On behalf of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum, we are pleased to announce a new blog series for this season! Over the next few weeks, a collection of historical writings about the U.S. Constitution will be published on this website. In addition to providing general reading content for this blog, these posts are designed for teachers and professors to use as educational supplements for their students. Each post will discuss a specific amendment of the Constitution, review its historical influences, and will analyze the way it has been invoked in the centuries since its creation.
In 1789, after two years of development, the Constitution of the United States was enacted into law. Replacing the previous Articles of Confederation, the new Constitution provided a complete framework of the roles, responsibilities, and parameters of the federal government. The first three Articles of the Constitution respectively divide the federal government into three branches: the Legislative, composed of the House of Representatives and the Senate; the Executive, composed of the President and their cabinet; and the Judicial, composed of the Supreme Court and the federal court system. Articles Four through Six highlight the rights of the states and their respective governments, as well as outlining the process of adding additional amendments to the Constitution. The Seventh Article bookends the Constitution by explaining the procedure for the states to ratify the document.
Serving as the supreme law of the nation, the Constitution began its development on May 25, 1787. Delegates from across the then-thirteen American states met at the Pennsylvania State House in Philadelphia, where the Declaration of Independence was signed just eleven years earlier. After four months of writing and debate, the final draft of the Constitution was adopted and signed on September 17, now celebrated annually as Constitution Day. What followed was a long-term phase of ratification by each of the states, as a minimum of nine had to accept the new Constitution in order for it to be officially activated. The requirement was reached on June 21, 1788, whereupon the new federal government commenced its operations the following year on March 4. George Washington, former commander of the Continental Army in the American Revolution, was elected and inaugurated as the first President of the United States over a month later on April 30, 1789.
Although the new Constitution proved to be a more effective code of law than the previous Articles of Confederation, it was not without its criticisms. During the ratification process, certain groups were concerned that the Constitution did not provide enough protections for the rights of the states, nor of individual citizens. Some even speculated that if left unaddressed, the new Constitution could easily turn the fledgling republic into a monarchy. James Madison, a pivotal writer of the Constitution who would go on to serve as the Fourth President of the United States, took note of the criticisms and concerns being raised. He studied the weaknesses of the Constitution, and assembled a list of twelve proposed articles to “amend” the new law code. Of the twelve articles, ten were selected by Congress and were officially incorporated into the Constitution on December 15, 1791. These ten amendments are now commonly referred to as the Bill of Rights, a list of rights and freedoms promised to every American citizen, each protected by the Constitution.
The Bill of Rights addressed the most pertinent concerns of the public at the time of its creation, but they would not be the last of the amendments to be added to the Constitution. With every passing generation of Americans, new concerns necessitated new changes, some more expansive than others. To address this inevitability, the Fifth Article of the Constitution outlines the specific process of proposing, ratifying, and adding amendments. When a new amendment is proposed, it can be sent out for ratification after either a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of Congress, or among a national convention of all the states’ legislatures. Of the two options, the national convention has never been used before. After the new amendment is approved, it must be ratified by three-fourths of the states, that being a total of thirty-eight since 1959. The ratification itself can be conducted in one of two ways: A three-fourths majority vote of all the states’ legislatures, or from the states’ legislatures hosting ratifying conventions. The vote in the legislatures alone has been the most common method of ratifying amendments, as the ratifying conventions have only been used with the Twenty-first Amendment in 1933. Once the amendment has been ratified by the necessary number of states, the current Archivist of the United States issues a certificate and a formal proclamation announcing its official induction to the Constitution. While the deadline for ratification has varied throughout the nation’s history, the 1939 Supreme Court case of Coleman v. Miller gave Congress the authority to set one as appropriate. Since 1789, over 11,000 proposed amendments have been introduced to Congress. Of that amount, only thirty-three were sent to the states for ratification. At present, the Constitution of the United States has twenty-seven amendments, the first ten being the Bill of Rights, and the additional seventeen having been added in the centuries since then.
This new series by the Reagan Library Education Blog will overview each of the Constitution’s amendments, and will analyze the historical and political significance of their creation in the past, as well as their significance in modern times. Be sure to regularly check the blog to see the latest posts in this series!
Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum