months before Bingham came to Japan, David Thompson had moved into Tsukiji, a neighborhood in Tokyo that had been recently set aside by the Meiji government for foreign residences. Thompson and other early missionaries had established Tokyo Union Church in Tsukiji and the Presbyterian mission had decided that Tsukiji would serve as their headquarters in Japan. With minimal budget support from the State Department back in Washington, Bingham was able to make arrangements to rent land and construct a compound for business and residential use that at last gave the United States a respectable presence in Tokyo.

One of the most important legacies of Bingham’s years in Japan was his cultivation of a generation of Japan experts who became prominent players in the two countries’ bilateral relationship. Before leaving Ohio for Japan in 1873, he recruited Oberlin College graduate Durham Stevens as his deputy. Stevens served with Bingham for ten years before going on to a long career as an advisor to the Japanese government. David Thompson, taking leave from his missionary position, served as legation interpreter for a decade. Thompson and his wife, Mary, were to spend five decades in Japan.[4] At Bingham’s recommendation, several Americans were placed in positions within Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. One of these, Henry Denison, a modest and self-effacing man, had an influential behind-the-scenes role in Japan’s diplomacy well into the 20th century.

During his years in Japan, Bingham and his wife, Amanda, were active in Tokyo Union Church, the interdenominational congregation established by Thompson and other early Protestant missionaries. Church records state that when first opened in 1872, just a year before Bingham’s arrival, the congregation consisted of 53 persons: 22 foreign men, 18 foreign women, and 13 Japanese. Those were days filled with expectations that as Japan turned to the West, its people would turn toward Christianity. Some did, and mission schools in particular went on to become prominent in Japanese higher education.

Tokyo Union Church website, October 2020. Click here or image above for recent church activities.

Tokyo Union Church continued to evolve and today thrives in Japan’s busy capital. Only some of its foreign members come from the nations that made up the western powers in Bingham’s day. I attended TUC’s world communion Sunday service in October 2019. When guest pastor Christian Zebley, an ordained Presbyterian minister, led the congregation in the Lord’s Prayer, he asked each person to pray in the language in which she or he felt most comfortable. For 30 seconds, a low murmur settled over the congregation. I have no doubt John Bingham was listening and smiling.

--Sam Kidder is a member of the session of Bower Hill Community Church in Mt. Lebanon, PA. He studied East Asian history as a graduate student at Harvard and the University of Washington before entering the Foreign Service, where he had assignments in Korea, Japan, and India. He now works with his wife Miyako doing public relations and editing work, mostly for Japanese clients. 

Read More

Of One Blood All Nations: John Bingham: Ohio Congressman’s Diplomatic Career in Meiji Japan (1873-1885), Sam Kidder, August 2020.

John Bingham: Preeminent Lawmaker, Esteemed Diplomat, Presbyterian Layman,” Sam Kidder, February 2020.

The Missionary Calling blog series, which features edited transcriptions of the diaries of David Thompson’s wife, Mary Parke Thompson.


[1] Ronsheim Collection, Ohio History Connection, microfilm roll II, item 796, personal letter from David Thompson to John Bingham, June 9, 1873.

[2] 1 Corinthians 14:40 (King James Version).

[3] “Birdsey Grant Northrup,” Wendy Murphy, February 2016, Kent Connecticut Historical Society.

[4] See PHS series by Sue Althouse, Missionary Calling, which features edited transcriptions of the diaries of David Thompson’s wife, Mary Parke Thompson.