|Amending the Constitution
|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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