A Record-Setting Amendment

Bill of Rights, 1791post treatment
The Bill of Rights as proposed to the states, September 25, 1789. (National Archives Identifier 1408042)

The 27th amendment, ratified on May 7, 1992, was originally proposed on September 25, 1789.

Yes, that date is correct.

The amendment was part of the original 12 proposed amendments sent to the states for ratification in 1789. Amendments 3 through 12 were ratified on December 15, 1791, becoming what we now call the Bill of Rights.

But what happened to the other two?

The original first (proposed) amendment outlined how many representatives each state could have in the House of Representatives. It allowed for one representative for every 50,000 people. Had that passed, we could have more than 6,000 representatives today. Not enough states ratified that proposal for it to become part of the Constitution.

The original second (proposed) amendment dealt with congressional pay. It said, “No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.”

Six states initially ratified it—Maryland, North Carolina, South Carolina, Delaware, Vermont, and Virginia.

The rest of the states failed to ratify it . . . initially. However, over time states continued to ratify it. Kentucky, which became a state on June 1, 1792, ratified it on June 27 of that year. Then Ohio in 1873, and Wyoming in 1978.

In 1982 Gregory Watson, a student at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote a paper on the proposed amendment and began a personal crusade to have it ratified. He lobbied state legislatures to pass the amendment.

On April 27, 1983, Maine became the first state to ratify the amendment as a result of Watson’s efforts. During the next several years, numerous states followed Maine’s lead until Michigan’s ratification on May 7, 1992. Michigan provided what was thought to be the 38th state ratification required—three-fourths of the states—to make it part of the Constitution.

Certification of the 27th Amendment, May 18, 1992. (National Archives Identifier 1512313)

At that time, Kentucky’s 1792 ratification had long been forgotten and therefore not counted.

The amendment went to the Archivist of the United States, who in 1985 became responsible for certifying that constitutional amendments have been properly ratified.

Despite some pushback from members of Congress who were concerned with the legality of an amendment that had sat around for over 202 years, Archivist Don Wilson followed the advice of constitutional scholars and agreed to certify the amendment.

On May 18, 1992, in a low-key ceremony in his office in the National Archives Building in Washington, DC, Don Wilson became the first and only Archivist to certify a constitutional amendment.

Effective May 7, 1992, the 27th amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution.

You can learn about the 27th—and all the amendments—in the National Archives exhibit, “Amending America,” which is open in Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in Washington, DC. The exhibition runs through September 4, 2017.

Don Wilson Amendment Certification
Archivist of the United States Don Wilson, Signing Certification of the 27th Amendment to the Constitution, May 18, 1992. (George Bush Presidential Library, Don Wilson Collection, National Archives)

5 thoughts on “A Record-Setting Amendment

  1. I was there that morning and Don Wilson even borrowed my fountain pen to sign the certification. I still have the pen and cherish the memory.

    1. Why did Wilson publish the 27th despite Congress asking him not to do so? Who pushed him aside from the “scholars?” Was it the President?

      1. The Office of Legal Counsel at the Department of Justice issued guidance concluding that the Congressional Pay Amendment had been validly ratified pursuant to the procedures set forth in Article V of the Constitution, and that the Archivist of the United States was required to promulgate the Twenty-Seventh Amendment pursuant to 1 U.S.C. § 106b.

  2. I was wondering about this , because I have the same Congrefs of the United States. It’s very old. It was given to me by my uncle many years ago.

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