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 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 her memoir, Elizabeth Keckly describes Bingham as a "hard cruel man" who physically tortured her. He evidently had pledged to Ms. Burwell that he would "subdue [her] 'stubborn pride.'" After repeated defiance by Keckly, Bingham "burst into tears, and declared that it would be a sin to beat [her] any more." He asked her forgiveness and "afterwards was an altered man. He was never known to strike any of his servants from that day forward." Keckly stated that Ms. Burwell then tasked Mr. Burwell with beating her to "conquer [her]."