Last chance to see Amending America

Today’s post comes from Christine Blackerby, archives specialist in the Center for Legislative Archives at the National Archives in Washington, DC. She is also co-curator of the exhibit “Amending America.

“The Bill of Rights and Beyond,” 1991. (National Archives Identifier 24520428)

More than 11,000 constitutional amendments have been introduced in Congress since the Constitution was written in 1787. What most of these proposals have in common, though, is that they failed to be enacted. Only 27 amendments have been ratified to become part of the Constitution.

So, what succeeded and what failed?

“Amending America,” a National Archives exhibit, invites us to discover the remarkably American story of how we have amended, or attempted to amend, our Constitution in order to form a more perfect union.

“Amending America” is on display in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery of the National Archives Building through September 4, 2017.

The exhibition features the 27 ratified amendments, as well as many of the 11,000 introduced amendments that failed. Original documents illustrate the First Amendment’s protection of the right to free speech, the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause, and the arguments that led to Prohibition (the 18th Amendment) and later to repeal (the 21st Amendment).

More original documents demonstrate the failed amendments, such as one that would have prohibited dueling, one that would have required a national referendum on declarations of war, and one that would have us select the President of the United States by lot—by picking a ball representing a candidate out of a bowl.

Several new documents have recently gone on display in the gallery. They reveal new perspectives about the amendments from different angles, and they continue the story of the debates that define the ideas that Americans want to include in our fundamental governing charter—our Constitution. Some of the new documents are previewed here.

The Vault of Horror

Does the First Amendment’s protection of the free press include crime and horror comic books aimed at children?

The Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on Juvenile Delinquency collected more than 600 comic books during a 1954 investigation of whether such comics contributed to youth crime. One of them, The Vault of Horror #35, is now on display in “Amending America.”  

The Vault of Horror #35, Feb-March 1954. (Records of the U.S. Senate, National Archives)

The subcommittee’s investigation focused on crime and horror comic books because they—in the words of the committee’s 1955 report on the topic—offered “short courses in murder, mayhem, robbery, rape, cannibalism, carnage, necrophilia, sex, sadism, masochism, and virtually every other form of crime, degeneracy, bestiality, and horror.”

On the strength of the testimony it heard during the investigation, the subcommittee warned comic book publishers that they must either impose effective self-regulation or face “other ways and means” that would be found to protect children. In response, the industry formed a new trade association, the Comics Code Authority, and formulated a new code to self-censor content. So, although the Senate considered censoring this kind of publication, ultimately they proposed no such bill.

Taxes and Votes

Before the 19th Amendment granted women the right to vote in 1920, suffragists tried many unsuccessful strategies to win the right to vote. Some suffragists contended that women already had the right to vote, and Congress needed only to recognize it. The 14th Amendment (ratified in 1868) defined all persons born in America, including women, as citizens. They proclaimed that voting was a right of citizenship, therefore women could vote. Congress did not agree.

Another of those failed strategies is illustrated by a new document on display in “Amending America.”

In 1878, Amelia Bloomer petitioned Congress “for relief from taxation or political disabilities.” She said that she was taxed without representation, thereby invoking the cry of American patriots during the Revolutionary War. Indicating that this situation was unfair, she petitioned that she should either be exempt from paying taxes or be allowed to vote. Her effort failed.

Petition of Mrs. Amelia Bloomer for relief from taxation or political disabilities, ca. 1878. (National Archives Identifier 5752699)

Presidential Succession

Before the 25th Amendment was ratified in 1967, there was no clear constitutional way to ensure continued leadership in the event that the President was physically or mentally unable to do the job.

Sections 3 and 4 of the amendment address situations involving the incapacitation of the President, rather than death. The first time these provisions were considered for use was after the attempted assassination of President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Immediately after Reagan was shot outside a Washington hotel, the extent of his injuries wasn’t clear. As Reagan was prepared for emergency surgery, his aides debated invoking Section 3 of the amendment, which calls for the Vice President to be Acting President until the President is able to resume his duties.

Aides drafted the paperwork for the transfer of power but some of them argued against invoking it. While aides debated a transfer, Reagan recovered quickly from the surgery, and he indicated that he could function as President while he healed under the care of his doctors.

The transfer of power never happened. The paperwork prepared to invoke a transfer under the rules of the 25th Amendment remained unsigned, and was filed away.

Unsigned letter regarding the transfer of power per the 25th Amendment, to be used in the case of the President’s incapacitation as a result of the assassination attempt, March 31, 1981. (Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, National Archives)

These stories and more can be seen in “Amending America” for the next week. 

Don’t miss your last chance to see “Amending America” in the Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery in the National Archives Building. The exhibit runs until September 4, 2017.

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