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A guide to the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments

  • A guide to the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments

    For more than a decade after the Revolutionary War, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which provided for only a weak and minimal federal government while allowing states to operate like individual countries. That was until 1787 in Philadelphia, when delegates of the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution of the United States of America.

    Since then, the document has been altered 27 times through the amendment process provided by Article V of the Constitution itself. Requiring a two-thirds majority vote by both the House and Senate, or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the country's state legislatures, amending the Constitution is no easy task.

    The first 10 amendments to the Constitution are collectively called the Bill of Rights. Written by James Madison, the Bill of Rights puts specific limits on government power and enshrines specific personal liberties.

    In honor of Constitution Day, here's a look at all 27 amendments to America's governing document, the Constitution.

  • Amendment XXVII: Compensation of Members of Congress

    Year ratified: 1992

    Link to full amendment

    The 27th Amendment seems fairly straightforward, maintaining that members of Congress may not alter their salaries mid-term. But the so-called compensation amendment's bizarre 202-year, seven-month saga from original proposal to ratification was a meandering journey. It started during the first session of Congress in 1789 and didn't end until the dawn of the digital age. No other amendment languished in limbo for a longer period of time.

  • Amendment XXVI: Right to Vote at Age 18

    Year ratified: 1971

    Link to full amendment

    The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Debate over the hotly contested amendment started during World War II and came to a head during the Vietnam War—the country was collectively outraged that 18-year-old men could be drafted for involuntary military service and foreign combat right out of high school, but were still three years away from being old enough to vote for their own leaders.

  • Amendment XXV: Presidential Succession

    Year ratified: 1967

    Link to full amendment

    The issue of presidential succession was addressed in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the original Constitution. But flaws in the document's vague and convoluted wording were exposed in 1841 when President William Henry Harrison died, leaving Vice President John Tyler to fight for his claim to the presidency. One of the more complex amendments, the 25th Amendment clarifies the issues of presidential succession in four sections.

  • Amendment XXIV: Poll Tax

    Year ratified: 1964

    Link to full amendment

    Amendment 24 prohibits the use of the poll tax, a mechanism Southern states used to enforce white supremacy and disenfranchise black Americans for nearly a century following the Civil War and Reconstruction. With poverty rampant among both black and white Southerners, few could afford to pay to exercise their right to vote. Grandfather clauses, however, often exempted anyone whose ancestors voted before the Civil War, which allowed many poor whites to vote for free while excluding virtually all African-Americans living in former slave states.

  • Amendment XXIII: Presidential Vote in D.C.

    Year ratified: 1961

    Link to full amendment

    Washington D.C. has been the seat of government in the United States for nearly as long as America has been a country, but residents of the District of Columbia have only been allowed to vote in presidential elections since 1961. The 23rd Amendment granted that right. As a city with a black majority, newly acquired votes added even more steam to the escalating Civil Rights movement. In turn, the measure encountered fierce resistance in the South.

  • Amendment XXII: Two Term Limit on President

    Year ratified: 1951

    Link to full amendment

    Few issues puzzled the framers of the Constitution more thoroughly than the process of choosing a president and determining the length of time for which a president should serve. After all, European monarchies offered no precedent on which to base the new executive office. While many of the framers wanted the presidency to be a lifetime appointment, President George Washington's decision to retire after his second term set the tone for a voluntary two-term limit. This lasted for 150 years, but the dual crises of the Great Depression and World War II led Americans to elect Franklin D. Roosevelt to four terms in office—stoking fears of future tyranny that led to the ratification of the 22nd Amendment.

  • Amendment XXI: Repeal of Prohibition

    Year ratified: 1933

    Link to full amendment

    14 years after the 19th Amendment made prohibition the law of the land, the 21st Amendment repealed it. It remains the only time in American history that the Constitution was amended to overturn a previous amendment.

  • Amendment XX: Presidential Term and Succession

    Year ratified: 1933

    Link to full amendment

    Few amendments have been passed with less fanfare, controversy, and discussion than the 20th Amendment, which modifies part of the Constitution and the 12th Amendment, mostly to clarify start dates for terms of office. To this day, it has never been the subject of a Supreme Court decision.

  • Amendment XIX: Women's Right to Vote

    Year ratified: 1920

    Link to full amendment

    Representing a watershed moment for equality and freedom in American history, the 19th Amendment was the crowning achievement of a nearly century-long active struggle for women's rights. The codification of women's suffrage with the ratification of the 19th Amendment was built on the shoulders of giants like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, whose relentless protests changed the consciousness of the American patriarchy.

  • Amendment XVIII: Prohibition

    Year ratified: 1919

    Link to full amendment

    More than a half century before Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs," America established the 19th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors. But in reality, Prohibition did none of that. Americans kept drinking—and similar to the illegal drug trade, the act created a black market that fueled an unprecedented rise in violent crime and urban warfare as organized gangs battled for control of the lucrative underground trade.

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