A Brief History
On February 10, 1967, the United States adopted the 25th Amendment to the Constitution, a new national law that deals with the succession to the Presidency of the United States, and a topic of recent debate during the Trump Administration. Starting with the 23rd Amendment adopted in June of 1960, there have been a total of 5 new Amendments adopted during this author’s lifetime, and one Amendment that is glaringly absent by its lack of ratification by the States
The United States Constitution was adopted in 1789, a magnificent historical document that created a nation governed by its own people instead of some other vested interest such as a monarchy or a church. Despite the incredible foresight and wisdom that went into the drafting of the Constitution, the founders of our nation realized their own lack of perfection could lead to the need to make changes to the great document in the form of Amendments. Soon after the adoption of the Constitution it was found necessary to make some additions, and the first 10 Amendments were ratified by the States in 1791, those 10 Amendments being referred to as “The Bill of Rights.”
There have been 27 Amendments to the Constitution, some of which were of monumental importance, such as the 13th Amendment (1865) that abolished slavery and the 14th Amendment (1866) that defined how native born Americans would automatically be considered US citizens. Those 2 Amendments in the wake of the American Civil War were followed by the 15th Amendment in 1869, that defined the right to vote regardless of skin color or previous state of servitude (slavery).
Not all Amendments are widely accepted by all Americans, as evidenced by the 16th Amendment in 1909, the one that gave us the Income Tax. To further the point about unpopular Amendments, the 18th Amendment in 1917, often called The Volstead Act, is the reviled Prohibition against the manufacture and sale of alcoholic beverages in the US. The 18th Amendment was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933, probably a necessary move to allow people to cope with the Great Depression! In 1919, Americans approved another Amendment that was quite the controversial subject in its day, the 19th Amendment that gave American women the right to vote. (We do not dare make a joke about this amendment!)
Getting back to the subject of more recent Amendments, in 1960, the States approved of the 23rd Amendment (in effect in 1961), which gave voters in the District of Columbia the right to vote in the Presidential elections, the District being represented in the Electoral College by the number of electors granted to the least populous US State. It only seems right that people living in our nation’s capital should be allowed to vote for President!
The 24th Amendment (1964) was one of the measures taken in the US during the massive Civil Rights Movement largely aimed at enfranchising African Americans into the mainstream of American society, especially the political process. The 24th Amendment basically outlawed the practice of levying a poll tax which had to be paid in order to allow a citizen to vote.
The 25th Amendment, adopted in 1967, laid out the process by which a President of the US would be succeeded in the event of his or her death or disability. The measure also covered the process to replace the Vice President of the country and to allow a President to voluntarily transfer the powers of the Presidency to the Vice President in the event of a temporary disability of the President, such as the President undergoing surgery or some other medical procedure, or otherwise being temporarily incapable of performing his or her duties. The really big, bombshell if you will, clause in the 25th Amendment is the provision that the Vice President along with “principal officers” of the executive department (usually interpreted to mean Cabinet secretaries and the like) may present to the Senate and House of Representatives their opinion that the President is no longer capable of discharging his or her duties. Upon the consensus of the Vice President and those various “principal officers” the Vice President would “immediately” take control of the office and powers of the President. This provision was meant to cover such instances where a President may be medically disabled by a serious injury such as a stroke, or even by some debilitating mental illness or infirmity. Congress must then within 21 days hold hearings and vote to confirm or deny the action by the Vice President and the other officers. Opponents of President Trump have sometimes referred to the 25th Amendment as a vehicle by which to remove President Trump from office, allegedly for deficiencies in intellect and/or fealty to the United States. Needless to say, such murmurs are highly contentious and inflammatory.
In 1971, the various States approved of the 26th Amendment, thus giving 18 year old citizens the right to vote in national elections. While this subject of reducing the voting age from 21 to 18 was hotly debated and much opposition to the idea existed, the background situation was the ongoing Vietnam War, with the sentiment “Old enough to fight, old enough to vote.” (The author always wondered, “Then why not just let those 18 year olds in the armed forces vote?” For that matter, the question of allowing 18 year olds the right to buy a drink, alcoholic beverage, could also be limited to active duty military people. Just an idea.) Just as when women got the right to vote, there was no sudden catastrophe befalling the country and the world did not in fact end!
The 27th Amendment, first proposed in 1789 and finally ratified in 1992, required any Congressional pay raise not be allowed to take effect during the tenure of the current Congress, and could only go into effect when the next election was held and the winners seated. The 27th Amendment was ratified unanimously by the States, as were the 26th and 25th Amendments, but most of the other Amendments were not unanimous.
As alluded to in the opening paragraph, the Amendment that has not been adopted that has received a ton of debate and controversy is the so called Equal Rights Amendment, first introduced to Congress in 1921, and passed by the House of Representatives in 1971, then passed by the Senate in 1972, which sent the Amendment to the States for ratification. By 1977, 35 States had ratified the measure, and only 38 States are needed to achieve the necessary 2/3 number for adoption as law. Then, things stalled! The ERA calls for the elimination of distinctions between the male and female genders when it comes to all sorts of aspects of society, including employment, wages, divorce, property and almost everything else. The ERA would virtually eliminate gender as a legal matter. Critics point out that adoption of the ERA would mean the end to male/female athletics, and girls/women would have to compete directly with their male counterparts. Women would no longer be exempt from a military draft, and different physical standards for hiring (such as military or police and fire) would outlawed. Some of these changes would greatly reduce opportunities for females in the US. Not so much back in 1971, but certainly today, another consideration is our changing attitudes and laws covering exactly what a gender is or is not. How would adoption of the ERA affect those issues related to gender identity? We do not pretend to have the answers to these questions, do you?
Update: In January of 2020, the State of Virginia ratified the ERA, becoming the 38th State to ratify the Amendment. Controversy over the late ratification so many years after the original proposal leaves some debate as to whether or not such ratification is binding. An account of each State’s status is contained in this link. Additionally, 4 States have voted to rescind their approval of what would become our 28th Amendment. Legal issues over whether or not such a retraction of approval is legal and whether or not the original deadline is binding will have to be worked out in the courts. Initial reaction from the Justice Department indicated an unwillingness by the Trump Administration to accept the ERA. Keep watching!
Question for students (and subscribers): Should we adopt the Equal Rights Amendment? (Why or why not?) Do you think the 26th Amendment was a good idea? How about the 18th Amendment? What Amendment would you like to see adopted? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Gelletly, LeeAnne. The Equal Rights Amendment (Finding a Voice: Women’s Fight for Equal). Mason Crest, 2014.
Raphael, Ray. The U.S. Constitution: Explained–Clause by Clause–for Every American Today. Vintage, 2017.
Taylor, JG. The 25th Amendment: We All Fall down. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2017.
The featured image in this article, Joint Resolution Proposing the Twenty-fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, page 1 from NARA , is available in the holdings of the National Archives and Records Administration, cataloged under the National Archives Identifier (NAID) 1415077. This work is in the public domain in the United States because it is a work prepared by an officer or employee of the United States Government as part of that person’s official duties under the terms of Title 17, Chapter 1, Section 105 of the US Code.