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U.S. News
The Constitution's 27 Amendments: The ways we embrace their spirit every day

Wednesday, November 27, 2002

Photography by John Beale and text by Dennis Roddy

A nation is little more and nothing less than a conversation. Founded on an idea of common interests, established by laws intended to turn an assemblage into a unified people, the conversation that is the United States has continued for more than 200 years as a lover's quarrel between equality and justice.

The Amendments

Freedom of speech, assembly, religion, the press and to petition the government

The right to bear arms

No quartering of troops in homes except in time of war

No search without a warrant

Due process and protection of property

Trial by jury

Jury trial in civil cases

No cruel and unusual punishment

Rights not specifically mentioned in the constitution should not be assumed not to exist

Rights of the states

Sovereign immunity

Electoral college reform

Slavery abolished

Equal protection under law and due process of law

Right to vote shall not be abridged because of color or previous servitude

Income Tax

Election of senators


Women's suffrage

Terms of office for president and Congress

Prohibition repealed

Presidential term limits

District of Columbia suffrage

Poll taxes abolished

Presidential disability

Voting at age 18

Congressional pay raises

About the authors, story credits

We have conversed for seven generations about the kind of nation we are and the kind we should be, ever trying to reconcile the two without doing violence to the dreams of the individuals who subscribe to the idea that is America. Mostly, we have succeeded. At other times, the failure has been written in the blood of civil war.

Within hours of adopting a Constitution that was talked into existence in 1787--the founders continued the conversation by asking themselves if the ideal they had put on paper could be made more perfect with a series of amendments.

The convention that gathered in Philadelphia rejected the idea of an attachment outlining specific rights of citizens. This is worth thinking about: On first consideration, the Founding Fathers rejected the Bill of Rights.

Congress spoke back almost immediately with 10 amendments that expanded on what was meant to serve only as an operator's manual for the federal government.

Most states already had their own versions of these declarations of rights in their constitutions. The states wanted an acknowledgement from the newly strengthened federal government of certain plain concepts: liberty, sovereignty, self-governance. As radical a document as the Constitution was, the prospects of amending it immediately after adoption startled some.

James Jackson, representative from Georgia, spoke vehemently on June 8, 1789, when the amendments were put forward in Congress.

"Our Constitution, sir, is like a vessel just launched, and lying at the wharf," Jackson said. "She is untried, you can hardly discover any one of her properties. It is not known how she will answer her helm, or lay her course; whether she will bear with safety the precious freight to be deposited in her hold. But, in this state, will the prudent merchant

attempt alterations? Will he employ workmen to tear off the planking and take asunder the frame?"

James Madison, the chief framer of the Constitution, initially disliked the idea of amending the document. To read his words, in a letter of Oct. 17, 1788, is to understand that where some feared abuse of power by the government, he was just as fearful of a tyranny of the majority.

Madison thought the chief threat to individual rights was not from actions in which the government was out of touch with the wishes of the majority, but "acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the majority number of the Constituents."

The Bill of Rights, then, became a double-edged sword, asserting, in essence, that one person and the rule of law makes a majority. It was part of Madison's administrative genius to steer the subsequent congressional debate in a way that resulted in 10 amendments that really didn't amend anything already in the body of the new Constitution. The Bill of Rights was less a collection of amendments than a list of assertions defining freedom of speech and religion, the right to jury trial and the rights of states, among others.

Between 1789 and 1992, 17 other amendments joined the first 10. The success of these amendments has been as varied as their meaning. We have banned slavery and changed the date of the present inauguration. We have banned liquor and, confronted with the futility of some banishments, refilled the bottle.

So sweeping and enduring has the national conversation become that one of a pair of amendments dropped from the original list was rediscovered two decades ago. Hence the newest amendment, the 27th, limiting how Congress can raise its pay is also one of the oldest, disinterred when a University of Texas undergraduate noticed it lying dormant in the history books and reawakened it.

Other amendments have been proposed and set aside. The oldest would, if adopted, expand the size of the Congress exponentially to reflect the growth in population. Can you imagine a Congress with more than 1,000 members?

Another, constantly in play, would ban abortion. One, put forward throughout the 1970s and 1980s would mandate a balanced federal budget.

There are two ways to amend the Constitution.

Both the House and Senate may pass a proposed amendment, each by a two-thirds majority. The amendment must then be approved by three-quarters of the states. The other path -- never taken -- allows for two-thirds of the states to call a constitutional convention where amendments could be passed and then sent to the states for approval.

Some emendations have been sweeping and encompassed so many concepts that to say "First Amendment" is to invoke a litany of rights that reach from the political sign planted in a front yard to the heavens of any imaginable concept of God. Others, such as the 25th, which clarifies what to do if the president is incapacitated, can read like constitutional housekeeping. One, the Ninth, is a subtle guarantor that, simply because specific rights are protected, no one was surrendering other, unnamed ones in the process.

Changed again and again, and likely to be so in decades ahead, our Constitution is a machine that has evolved into an organism. We have talked a nation into life.

Writing to a friend in 1816, Thomas Jefferson, whose correspondence with Madison (Jefferson was ambassador to France when the Constitutional Convention met) encouraged the creation of the Bill of Rights, saw change as the food on which the organism would grow:

"Some men look at Constitutions with sanctimonious reverence, and deem them, like the Ark of the Covenant, too sacred to be touched. They ascribe to the men of the preceding age a wisdom more than human, and suppose what they did to be beyond amendment. I knew that age well; I belonged to and labored with it."

Jefferson was a man capable of understanding that he did not live in the only time that would ever be, and that is why he favored amendments, because "laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths disclosed, and manners and opinions change with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also and keep pace with the times."

One hundred eighty-six years after Jefferson's vision, the discussion and second-guessing continue and, through it, a nation lives and breathes.

From the angry taxpayer picketing his government to the vice president in place to take over the chief executive's job should the unthinkable happen, the amendments to our supreme laws are lived out in gestures as sweeping as the election of a president or the small cry of a new voice in the world, born on our soil and guaranteed full membership in the national conversation.

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