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The United States Constitution

Resources for researching the history, drafting, interpretation, and other elements of the U.S. Constitution.

Introduction

Of the remaining Constitutional amendments, only a few have had a significant impact on American life. Most are related to voting procedures, elections, and other matters of government administration. However, a few - most notably the Thirteenth Amendment, the Fourteenth Amendment, and the Nineteenth Amendment - are civil rights milestones. This page will give you an overview of each amendment and a few resources for further research.

Every amendment is linked to its page at the National Constitution Center, a great site for further research. If you want to know more about any of these amendments, just click on its link. The pages include detailed analysis, historical context, and important documents related to each amendment.

Amendments 11-15

Amendment 11: The Judicial power of the United States shall not be construed to extend to any suit in law or equity, commenced or prosecuted against one of the United States by Citizens of another State, or by Citizens or Subjects of any Foreign State.

  • This amendment established the legal doctrine of "sovereign immunity", which protects government entities or officers acting in their official capacity from being sued over the performance of their duties. It was adopted in 1795 in response to a 1793 U.S. Supreme Court case, Chisholm v. Georgia.

Amendment 12: This lengthy amendment, adopted in 1804, revised the procedures for using the Electoral College to elect the President and Vice-President. Its impact has mainly been political - it affects the required qualifications of presidential and vice-presidential candidates.

Amendment 13:

Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

  • The 13th Amendment is perhaps the most important amendment in American history. Ratified in 1865, it was the first of three "Reconstruction amendments" that were adopted immediately following the Civil War.
  • While the amendment has rarely been interpreted by the courts, its effect on American society cannot be overstated. Many slaves had already technically been freed by President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation, but the 13th Amendment solidified their legal status as free men and women.

Amendment 14:

Section 1. All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside. No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

[Sections 2 through 5 omitted for brevity]

  • Adopted in 1868, this is the second of the "Reconstruction amendments" and one of the most far-reaching of the non-Bill of Rights amendments. This is mainly due to Section 1, which contains four major clauses: the Citizenship Clause, the Privileges & Immunities Clause, the Due Process Clause, and the Equal Protection Clause. The remaining sections deal with post-Civil War governmental administration.

Amendment 15:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

  • The third of the "Reconstruction amendments", the 15th Amendment was adopted in 1870 and was intended to guarantee the voting rights of former slaves and other African-American citizens. However, many states found ways to circumvent the amendment's purpose by instituting poll taxes, literacy tests, race-restricted primary elections, and other discriminatory criteria. This discrimination was eventually held illegal by the 24th Amendment, several major Supreme Court cases, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Amendments 16-20

Amendment 16: The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several States, and without regard to any census or enumeration.

  • The impetus for the 16th Amendment was an 1894 U.S. Supreme Court case, Pollock v. Farmers' Loan & Trust Co., which held that an income tax on property was the equivalent of a direct tax and thus prohibited under Article I, section 9 of the Constitution.
  • When this amendment was passed by Congress in 1909, it was naturally controversial. It took several years and significant changes in the country's economic and political situation before it was finally ratified in 1913.
  • This amendment has caused some consternation for the judicial system, as it has become the lightning rod for challenges by "tax protestors", citizens who believe that the amendment was not correctly ratified. These individuals often file lawsuits claiming that the government does not have the power to tax incomes.

Amendment 17:

The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each State, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each State shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the State legislatures.

When vacancies happen in the representation of any State in the Senate, the executive authority of such State shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, That the legislature of any State may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct.

This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.

  • Before this amendment's adoption in 1913, senators were elected by state legislatures, which led to perceived corruption in state politics and a movement to allow citizens to directly elect their senators. The amendment passed with little opposition, but it had the unintended result of causing confusion about how to replace senators who left office before the end of their terms. Consequently, there have been several efforts to repeal the amendment entirely.

Amendment 18:

Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all the territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited.

Section 2. The Congress and the several States shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

  • Also known as Prohibition, the 18th Amendment was adopted in 1920 after many years of advocacy by the temperance movement. Even before the amendment's passage, many states enacted bans on alcohol within their borders.
  • This is the only amendment to be completely repealed (by the 21st Amendment in 1933).

Amendment 19: The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

  • The 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920 after a decades-long women's suffrage movement. The key part of this amendment is its requirement that every state allow women to vote. Prior to this, while several states already allowed women to vote, many others did not.
  • The amendment overruled an 1875 U.S. Supreme Court case, Minor v. Happersett, which had held that the 14th Amendment did not require states to allow women to vote.

Amendment 20: Sets the beginning and ending dates of executive and congressional terms.

  • The 20th amendment was ratified in 1933. Before it took effect, there was no exact date set for when Congress must convene or for the beginning and ending of terms of service. This amendment removed that uncertainty.

Amendments 21-27

Amendment 21:

Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed.

Section 2. The transportation or importation into any State, Territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited.

Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several States, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the States by the Congress.

  • This amendment, ratified in 1933, repealed the 1920 amendment imposing Prohibition. It invalidated the federal laws banning alcohol and returned to the states the power to set their own alcohol regulations. It is the only amendment that directly repeals another amendment.

Amendment 22:

Section 1. No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice, and no person who has held the office of President, or acted as President, for more than two years of a term to which some other person was elected President shall be elected to the office of the President more than once. But this article shall not apply to any person holding the office of President when this article was proposed by the Congress, and shall not prevent any person who may be holding the office of President, or acting as President, during the term within which this article becomes operative from holding the office of President or acting as President during the remainder of such term.

Section 2. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of three-fourths of the several states within seven years from the date of its submission to the states by the Congress.

  • Before the adoption of this amendment in 1951, there were no legal restrictions on how many terms a president could serve. Although it was customary to serve no more than twice, several presidents had run for third terms, but none had succeeded. It wasn't until President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was elected to unprecedented third and fourth terms that the 22nd Amendment was proposed and ratified.
  • There have been multiple attempts to repeal this amendment, but none have been passed by Congress.

Amendment 23:

Section 1. The District constituting the seat of Government of the United States shall appoint in such manner as the Congress may direct:

A number of electors of President and Vice President equal to the whole number of Senators and Representatives in Congress to which the District would be entitled if it were a State, but in no event more than the least populous State; they shall be in addition to those appointed by the States, but they shall be considered, for the purposes of the election of President and Vice President, to be electors appointed by a State; and they shall meet in the District and perform such duties as provided by the twelfth article of amendment.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

  • Adopted in 1961, this amendment granted residents of the District of Columbia the right to participate in presidential and vice-presidential elections. Prior to this, only states were allowed to vote for electors to send to the Electoral College.
  • In 1978, an amendment was proposed that would have repealed the 23rd Amendment and given the District of Columbia full representation in both houses of Congress and the Electoral College. This amendment was not adopted.

Amendment 24:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote in any primary or other election for President or Vice President, for electors for President or Vice President, or for Senator or Representative in Congress, shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or any State by reason of failure to pay any poll tax or other tax.

Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

  • The 24th Amendment, ratified in 1964, was intended to prevent southern states from forcing poor voters to choose between paying an often unaffordable tax and losing their right to vote. This amendment was necessary due to a 1937 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Breedlove v. Suttles, which had found poll taxes to be constitutional.

Amendment 25: This amendment sets out the presidential line of succession, procedures for handling a vacancy in the office of vice president, and procedures for declaring a president unfit for office.

  • The 25th amendment was adopted in 1967. Although the need to clarify the rules of succession had been obvious for decades, it wasn't until the assassination of President John F. Kennedy that this amendment finally gained the momentum to pass.

Amendment 26:

Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Section 2. The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.

  • This amendment, adopted in 1971, lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Although this change was proposed as early as 1941, the movement to finally pass it grew out of the perceived unfairness of 18 to 20-year-old men being eligible to be drafted into service in the Vietnam War, but ineligible to vote.

Amendment 27: No law, varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives, shall take effect, until an election of Representatives shall have intervened.

  • The 27th Amendment was proposed in 1789 as part of the original Bill of Rights; however, it wasn't adopted for over 200 years. In 1982, a student at the University of Texas at Austin researched the amendment and launched a campaign to finally ratify it. In 1992, he succeeded, with Michigan being the final state to announce its ratification.