The United States Constitution remains as the oldest written constitution in continuous operation anywhere in the world. Originally designed to address the needs of a small and young nation of about four million people, it now governs the most powerful nation on earth.
One of the central questions raised by the authors of Amending America: If We Love the Constitution So Much, Why Do We Keep Trying to Change It? is whether the Framers were intent on producing a document to endure “for all time” or simply to address the shortcomings of the Articles of Confederation, the document that preceded the Constitution. Shortly after the delegates met in Philadelphia in 1787, it was clear that revising the Articles of Confederation, which had gone into effect in 1781 and had proved inadequate for the effective government of the United States, would not suffice. It was agreed that an entirely new document was necessary in order to ensure the political and financial stability of the young republic.
One of the major problems with the Articles was the impossibility of amending the document. Proposed amendments needed the consent of all the state legislatures—a requirement that proved unworkable. If even one state voted against an amendment, it was defeated. The solution, which became Article V of the new constitution, was that a proposed amendment could be considered whenever two-thirds of both houses of the legislature deemed it necessary. If three-fourths of the state legislatures subsequently approved, the amendment would become part of the Constitution.
Thus, the authors point out, the designers of Article V had two goals in mind. Since the impossibility of amending the Articles of Confederation made them an ineffective form of government, the Framers of the Constitution produced a document that could be adapted to changing circumstances and needs. At the same time, they wanted to ensure that changes would be made only when the majority of the citizens desired it and that changes would be considered only in serious cases, in order to maintain the stability of the document. When one looks over the span of almost two hundred years, it is evident that their hopes have been realized. During this time, the Constitution has been amended only twenty-seven times, and if the first ten amendments, which make up the Bill of Rights, are taken as one “mega- amendment” ratified in 1789, the number drops to seventeen. Yet more than ten thousand prospective amendments have been introduced or formally recommended to Congress during that time.
The first major change to the new Constitution was the demand by several states for a bill of rights. Many delegates, while agreeing that a strong federal government was necessary to the survival of the United States, also believed that the power of such a government must be limited if the rights of the people were to be protected. Thus Article V placated the strong opposition to the new Constitution and established some of the most basic individual rights cherished by American citizens: freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, the right to keep and bear arms, protection against unreasonable searches and seizures, and due process of law, among others.
Perhaps the greatest test of the amending process was the controversy over slavery. Taken together, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, sometimes known as the “slavery amendments,” reestablished the principles of individual rights and equal justice in America. Although they were originally ratified in order to put an end to the institution of slavery, in later years their guarantees of social and economic independence, equal protection of the laws, and the right to vote for emancipated blacks would sow the seeds of the Civil Rights movement in the twentieth century. The principles of individual rights and equal justice embodied in these amendments would help to shape the future of the American republic almost as profoundly as the Bill of Rights itself.
Between 1870 and 1913, no new amendments were added to the Constitution. Then suddenly, between 1913 and 1920, in response to the Progressive movement, which dominated American politics and society from the late 1890’s through World War I, four new amendments were ratified. The Sixteenth Amendment, ratified in 1913, authorized Congress to levy and collect taxes on income, thus giving the American people more of a voice in how the federal government spent money. The Seventeenth Amendment, also ratified in 1913, gave the American people more control over the government by subjecting a key institution of the federal government, the U.S. Senate, to their authority; it required senators to be elected directly by the people rather than being chosen by state legislatures. The Eighteenth Amendment, ratified in 1919,...
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