Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1973
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, outlawed the sale and use of alcoholic beverages, thus promoting such Progressive principles as sobriety, hard work, and morality among all classes of society. Finally, the Nineteenth Amendment, following the principle established by the Fifteenth Amendment (which allowed blacks to vote), extended the right of suffrage to women. Even the Twenty-first Amendment (1933), which repealed the Eighteenth and put an end to Prohibition, was considered a Progressive victory because it illustrated the ability of the American people to correct constitutional mistakes.
Not all amendments that have aroused widespread interest and public support were successful. A case in point was the proposed Equal Rights Amendment (1972):
“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” Although it seemed the amendment would be quickly ratified (by 1973, thirty of the necessary thirty-eight states had done so), it fell short by three states, even after the seven-year time limit for ratification had been extended three more years to 1982. Well-organized conservative opponents of the ERA successfully blocked ratification—a development that dramatically illustrates the difficulty of the amending process.
Other proposed amendments have met a similar fate, among them an amendment proposed in 1861 to prevent the federal government from interfering with the labor laws and practices of any state (which was actually an attempt to preserve the institution of slavery), a 1924 amendment to prohibit child labor, and a proposed amendment in 1978 to grant full self-government and representation for the citizens of the District of Columbia. Proposed amendments of this type usually fail to win ratification because they endeavor to use the Constitution as a legislative tool. Others, such as the Eighteenth Amendment and the attempt in 1989 to add an amendment prohibiting flag burning, deal with issues that are of concern only to a particular time. Most Americans have viewed their Constitution as a document that should primarily address universal concerns, and the consensus has usually prevailed that amendments that confine themselves to the problems of a particular era do not belong in the Constitution.
Some of the most troublesome features of the Constitution deal with the office of the presidency; indeed, four of the seventeen amendments after the Bill of Rights are concerned with adjustments to the executive branch. The Twelfth and the Twenty- second Amendments were designed to rectify defects in the process of choosing the president, the Twentieth Amendment changed the date at which the presidential term would begin, and the Twenty- fifth Amendment clarified the process for dealing with presidential illness and disability. The changes brought about by these amendments have been relatively minor, and although politicians have attempted to utilize the amendment process to expand, restrict, or restructure presidential powers even further, they have not succeeded. The durability of the office of the chief executive illustrates the brilliant balance of power established between the federal government and the people by the Constitution. Recognizing the need for a strong executive, the Framers marked out the boundaries of attempts to revise the office, but through the amending process, the people’s ability to exercise responsible change in their system of government has been preserved.
As the authors assert in the subtitle of the book, Americans continue to love and revere their Constitution. But if this is the case, why has it been changed twenty-seven times, and why have there been more than ten thousand attempts to amend the document, including dozens of suggestions to replace the Constitution altogether? ’If we love the Constitution so much, why do we keep trying to change it?”
Part of the answer is that the nation has changed dramatically in the more than two centuries since the United States declared its independence from Great Britain. In spite of the Framers’ intentions to produce a document that would not only serve their immediate concerns but also address the problems and crises of generations to follow, they could not possibly have conceived what the United States of America would become. They also could not envision the moral and legal dilemmas created by modern technology and the complexities of American social and political life. Thomas Jefferson argued in 1788 that no generation should be bound by any obligations contracted by its predecessors. He thus foresaw a day, not too far in the future, when the Constitution would be replaced by a document that more accurately reflected the problems and concerns of some future generations of Americans. Yet others, such as James Madison, were more cautious. Madison feared that too-frequent constitutional revision and replacement would undermine the political and social stability of free government.
Despite Jefferson’s call for frequent constitutional reform, the United States still governs itself according to a constitution adopted in 1788, with relatively few revisions thereafter. Although there have been a few calls for a second constitutional convention, the ability to amend the Constitution through the process outlined in Article V has subdued most attempts to return to the constitutional drawing board.
Yet the question remains whether the Constitution can continue to be an effective document in the light of the dramatic and continuing improvements in transportation, communications, medicine, weaponry, and other forms of technology. For example, could the Framers have anticipated that a future president would have at his or her disposal the awesome power of nuclear weapons capable of destroying the entire world? Advances in medical technology have also made questions of life and death difficult to resolve constitutionally, and areas such as genetic engineering and biotechnology bring up hundreds of unforeseen constitutional questions.
Richard Bernstein and Jerome Agel believe that as the pace of American life continues to accelerate and legal and political issues continue to arise for which the document provides no clear solution, there will be increasing political pressure to amend the Constitution. Unfortunately, the defenders of the new Constitution in 1787-1788 left few clues regarding their thoughts on how Article V should be used to amend the document. Their primary concern at the time was to secure the adoption of the Constitution, and consequently they were reluctant to point out any inherent defects. All that is known is that they intended Article V to be used to correct future defects of the Constitution as they became apparent, or to adapt it to changing circumstances.
The question for future generations, as additional amendments are added to the Constitution, is at what point the amendment process should cease and, because of the large number of changes, an entirely new document be drafted. The authors conclude Amending America by suggesting that a time may come when the American people consider the Constitution no longer adaptable to the changing conditions of American social and political life and in need of a full-scale revision. Even though the majority of American people continue to regard their Constitution as an almost timeless and sacred document, it remains to be seen just how far they will trust its political adaptability.
Sources for Further Study
Booklist. LXXXIX, March 15, 1993, p.1278.
Choice. XXXI, September, 1993, p.218.
Detroit News. August 11, 1993, p. All.
Human Rights. XX, Summer, 1993, p.9.
Kirkus Reviews. LXI, February 1, 1993, p.107.
Library Journal. CXVIII, April 1, 1993, p.114.
National Journal. XXV, May 1, 1993, p.1075.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, January 25, 1993, p.70.
The Washington Post Book World. XXIII, September 5, 1993, p.6.
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