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Bingham, William James

by Bennett L. Steelman, 1979

6 Apr. 1802–19 Feb. 1866

See also:  Elizaabeth Hobbs Keckly (Keckley)

William James Bingham, popularly known as "the Napoleon of schoolmasters," was born in Chapel Hill, the oldest son of William Bingham, then professor of ancient languages at The University of 

Map showing location of the Bingham school in NC. Courtesy of the Bingham School Catalogue.

North Carolina, and his wife, Annie Jean Slingsby. Most of his childhood was spent in Pittsboro and, after 1808, in Hillsborough, where the elder Bingham maintained two successive private boarding schools.

Educated by his father, Bingham taught school in Williamsboro for some time before entering The University of North Carolina in 1821. After taking a B.A. with first honors in 1825, he read law in the offices of Archibald D. Murphey. His father's death in February 1826 forced him to return home to complete the term's instruction at the family school in the Mount Repose community of Orange County. Shortly afterward, he decided to abandon law and to teach as a career. To prepare himself, he embarked on a lengthy tour of the better-known private schools of New England and Virginia in order to study their teaching methods.

In January 1827, Bingham returned the academy to Hillsborough, from which his father had moved it in 1818. There it rapidly gained a nation-wide reputation for academic excellence. By the 1840s, Bingham's school could boast of pupils from almost every state in the Union, and its tuition, $150 per year, was supposedly the highest charged by any preparatory school in the nation.

Meanwhile, Bingham participated actively in several major reform campaigns of the period. A long-time elder in Bethlehem Presbyterian Church, he spoke frequently in favor of temperance to public audiences. A slaveowner by inheritance, he was nevertheless a member of the American Colonization Society and possibly one other local manumission organization. For a brief period in 1827, he reportedly considered freeing his slaves and moving to Ohio, but he was dissuaded when he discovered the intolerable conditions under which many free blacks in the North lived. While normally shunning public office in any form, he served as corresponding secretary of the North Carolina Institute of Education (1831–32) and as a member of its executive board (1832–34). He was also among the founding members of The University of North Carolina Alumni Association.

In 1845, desiring to raise his sons in the country as his father had done, Bingham moved his school to the Oaks community, twelve miles southwest of Hillsborough. At the same time, he reduced his enrollment from over a hundred to thirty, in order to give his students closer personal attention. During this period, Bingham gratified an old ambition by conducting a model farm, experimenting extensively with new seed strains and new methods of cultivation. Agriculture was a lifelong concern of his: while still in Hillsborough, he had allowed two bondsmen to manage his farm without supervision, an exceptional step for the time.

Because of illness, Bingham was forced to suspend classes for some months in 1855. In January 1857, perhaps for this reason, he admitted his oldest son, William, as a partner in the school, under the name W. J. Bingham and Sons. The younger son, Robert, was admitted as a partner six months later, upon his graduation. Soon enrollment increased to sixty, with Bingham taking charge of the younger pupils and leaving the advanced classes to his sons. He seems to have gradually retired from the school during this period, however, relinquishing complete control in late 1863.

A Clay Whig, Bingham opposed secession but accepted the Confederacy after Lincoln's call for troops. He moved with his family to Mebane in 1864; he died there and was buried in Mebane City Cemetery.

In 1827, Bingham married Eliza Alves Norwood, the daughter of Judge William Norwood of Hillsborough and a maternal granddaughter of James Hogg (1729–1805). The couple had seven children, five of whom survived to adulthood, including two sons: William (7 July 1835–18 Feb. 1873), who succeeded his father as headmaster of the school; and Robert (5 Sept. 1838–8 May 1927), who succeeded his brother.

Update from N.C. Government & Heritage Library staff: 
William Bingham has also become known for his brutal and abusive treatment of Elizabeth Keckly (Keckley) who was for a time a slave owned by Bingham's colleague Armistead Burwell. Elizabeth Keckly would later purchase her freedom and find her way to Washington, D.C. where she became a well-known dressmaker and friend to Mary Todd Lincoln. In her memoir Keckly recorded the brutality of her treatment by Burwell and Bingham as well as the rape by another local Hillsborough resident that resulted in a child. This individual has been presumed to be Alexander Kirkland.


An Address by William James Bingham Delivered before the College Temperance Society at Chapel Hill (1836).

Samuel A. Ashe, ed., Biographical History of North Carolina, vol. 4 (1906).

Kemp P. Battle, History of the University of North Carolina, vol. 1 (1907), and "Orange County," Western North Carolina Historical and Biographical (1890).

Paul H. Bergerson, ed., "My Brother's Keeper," North Carolina Historical Review 44 (1967).

J. G. deRoulhac Hamilton, ed., The Papers of Thomas Ruffin, vols. 1–2 (1918–20), and The Papers of William Alexander Graham, vol. 2 (1961).

William Henry Hoyt, ed., The Papers of Archibald D. Murphey, vol. 1 (1914).

Edd Winfield Parks, "Sawney Webb," North Carolina Historical Review 12 (1935).

C. L. Raper, The Church and Private Schools of North Carolina (1898).

H. T. Shanks, ed., The Papers of Willie Person Mangum, vol. 2 (1952).

Southern Historical Collection (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill), for letters of Bingham in various collections.

Kenneth Stampp, The Peculiar Institution (1956).

Robert Hamlin Stone, A History of Orange Presbytery, 1770 –1970 (1970).

Walter P. Williamson, "The Bingham School," Our Living and Our Dead, vol. 2 (1875).

Additional Resources:

Ashe, Samuel A. (Samuel A'Court). Biographical history of North Carolina from colonial times to the present. Greensboro, N.C., C.L. Van Noppen. 1905. (accessed May 16, 2013).

History of the University of North Carolina. Volume I: From its Beginning to the Death of President Swain, 1789-1868:
Electronic Edition. Battle, Kemp P. (Kemp Plummer), 1831-1919:

"Bingham School." N.C. Highway Historical Marker P-16, N.C. Office of Archives & History.

Bingham Military School Volumes, 1872-1876; 1890-1919 (collection no. 03730-z). The Southern Historical Collection. Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. (accessed May 16, 2013).

Bingham School Records, 1883, University of Texas at Austin:

Bingham School (Orange County, N.C.). The Bingham School Catalogue. Lynchburg, Va.: J. P. Bell Company. 1905. (accessed May 16, 2013).

"Bingham School v. Gray." Southeastern Reporter 30. June 7-September 27, 1898. 304-306.

"The Bingham School-Its Past, Its Present, Its Future." Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of North Carolina part 2. Raleigh: Guy V. Turner. 1898. 146-170. (accessed May 16, 2013).

"Faculty of Bingham School, Mebane, N.C." Biennial Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of North Carolina part 1. Raleigh: Guy V. Turner. 1898. 21. (accessed May 16, 2013).

Keckley, Elizabeth. Behind the scenes, Or, Thirty years a slave, and four years in the White House. New York: G.W. Carleton, 1868. (accessed December 1, 2015).

Image Credits:

Bingham School (Orange County, N.C.). The Bingham School Catalogue. Lynchburg, Va.: J. P. Bell Company. 1905. (accessed May 16, 2013).

Origin - location: 


Your commentary on the characters of Bingham and Burwell are incomplete, overly sympathetic, and rather dismissive of their attitudes and practices regarding enslaved people. You should add how viciously they treated Elizabeth Keckley. Her narrative is online. She was also raped and impregnated by Alexander M. Kirkland, a prominent white citizen of Hillsborough, NC.

Dear Yvette,

Thank you for visiting this NCpedia entry and taking time to share your reactions and concerns.

This entry was published in 1979, although likely written some time before that, and there has been additional research and scholarship into Elizbeth Keckly's life since that time, including the publication of a biography as well as republication of her 1868 memoir which included her exposure of the inhumane treatment by three Hillsborough men, as she named Burwell and Bigham, and the third has been presumed to be Alexander Kirkland.  

I have added an update to this entry, as well as to the Burwell entry, to include details of Elizabeth Keckley's enslavement and inhuman treatment and to provide these corrections to the record.  Please also see an entry on Elizabeth Keckly which has recently been added to NCpedia --

Thank you again for sharing this with us,

Kelly Agan, NC Government & Heritage Library

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Copyright notice

This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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