The Constitution hasn’t changed much since it was adopted in 1787.
However, it has been tweaked by 27 amendments—some were ratified in a few months, another took more than two centuries.
The ink on the Constitution had barely dried in 1787 when people discovered what it did not say. It did not spell out adequately, they argued, the individual rights that citizens of the United States had under the Constitution.
So James Madison, the “father of the Constitution” and a member of the House of Representatives from Virginia, went to work.
The result: 12 amendments. They were approved by Congress in late 1789 and sent to the 13 states for ratification, which, then as now under the Constitution, required three-quarters of the state legislatures or constitutional conventions.
Twelve? Yes, but only ten (originally numbers three through 12), known to us all today as the Bill of Rights, were approved. It took 811 days to ratify those ten, and they became part of the Constitution on December 15, 1791. Each December 15, we observe Bill of Rights Day.
The proposed first amendment, dealing with congressional apportionment, has never been ratified. The proposed second amendment, dealing with congressional pay, was approved by the Michigan and New Jersey legislatures on the same day in 1992—more than 202 years after Congress submitted it to the 13 states. By 1992, however, 38 states had to approve an amendment to make it part of the Constitution.
The proposed second amendment states (in a 18th-century manner) that a sitting Congress cannot raise its own salary. If it wants to be paid more, the pay hike cannot take place until the next Congress, or as the amendment states, “until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.” The original second amendment is now the 27th Amendment.
On to the other amendments!
The 11th Amendment, which limits the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court, was ratified in 1791 after 811 days of its approval by Congress. The restrictions concern the kinds of cases the Court could hear.
The 11th Amendment did not, however, prevent Chief Justice John Marshall from enlarging the power of the Court through the concept of judicial review during his 34-year term.
The 12th Amendment, which established the Electoral College as we know it today, became part of the Constitution in 1804 in about six months.
Two post-Civil War amendments, the 13th and 15th, which outlawed slavery and gave ex-slaves the right to vote (men only), were ratified in 1865 and 1870 respectively in less than a year.
The 14th Amendment, which guarantees the rights of all individuals, took more than two years to be ratified.
The 16th Amendment, permitting an income tax, took the longest time up to that date—1,302 days, more than three years.
At about the same time, the 17th Amendment, allowing for the popular election of Senators—instead of election by state legislatures —was ratified in less than a year.
Then came “the great experiment”—Prohibition—and the 18th Amendment. It didn’t stop people from drinking liquor and only created lots of illegal bootleggers, which begat even more crime. It was ratified in 394 days in 1918 and 1919 but was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933 in 288 days.
The 19th Amendment, giving women the right to vote, was ratified only after Harry Burn changed his mind. Burn, a member of the Tennessee legislature, which was the last hope for the backers of the amendment. Burn, who had planned to cast the deciding vote against it, received a note from his mother. Vote for it, Harry, she said. He did. And the 19th Amendment was ratified in time for women to vote in the 1920 Presidential election, won by Warren G. Harding.
After Prohibition was repealed in 1933, no amendments were forthcoming until after World War II.
Republicans won control of Congress in 1946 and wanted to make sure no one did what Franklin D. Roosevelt had done—run for more than two terms. The 22nd Amendment, limiting Presidential tenure, took almost four years to be ratified but became part of the Constitution in 1951.
The 23rd Amendment, giving the District of Columbia three electoral votes, and the 24th Amendment, outlawing the poll tax, were approved in 285 and 514 days respectively.
After President John F. Kennedy’s assassination, an amendment was proposed to detail what would occur if a President was unable to perform his duties. It was ratified in 1967 as the 25th Amendment and has been invoked several times when a President has undergone a medical procedure.
Next came the amendments that took the least and most time to become part of the Constitution. The 26th Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18, was ratified in 100 days in 1971—in time for the 1972 election. That compares to the 73,009 days it took for that original second amendment, now the 27th Amendment.
In the meantime, if you want to learn more about the Constitution, go to http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution.html.
For teachers of history, go to http://blogs.archives.gov/education/2013/09/10/teaching-about-the-constitution/.