The Constitution has been amended 27 times. The most famous amendments are the first ten: the Bill of Rights. But what do you know about the others? John Yoo, Professor of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, breaks them down.
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The Constitution has been amended 27 times. That may sound like a lot, but that’s over the course of almost 250 years.
And consider this: almost 12,000 amendments have been proposed. That fewer than 30 have made it through the amendment process is a testament to the strength of the Framers’ original design.
The most famous amendments are, of course, the first ten: the Bill of Rights. Most of the others fall into three broad categories.
Those that expanded the franchise – voting rights.
Those that expanded the federal government’s power.
And those that fixed issues relating to the office of the presidency.
Let’s look at each category.
Category one: those that expanded the franchise – voting rights.
The 17th Amendment, ratified in 1913, took the selection of senators out of the hands of state legislatures and placed it into the hands of the voters. The Framers had believed that state officials would collectively have a better grasp of the state’s needs than would ordinary citizens. However, as political machines grew in influence during the 19th century, so did political corruption. A bribery scandal involving the selection of an Illinois senator in 1910 tipped the scales in favor of direct election.
The 19th Amendment, ratified in 1920, guarantees that suffrage “shall not be denied… on account of sex.” In other words, women were given the right to vote.
There was nothing in the Constitution that prohibited women from voting. It was just thought to be unnecessary. This was the general belief held by men and women at the time of the Constitution’s writing.
The two sexes had their specific roles. Men worked; women raised the children. A man’s vote represented the entire household. The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century changed this formula as more and more women joined the workforce. Women began to demand the right to express themselves as individual citizens. The 19th Amendment ensured that right at the ballot box.
The 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961, included the District of Columbia in presidential elections. Since Washington DC isn’t a state, it originally didn’t have any electoral votes. When its population grew larger than some states, it seemed to make sense to give the district representation in the national election.
The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, banned poll taxes – fees imposed by states on voters, specifically black voters. By 1964, five southern states still had poll taxes on their books, a remnant of Jim Crow laws. By banning the tax, the 24th Amendment ended a blatant form of discrimination.
The 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, lowered the minimum age of voting from 21 to 18. With soldiers as young as 18 fighting in World War II, and then in Vietnam, many felt that if you were young enough to fight, you were old enough to vote for the leaders who could send you into war.
Category two: the amendments that expanded the government’s power.
The 16th Amendment, ratified in 1913, gave Congress the “power to lay and collect taxes on incomes.”
As wealth disparity increased between farmers, workers, and a new class of fabulously wealthy industrialists like John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and J.P. Morgan, so did the sentiment for an income tax.
The promise was that only the rich would pay. History would quickly prove otherwise. The top tax rate shot up from 7% to 77% to finance World War I, and then 94% to finance World War II. But of course, the income tax didn’t stay confined to the wealthy, as any young person getting his first paycheck can attest.
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