Amendments to the United States Constitution

From Citizendium
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This article is developing and not approved.
Main Article
Definition [?]
Related Articles  [?]
Bibliography  [?]
External Links  [?]
Citable Version  [?]
This editable Main Article is under development and subject to a disclaimer.

Since its ratification in June 1788, there have been 27 amendments to the United States Constitution. Some of the amendments protect individual rights by limiting the powers of the government, while others have made changes to the institutional structures and procedures that were originally established by the Constitution.

The first ten amendments, all ratified on 15 December 1791, are commonly known as the Bill of Rights. Article 5 of the constitution sets forth two procedures for proposing and two for ratifying amendments, though only one of each has ever been used: The Congress, whenever two thirds of both Houses shall deem it necessary, shall propose Amendments to this Constitution ... shall be valid to all Intents and Purposes, as part of this Constitution, when ratified by the Legislatures of three fourths of the several States.

The first amendments proposed in Congress were voted on 24 and 25 September 1789, when 12 were sent to the states for ratification. Ten of the twelve were ratified by Virginia, the 11th of the then 14 states, on 15 December 1791, adding the Bill of Rights to the Constitution. The most recent amendment, the 27th, was proposed at the same time as the ten in the Bill of Rights (along with a twelfth, not yet ratified), but was not ratified at that time; it was ratified by Alabama, the 38th of 50 states to have done so, on 5 May 1992.[1]

The Bill of Rights amendments

For more information, see: Bill of Rights (United States).

The first ten amendments adopted were part of a package introduced into Congress by James Madison in response to anti-federalist criticism of the Constitution and reservations expressed by state legislatures regarding the lack of explicit limits on the powers of the new national government. The Amendments established the following limits on government power:

Eleventh and twelfth amendments

Only two further amendments were ratified between the Bill of Rights and the aftermath of the Civil War. These were:

  • Eleventh amendment: limits the jurisdiction of federal courts. Ratified 7 February 1795.
  • Twelfth amendment: changes the voting procedure for President and Vice-President. Ratified 15 June 1804.

The 11th amendment was a response by the states to the decision in Chisholm v Georgia, where the Supreme Court took a case by Chisholm suing the State of Georgia. The amendment removes federal jurisdiction in lawsuits against any state by citizens of another state or foreigners.

The 12th amendment was a response to the rise of political parties. The original procedure for electing the President and Vice-President had electors voting for two people, with the top vote-getter being elected President and the second-place being elected Vice-President. With factions hardening into parties, this led to uncomfortable manouvering to prevent all the electors supporting a party from casting all their ballots for the same two people and creating a tie vote or an opportunity for mischief by the losing party. The 12th amendment changes the voting so that each elector casts a distinct ballot for President and for Vice-President.

Civil War amendments

After the Civil War, three amendments were made to settle some of the issues over which the war was fought. These were:

  • Thirteenth amendment: Abolished slavery. Ratified 6 December 1865
  • Fourteenth amendment: Makes all persons born in the United States and subject to the jurisdiction thereof citizens (including, especially, former slaves), and forbids states from denying rights any portion of its people. Ratified 9 July 1868
  • Fifteenth amendment: Forbids denying vote to people on the basis of race or "previous condition of servitude". Ratified 3 February 1870.

Slavery was the biggest issue dividing the United States through its early history. The attempts to hold together the country despite the deep division over slavery profoundly affected the early development of government: states were admitted in pairs: one slave and one free; the original constitution barred any law which would affect the slave trade for 20 years; slaves were counted, but not fully, towards states' representation in Congress. After the victory of the anti-slavery forces in the Civil War, they cemented their victory in the Constitution. The 13th amendment abolished slavery completely. The 14th amendment was a response to attempts by the former Confederate states to restrict the rights of the newly-freed slaves. The 15th amendment enfranchised the former slaves by forbidding states from denying the vote on the basis of race.

Progressive Era amendments

The "Progressive" movement championed various sorts of reform, including making the government more democratic, using the government to curtail the wealth and power of large businesses and rich people, and various social uplift. At the state level, the Initiative, Referendum and Recall were adopted in many Western states at the insistence of the Progressives. At the national level, the Progressives championed four successful amendments to the constitution:

  • Sixteenth amendment: Legalised income taxes without apportionment based on population. Ratified 3 February 1913.
  • Seventeenth amendment: Made Senators elected by popular vote instead of by state legislatures. Ratified 8 April 1913.
  • Eighteenth amendment: Banned the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages. Ratified 16 January 1919.
  • Nineteenth amendment: Gave women the vote. Ratified 18 August 1920.

Later amendments

Eight more amendments have been made to the Constitution since the Progressive-Era amendments. These are:

  • Twentieth amendment: Moved the dates when a congressional and presidential terms begin to closer to the election. Ratified 23 January 1933. At the time the constitution was adopted, while the country was smaller, transportation and communication was slower; by the early 20th century, the lapse between the election and seating of the elected was much longer than necessary. The amendment also defined the process for handling the death of a president-elect before he assumed office.
  • Twenty-first amendment: repealed the eighteenth amendment. Ratified 5 December 1933. Prohibition was perhaps the biggest failed experiment in American political history. After 14 years, public sentiment had turned so rapidly against Prohibition that the states ratified its repeal in less than a year.
  • Twenty-second amendment: limited the President to two terms. Ratified 27 February 1951. George Washington, the first President, refused to seek a third term, setting a precedent which was not violated until the presidency of Franklin D. Roosevelt. After Roosevelt's death, there was much opposition to allowing any President to hold office as long as Roosevelt had, and the constitution was amended to enshrine Washington's precedent.
  • Twenty-third amendment: Gives presidential electors to the District of Columbia. Ratified 29 March 1961. The population of the District of Columbia was, by 1960, larger than that of several states, yet the District had no voice in the Presidential election (and still has no voting representation in Congress). The 23rd amendment provides that the District has electors, though no more than the lowest number that any state has.[2]
  • Twenty-fourth amendment: Bars disenfranchisement for failure to pay any poll tax or any other tax. Ratified 23 January 1964. Poll taxes were taxes which were required of all voters; they served to disfranchise poor people.
  • Twenty-fifth amendment: Refines the rules of Presidential succession, and allows for temporary or permanent removal of the President for disability. Provides for replacement of Vice-President in the event of a vacancy. Ratified 10 February 1967. President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963. While he died effectively instantly, the prospect that an assassination attempt might leave the President alive but unable to function in a time of nearly-permanent international tension was felt to be unacceptable. Prior to this amendment, the elevation of the Vice-President to the presidency, or the death or resignation of the Vice-President left the office of vice-president vacant. This amendment allowed for the President to fill the vacancy with the approval of Congress.
  • Twenty-sixth amendment: Lowers voting age from 21 to 18. Ratified 1 July 1971. A result of the Vietnam War, when it was felt unfair that men could be drafted into the Army at age 18, but were not allowed to vote.
  • Twenty-seventh amendment: Requires that increases in Congressional salaries not go into effect until after an intervening congressional election. Ratified 5 May 1992. This was proposed with the original Bill of Rights, but was not ratified by sufficient states at the time. Over the intervening 200 years, a few more states ratified it in response to particular incidents, until Gregory Watson, an aide to a Texan legislator, began actively campaigning for its passage in 1982.


  1. It was believed at the time that ratification by Michigan on 7 May 1992 completed the ratification of the 27th Amendment, but it was later rediscovered that Kentucky had ratified the amendment in 1792, making Alabama's ratification 2 days earlier the deciding event.
  2. The population of the District of Columbia has, since this amendment was ratified, only been high enough to entitle it to 3 electors, which is the minimum of any state.