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Amending the Constitution Previous Next
Digital History ID 3244

 

It is a measure of the success of the Constitution's drafters that after the adoption in 1791 of the ten amendments that constitute the Bill of Rights, the original document has been changed only 17 times.

Only six of those amendments have dealt with the structure of government. With the exception of Prohibition and its revocation, the main thrust of the other amendments has been to protect or expand the rights already guaranteed in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

Over the years, there have been many proposals to alter the Constitution. These include an 1808 proposal by a Connecticut Senator that the nation choose its president through an annual random drawing from a list of retiring senators to a 1923 proposal for an amendment to guarantee equal rights for women.

If the Constitution has rarely been amended, it is in no small part because its authors made it difficult to tamper with. Amendments must follow one of two routes. Under the one followed by all amendments to date, two-thirds majorities of each house of Congress vote their approval and three quarters of the state legislatures add their ratification. Under the second route, two thirds of the states may vote to call a constitutional convention, whose proposed amendments must be ratified by three-fourths of the state legislatures.

The first ten amendments were added in 1791 and later amendments introduced such far-reaching changes as ending slavery, creating national guarantees of due process and individual rights, granting women the vote, and providing for direct popular election of senators.

In 1793, the Supreme Court angered states by accepting jurisdiction in a case where an individual sued the state of Georgia. To ensure that did not happen again, Congress and the states added the 11th Amendment in 1798.

The 12th Amendment, ratified in 1804, had electors vote separately for president and vice president. Until then, the candidate with the most Electoral College votes became president, and the runner up, vice president.

Slavery generated four amendments. The 13th Amendment, ratified in 1865, abolished slavery. The 14th Amendment was adopted in 1868 to protect the civil rights of former slaves. It granted citizenship to all people born in the United States. Two years later, the 15th Amendment declared that the right to vote shall not be abridged on account of race or previous condition of servitude.

The 16th Amendment (1913) authorized an income tax, which the Supreme Court had declared unconstitutional in 1895.

The 17th Amendment required direct election of senators.

In 1919, the states approved the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. In 1933, Congress proposed an amendment to repeal Prohibition. The 21st Amendment was ratified in just 286 days.

The 19th Amendment extended the vote to women.

The 20th Amendment reduced the time between the election of national officials and their assumption of office.

The 22nd Amendment, adopted in 1951, limited presidents to two terms.

The 23rd Amendment, enacted in 1961, allowed residents of the District of Columbia to vote in presidential elections.

The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, prohibited a poll tax in federal elections.

The 25th Amendment (1967) provided a system for selecting a new vice president after the death or resignation of a president. It also established a system to deal with the possibility that a president might become disabled.

The 26th Amendment, adopted in 1971, extended the vote to 18 year-olds.

The 27th Amendment, ratified in 1992, prevents Congress from giving itself an immediate pay increase. It says that a change in pay can only go into effect after the next congressional election.

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