After 16 episodes exploring transformational figures who shaped America’s story, the final episode of The Washington Post’s “Constitutional” podcast tackles listeners’ questions about the history — and future — of the nation’s governing document.
Christine Blackerby, a historian and curator at the U.S. Capitol Building, explains what the 27 successful amendments to the Constitution have in common; what trends have emerged among the 11,000 amendment proposals in U.S. history that weren’t successful; and what all those efforts, combined, tell us about the arc of change in America.
You can find the entire “Constitutional” podcast series, hosted by Washington Post journalist Lillian Cunningham, here on The Washington Post site. You can also subscribe to the series for free on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen to podcasts. For updates about the series, you can also follow podcast host Lillian Cunningham on Twitter:
Transcript of “Ourselves and our posterity”
LILLIAN CUNNINGHAM: One summer evening in New York City, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison went over to Thomas Jefferson’s home for dinner. It was 1790, so three years after the Constitution had been drafted, and the new government of the United States was now underway.
New York City was the temporary capital during those years. Congress met at Federal Hall, near the tip of Manhattan, down by Wall Street. And it was there, actually, that Madison (who was now a congressman) had recently proposed the first round of changes to the Constitution. Congress had decided to pass 10 of these suggested amendments, known as the Bill of Rights.
Jefferson was serving as the country’s first secretary of state and he was in charge of holding onto those four pages of parchment that the Constitution was written on. He had rented a house a couple blocks from Federal Hall, on Maiden Lane. If you looked down the cobblestone street from Jefferson’s apartment, you could see the tall ships docked at the seaport along the East River.
At dinner that June evening, as the sun sank late over the rooftops and sailors tied up their boats along the waterfront, Hamilton and Madison tried to break a political impasse.
Hamilton, now the Treasury secretary, wanted the national government to take over the states’ war debts–so the Revolutionary War debts that each of the states had–which would further consolidate federal power.
That was not a very popular idea among those in Congress who favored states’ rights and small government. But Madison was willing to help Hamilton out. Madison was willing to wrangle the necessary support for it. If Hamilton, in exchange, could do Madison a favor. He wanted help appeasing his fellow southern congressmen, so he asked Hamilton to get on board with a plan for the new, permanent capital of the United States to be near Virginia.
The dinner ended, the last of the wine sipped, the summer twilight turned to dark night, and the plan was set in motion.
By July, this deal would become official. From Federal Hall in New York City, Congress passed a bill that authorized moving the nation’s capital more than 200 miles southward.
The site, picked by George Washington, sat at a fork of the Potomac River between Virginia and Maryland. The farmland and forested areas would need to be cleared, the swampy areas drained, and an entire city mapped out and then built from scratch on this mostly undeveloped 100 square miles of earth.
It took a decade before enough of the groundwork was laid that Congress could hold its first official session there, in a new city named after George Washington, in a location that resulted from a bargain and on land belonging to no state.
And it has been there in Washington, D.C., in the halls and chambers of the Capitol Building, that the rest of the proposals, battles, compromises and changes to the Constitution would play out.
I’m Lillian Cunningham with The Washington Post, and this is the final episode of Constitutional.[THEME MUSIC]
CUNNINGHAM: The day I went to the National Archives to tape the very first episode of Constitutional, it was late spring, a blinking blue sky, and you could already feel the D.C. humidity rising. I remember walking inside the Archives and standing in the rotunda, looking into the glass cases at those four pages of parchment. I remember seeing the words “We the people” up close. And seeing this enormous banner hanging from the ceiling that listed the 11,000 amendments that members of Congress had proposed to the Constitution throughout history. I remember standing there, seeing all this, asking some questions, and thinking–worrying, really–that I knew so little about what I was setting out to do.
What I was trying to do, starting that day, was to tell stories about some of “we the people” — some of the people who profoundly shaped not just the words on those pages of the Constitution, but the America that has sprung from those words.
After seeing those pieces of parchment in the Archives, we decided to document what it would have taken to make them…Talking about the way the animal skin is scrubbed and scraped. Talking about the way that parchment ultimately stretches. And rebounds. Vibrates like a drum.
It seemed like a nice metaphor then (gritty, poetic), but now that I’ve reached the very last episode it speaks to me in an even truer, deeper way.
In the months since the podcast began, so many of those figures I didn’t know very well back then have completely come to life for me. People like: Chief Standing Bear, Wong Kim Ark, Louis Brandeis, Clarence Earl Gideon.
I now better understand the people who did the rough, messy work that first gave the Constitution its shape.
I can picture the people over time who pulled so hard at it–fighting for the end of slavery, or the right to vote, or the right to free speech–that the Constitution, and the country, looked like it might tear.
And I see how the effort of generation after generation has smoothed it out, made it more supple.
That banner with all the proposed amendments? It was put together by a historian named Christine Blackerby, who used to work for the National Archives and now works as a researcher and curator at the Capitol Building. She is one of the only people to have studied every single proposed amendment to the Constitution.
I’ve been thinking about that banner ever since the first day. And now that all the podcast episodes, it seems like a great time to go visit Christine to fill in some of the remaining gaps.
Many of you have listened along to this entire series, and you reached out to me to share questions that it has sparked for you. They were all incredibly thoughtful, incredibly insightful. So this bonus episode, this finale, is yours. I’m taking your questions to Christine so she can shed light for us on some of the amendments I didn’t have a chance to cover myself; she’ll go through some of those 11,000 proposals that weren’t successful; and hopefully she’ll leave us with a richer sense of what all those efforts, combined, tell us about the arc of change in America.
Let’s go now to talk with her in the home of Congress, on Capitol Hill.
Approaching the big white dome of the Capitol Building, it’s hard to image that this spot was once densely covered with trees and brush, back when Hamilton and Madison made that deal to relocate the government here. Today, the only trees in sight are ones that are perfectly planted along the landscaped lawn.
But their branches are all bare right now. It’s February. Bitter cold. No D.C. humidity now. The sidewalk is icy.
My producer Ted and I take it all in for a moment–that we’ve reached the final interview of the series. And then we practically sprint inside the doors of the Capitol to warm up and meet Christine.
Any amendment to the Constitution has to have a representative inside this building who champions it–someone who formally proposes it in the House or the Senate, and then stands up and pushes for it in one of these chambers. So it seems wonderfully fitting that for our finale, that the banner I saw on the first day led me to Christine–
And that Christine now works here, in the seat of Constitutional change, in the marble halls of the Capitol Building.
So what makes a successful amendment? What sets apart the 27 that made it into the Constitution from the thousands and thousands of proposals that didn’t make it?
CHRISTINE BLACKERBY: There’s been a lot of proposed amendments to the Constitution that were really reflective of the issues of the day and didn’t really address a long-term problem that the country was really wrestling with. And a lot of those are the ones that failed. They didn’t need a constitutional amendment to solve the problem. Sometimes it was solved by legislation or sometimes the problem basically solved itself.
The ones that were successful: The things that they have in common are that there was wide consensus in America that there was a problem that needed to be addressed. And eventually over some time, that consensus grew to a point where there was a solution that could be had, but only by a constitutional amendment.
CUNNINGHAM: Several of you listeners wanted more details about some of these amendment proposals that failed.
As Christine mentioned, a number of them were just too “of the moment”–for example, the Utah territory applied for statehood at the end of the 19th century, and there was suddenly a rash of proposals in Congress that would alter the Constitution to give the federal government, rather than states, the ability to set marriage laws. Why all of these constitutional proposals? Well, because Utah allowed polygamy, and that worried some congressmen. But in the end that kind of concern wasn’t broad enough or lasting enough to garner the kind of support that would be needed to pass an amendment.
Other proposals that failed were early versions of ideas that would ultimately make it in–like various proposals to address slavery, or to grant women the right to vote.
But of course, given there were 11,000 failed attempts, inevitably there have been quite a few zany–or, intriguing–amendment proposals to come from members of Congress.
BLACKERBY: There have definitely been some strange suggestions over time. One of them would be to choose the executive by lot. So literally picking a ball out of a bowl that represents a candidate and making that person be the president of the United States.
CUNNINGHAM: Was that a joke proposal?
BLACKERBY: I don’t think it’s a joke, but the member who introduced that into Congress in 1846 didn’t give a speech on that, so I was unable to determine for sure what his motivation was. But based on his career and the events at the time, it appears that that was an effort to try to quell the rising sectionalism in the nation at the time, in that period before the Civil War when the country was starting to divide into North and South. And so I think this was an effort to actually purposefully randomise where that president might come from.
There was a 1911 effort to grant to Congress the power to protect migratory birds. In 1917 there was an effort to return wealth to owners who had been dishonestly separated from it. They wanted a constitutional requirement that thieves have to give the money back. There were efforts to put a six-year time limit on the president’s term and then to– after resigning the presidency–the president would become a senator for life. That was in 1875.
There was also another one from 1903 that proposed to keep the land of the nation nearly equally divided among people. So there was rising populism at that point in time and there was extreme wealth at the highest levels of society and there was some people in society at that point in time who felt that they were not getting their fair share so to speak. It seems like such a strange proposal because, just for one, of the logistics of making that happen. So I think a proposal like that is less serious and more about making a point.
CUNNINGHAM: And what’s your favorite amendment?
BLACKERBY: Probably one attempt in 1893 to change the name of the republic from the United States of America to the United States of the World.
CUNNINGHAM: Nearly all of the successful amendments were proposed by multiple members of Congress, in multiple ways, over the course of many years. They had to slowly build momentum and consensus among legislators. But they often also needed an external catalyst.
BLACKERBY: The times where there are significant numbers of introduced amendments are generally those periods of great change in American society. So for example you can you can divide these successful amendments into four broad eras, perhaps, or groupings.
CUNNINGHAM: Over the course of the podcast, we examined each of these. We talked with historians about the founding era, which gave us the drafting of the Constitution, and the first twelve amendments to it.
JEFFREY ROSEN: There’s nothing more exciting than the Constitutional Convention. There was nothing dry or dusty or antique or obscure about it. This is the most radical body of democratic deliberation ever assembled.
ERICA DUNBAR: In many ways, there were sticky situations in the Constitution that the framers could not really figure out in 1787 and therefore, in some ways, they kicked the can down the road.
CUNNINGHAM: We looked at the next big era of social change and constitutional change: the Reconstruction era, after the Civil War. This was when we got the 13th through 15th amendments–banning slavery, establishing equal protection and granting citizens the right to vote regardless of race. It was the first major rights revolution in America, and the first time we affirmed that people other than the framers could change the Constitution.
ERIC FONER: There was probably the biggest celebration in the history of Congress on the day, January 31, 1865, that the 13th Amendment was passed. I mean in the hall of the House of Representatives, members started shrieking and yelling and screaming and throwing their hats up in the air.
JOSEPH STARITA: For the first time in the 103-year history of the United States, a federal judge had declared that an Indian from that point forward would have to be regarded as a person within the meaning of the law.
CUNNINGHAM: The next big constitutional period was more than half a century later: It was the Progressive Era, at the beginning of the 1900s. We saw several issues, populist issues, that had been building for decades spring to life in the form of the 16th through 21st amendments.
JOSEPH FISHKIN: The constitutional fight over the income tax is one that’s incredibly revealing and resonant today
DANIEL OKRENT: I can’t imagine that the original framers of the Constitution ever would have conceived of the possibility of a Prohibition amendment.
ELEANOR SMEAL: In the history books, they keep saying that women “got equality” or “got the vote.” We didn’t “get” any vote. We fought for that. Woman sacrificed their lives for that vote.
CUNNINGHAM: Finally, the fourth and most recent era of dynamic constitutional change was the Civil Rights Era during the 1950s, 60s and 70s. On the podcast, we looked at some of the amendments passed during that time, but also at a number of pivotal cases that redefined rights the Constitution already granted.
JOHN LEWIS: The struggle of Civil Rights was to really redeem the soul of America
KAREN HOUPPERT: Gideon wrote to the Supreme Court: It makes no difference how old I am or what color I am or what church I belong to if any. The question is I did not get a fair trial.
CUNNINGHAM: Across all of these time periods, there are two broad categories that most Constitutional amendments fall under. They either expand citizens’ rights (which was the main focus of our podcast) OR they make a crucial fix to the way the government operates, to keep it running smoothly.
We spent a little less time talking about those kind of amendments. So here at the end listeners hoped we could look more closely at some of them–in particular, the amendments throughout history that have changed the highest office in the nation: the presidency.
Over the past 200-plus years there have been numerous proposals by Congress that would limit, expand, or in some way recast the scope of presidential power. For instance, right now there are proposals in Congress that would alter the president’s ability to issue pardons.
But the very first Constitutional change that affected the presidency was the 12th Amendment. It was the first amendment passed by Congress in this building–after the capital moved to D.C. And it was triggered by a major political crisis: the tied election of 1800, between Thomas Jefferson and Aaron Burr. This was only the fourth U.S. presidential election, and it exposed a problem in one the democratic ideas the framers had written into the Constitution–the electoral college.
BLACKERBY: The electoral college was one of those innovations that the founders made so that when people vote for president, they’re actually not voting directly for the president. They’re voting for members of the electoral college who then cast their vote for the president. It’s a manner of indirect election. And the way the founders set that up in the original constitution was that each elector got two votes. And that worked fine as long as everybody voted for George Washington. But then in the election of 1800, there came to be a problem that was very evident very quickly.
CUNNINGHAM: Under that original system, the president was the person who got the most electoral votes. And the vice president was simply the person who came in second. Which meant you could have a president and vice president from different parties. To avoid that, in the election of 1800 political parties formed tickets for the first time. The Democratic-Republican party had a Jefferson-Burr ticket–Jefferson for the presidency and Burr for the vice presidency. Well, tiny problem. The electors each had two votes, so all those electors who supported the Democratic-Republican party cast a vote for Jefferson and a vote Burr. And…instead of coming in first and second, they tied.
BLACKERBY: which means that neither had a majority, which means that there was no chosen president. So according to the Constitution that means the election goes to the House of Representatives and each state delegation gets one vote to choose which candidate they want for president. And the House took 36 ballots before they finally settled on Thomas Jefferson.
The main takeaway from that with regard to the Constitution was that this kind of tie was going to keep happening, because parties were here to stay. So they realized right away that they needed to tweak the electoral college, so they did that and that was the what we now know as the 12th Amendment to the Constitution. And all that does is it just says that, as the electors cast their two votes, that when they cast their vote for president it goes into this pool; and then there’s a separate pool of votes for vice president. Those are then counted separately and then you’re unlikely to have a tie. So it was a very small little tweak, but it had a very big impact–because we’ve not had that problem again since then.
CUNNINGHAM: There’s one other amendment to the Constitution that also relates to the electoral college–it’s the 23rd Amendment, ratified in 1961. And it gave Washington, D.C. electors in the electoral college–meaning DC residents could finally have a voice in choosing the president.
The electoral college, though, has been the subject of way more amendment proposals than just those two that successfully made it in.
BLACKERBY: Of the more than 11,000 constitutional amendments that have been introduced in Congress, the second most frequent topic of those proposals has been how we choose the president–and abolishing the Electoral College or altering it in some way has been a frequent choice.
CUNNINGHAM: Do you know the reason why we haven’t seen more amendments then that have actually been successful to change it?
BLACKERBY: Because there’s never been enough consensus within America on whether or not we want to change it–and also, importantly, how to change it.
CUNNINGHAM: But there has been enough consensus on other changes America wanted to make to the presidency over time. Just as with the 12th Amendment, these other constitutional amendments about the presidency were all precipitated by specific troubling events when the nation felt the office of president was in some crisis.
One of these was the 20th Amendment, ratified in 1933. It changed the swearing-in date for the president (and also the vice president and Congress). This seems like a minor detail, but the lag time between elections and inaugurations had, at one point, been nearly catastrophic.
BLACKERBY: The Constitution indicated that the start date for presidential term would be in March, and that created a pretty long lame duck period between when a president was actually elected in November and by the time they finally took office in March. But the lag time for congressional elections was even worse. You would have an election in November, but that Congress that was elected wouldn’t actually take office until the following December and a whole term of Congress, the second session of Congress, would take place as lame ducks. And so that was considered to be a problem by many people and it had been something that Congress knew was a problem for a long time.
BLACKERBY: But the catalyst for that amendment at that point in time was the presidential election of 1932, between Herbert Hoover and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. And during that lag time between the election and when Roosevelt took office, there was a major bank panic in the United States. Of course we were already in the middle of the Depression at that point–we were at the nadir of the of the Depression, really–and things were really, really terrible. Hoover on his way out of office felt like he couldn’t do anything–that he shouldn’t act as he was already almost out of office. Roosevelt of course didn’t have the power to do anything yet until he came into into the office. And so there was this two-month time period in January and February where the nation was in panic. So that was a main factor that led to people saying: Hey, we really need to fix this problem and now is the time.
CUNNINGHAM: Ever since the 20th Amendment was ratified, new members of Congress are sworn in on on Jan. 3, and new presidents and vice presidents are sworn in on Jan. 20.
There was another presidency-related amendment, of probably even greater consequence, that also had to do with FDR. After Roosevelt died in office during his fourth term as president, Congress passed the 22nd Amendment–which officially limits the number of times someone can be elected president.
That amendment became an important safeguard, preventing democracy from turning into demagoguery; but interestingly, the framers hadn’t set any official limit themselves in the Constitution.
George Washington had set a precedent of stepping down after his two terms. And so it was a tradition but not a requirement, until: after FDR.
BLACKERBY: Roosevelt’s situation was unique in that the end of his second term came in 1940 when Europe was already in war and it appeared that the United States had a good chance of joining what became known as World War II. So the nation was at a point where they were faced with the choice of keeping a leader they knew or starting completely fresh in a dangerous environment. There were a lot of people who felt that George Washington’s two-term precedent should be followed and that it was disrespectful to the Constitution and to America to even presume to run for a third term. But there was no legal barrier to it.
So not only did Roosevelt run for a third term in 1940, but he was in fact chosen and then went on to a fourth, at which point we were engaged in the middle of war and Americans again had to choose whether or not they wanted to change leadership in the middle of a national crisis and chose not to. But then in 1946 after–the war ended in 1945 and in 1946 Republicans got control of Congress after Democrats being in control for decades. And there were many Republicans who did not like Roosevelt’s efforts to serve beyond the Washington precedent. And that was when what became the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution was passed in Congress.
CUNNINGHAM: The final constitutional change to the presidency was the 25th Amendment. It filled in a huge oversight in the Constitution, which was: What happens if a president dies in office or is no longer fit enough to serve?
This is a fascinating amendment because–it wasn’t ratified until 1967, following John F. Kennedy’s assassination. But America had been through several presidential assassinations before and a few presidents who died of natural causes and some presidents who had strokes and other major health issues in office. So why did it take so long to get this amendment?
BLACKERBY: The issue of presidential succession has existed since the first time a president died in office, which was in 1841 when William Henry Harrison died only a month or so after he took office. There was a recognition that there was a problem there that needed to be addressed, but there was no consensus on how to solve the problem. There was also the issue of the vice president, because the Constitution is silent on filling a vacancy in the office of the vice presidency. So there was a number of times where the vice president moved up to the presidency when that was vacant or the vice president died or resigned themselves
So if you add all those time periods together when the vice presidency was vacant, it adds up to 38 years of American history where there was no constitutional designation of who would succeed the president if the president died. That became a very serious issue after Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, because at that point we had entered into the nuclear era and there was a lot of concern that we know who that person is who’s going to have their finger on the nuclear button–and there was no constitutional solution to that. So it was definitely that catalyst that led to the 25th Amendment.
And the 25th Amendment has four sections, each addressing different aspects of the presidential succession question. The most controversial of those when they were debating it was Section 4, where they talk about the incapacity of the president–where he’s alive but maybe isn’t totally in control of decision making. And what do you do in that situation? Who decides that he’s incapable of making sound decisions at that point in time? And what’s the process for protecting the nation in that situation? And of course that section has never been used, so we don’t know if the words that were chosen at that point in time will stand up to any constitutional situation where that might need to be invoked.
CUNNINGHAM: Christine mentioned earlier how eras of dramatic social change and upheaval tend to usher in greater constitutional activity. This 25th Amendment was passed during the most recent constitutional wave, in the 1960s and ‘70s. This was during the Civil Rights Era, the Vietnam War Era. There were, of course, though, people behind those waves. We talked throughout the podcast about many of those figures, but one person we haven’t mentioned before is a senator named Birch Bayh, from Indiana.
He was 34-years old when he was sworn in to Congress, in 1963. Bayh was a Democrat, and he quickly ended up chairman of the subcommittee on constitutional amendments.
Bayh wrote the 25th and 26th amendments to the Constitution (the 26th was the one that lowered the voting age to 18). That makes him the only person, other than James Madison, to have authored multiple amendments. And: Bayh would have actually had three to his name, if the Equal Rights Amendment had been ratified.
The Equal Rights Amendment, or ERA, has been the subject of the most amendment proposals in all of American history.
BLACKERBY: There have been over 1,100–so that’s approximately 10 percent of all the amendments–there have been over 1,100 introduced amendments to establish the legal equality of men and women.
CUNNINGHAM: A version of the ERA was first introduced in Congress in 1923, shortly after women got the right to vote, and it then continued to be proposed in every single Congress until 1972–often there were multiple proposals with slightly different wording. And in 1972, Birch Bayh’s version of the ERA passed Congress and was sent to the states for ratification.
If you listened to our episode on this, then you know that it didn’t get the required sign-off from three-quarters of the states by its deadline in 1979–though it came pretty close. It then got an extension to 1982, but still didn’t get enough states before that second deadline was up.
So this leads into a question one listener sent in to me, which was: When do we officially consider an amendment dead–that there will be no chance of it ever moving any further forward?
BLACKERBY: Well, most of those 11,000 amendments that have been introduced, if they do not pass Congress, then they’re dead at the end of that Congress and in the next Congress that amendment would have to be reintroduced. So that’s how most of the 11,000 have died. Of those that did pass both houses of Congress–
CUNNINGHAM: Like the ERA–
BLACKERBY: In modern times, those amendments have included a time limit for ratification. But the Constitution does not say anything about time limits and not all of the proposed amendments have included one.
CUNNINGHAM: Where does this leave the Equal Rights Amendment? Could it still be ratified?
BLACKERBY: Well, there’s some disagreement about that. It’s unclear whether including a time limit on an amendment proposal is even constitutional. So there are some people who believe that time limits are unconstitutional and therefore the ERA, as it was passed in Congress in 1972, is still a live proposal for ratification. The state of Nevada just ratified it last year. And then there are others who say that, no, the time limit was written into the joint resolution in Congress itself and that’s final; the time limit is over. So that proposal from Congress in 1972 is dead and that any further effort to pass an Equal Rights Amendment has to go back to square one with the introduction of a joint resolution in Congress.
CUNNINGHAM: So for the time being, people who want to see this amendment ratified are taking a multipronged approach. They’re trying to get the remaining number of states to ratify it, to see if Congress would then accept that ratification despite the expired deadline. AND, in the meantime, as a backup plan, some members of Congress are also continuing to propose new ERA amendments each year in case they need to start from scratch.
Which brings us to the Constitution present day. The question that more listeners sent me than any other was: What’s the next amendment we might see? As we look across the current proposals in Congress, are there any that–between both their subject matter and the frequency and persistence with which they appear–seem like they might find a place in the Constitution?
BLACKERBY: So far this Congress, there have been 65 introduced constitutional amendments and the most common topic amongst those has been for a balanced budget amendment. And there have been 15 of those so far this Congress. That’s a topic that has been in amendment proposals since at least the 1970s. So again, that’s something that keeps showing up over and over and over again. The term limits for members of Congress is the next most popular topic in the current Congress, and then issues relating to campaign finance is another one of which there are multiple amendments in Congress right now. And the Equal Rights Amendment that we’ve already mentioned is another one of those that has multiple proposals in this Congress.
All of those are issues that have been repeatedly introduced for decades now. Whether there will be specific movement on any of those immediately, it’s hard to say. I highly suspect that those issues will reappear in the next Congress too. And we’ll see. As I already mentioned, the issues that have been successful have been those that have been around for decades before they finally get enough consensus.
CUNNINGHAM: Several people, not surprisingly, are also curious if there’s a decent chance we will see a new amendment in our lifetime. Or if the hurdles have gotten higher over time, and political polarization has made it increasingly difficult for any proposal to pick up enough steam.
BLACKERBY: I would say that it’s just an ebb and flow and we’re in a dry spell right now. It’s been 26 years since we last amended the Constitution with the 27th. And we’ve already mentioned that there’s been other periods in American history much longer than that where we’ve had no amendments.
The period after the 12th Amendment was ratified, which was in 1804, there’s kind of a lull period after that. I think people perhaps have the idea that we made some fixes to that Constitution and now we can focus elsewhere, and then there wasn’t another big push for amendments until that great social change of the Civil War. That time period between the 12th and 13th Amendment is the longest time period in American history where we do not amend the Constitution: 61 years.
CUNNINGHAM: There was also a period of nearly 40 years between the last Reconstruction era amendment and the first Progressive Era amendment.
BLACKERBY: So I think it’s just something that it’s just part of the process.
CUNNINGHAM: Final question. When you combine the story of the 27 amendments that we do have to the Constitution with the story of the thousands of proposed amendments that didn’t make it in, what do you take away about the American experiment? How well have the words that were written on those original pages of parchment held up over 230 years?
BLACKERBY: I think those words from the founders have held up pretty well. We’re still using this Constitution 228 years later. They set a very high bar for amending the Constitution. Two thirds of both houses of Congress and three quarters of the states is a lot. And that requires a pretty high level of consensus within all of America before that can happen.
But they also knew that–they understood at the time when they wrote the Constitution that there would need to be changes to what they were doing and that’s why they included Article 5 in the Constitution, which describes the amending process. So these efforts that we’ve made over the years to update the constitution, I think the Founders would approve of that. They knew they didn’t have it 100 percent correct. They knew that they were moving towards a more perfect union. Not that they had created a perfect union.
CUNNINGHAM: Congress moved to Washington, DC, in November of 1800. The forest had been cleared from Jenkins Hill, and the beginnings of the Capitol Building sat on top of it. It was unfinished, unheated and leaky. But the structure was complete enough to be the new home of 107 members of Congress, from what were then the 16 states of America.
A snowstorm had blown over the East Coast leading up to Congress’s start there, on November 17. The welcoming parade was canceled. Many members straggled in days late, having been stranded and delayed by the snow.
But America had a new capital city. Or the makings, at least, of what would become a city in time.
The Capitol Building wouldn’t reach its present-day size and appearance–with House and Senate wings flanking its large dome in the center–until the end of the 1800s. (Around the same time the Washington Monument was completed.) The grand, grassy boulevard of the National Mall wouldn’t be cleared until the early 1900s. The cherry blossoms wouldn’t be planted around the Tidal Basin until the 19-teens. The Supreme Court wouldn’t move out of the basement of the Capitol Building and into its own marble building across the street until 1935. With the enormous words “Equal justice under the law” carved above its 16 columns.
After the interview with Christine was over, she took me down to the original Senate chamber in the Capitol–the one part of the building that was complete that snowy November in 1800. It’s a small, beautiful room that was used by the Senate, then the Supreme Court, and now is just a quiet, roped-off space that visitors peek into.
We walked from there up a staircase into the rotunda, ducked behind an American flag, knocked on a locked door, and then walked through a tiny corridor right out onto the speaker’s balcony.
There’s no snow, but it’s winter–and the wind nearly whipped the door open. And my hair was flying all over the place. And my coat was still downstairs inside. But how could I not stand out there as long as they’d possible let me? From up there, looking west across the city, I could see the Lincoln Memorial in the distance. And I could picture the presidential inaugurations that took place beneath this balcony, and the marches that have filled this National Mall over generations, with people crying out for change.
Much of what this look back through history has done for me is highlight how much the story of America has really been a story about the extension of rights and protections–the expansion of the promise of the Constitution to new groups of people. So to whom have they still not been extended? What are the next frontiers?
Many of the people who have changed America’s constitution–both the country’s actual founding document and its national sense of self–have done so from outside this Capitol Building. From outside Washington, even. They organized a women’s rights convention in Seneca Falls; or wrote to the Supreme Court from a Florida jail; or walked hundreds of miles across the snow-swept plains.
What do they all have in common?
This country is so large and so diverse. We don’t share a race, a religion, even a single climate–some of us live in the rusts and golds of the desert, some in the greens of the mountains, some near the cold blue of the Arctic Ocean. The thing we share–the only thing we really share with every single other person in this country–is the Constitution. That we’re part of the same American experiment, with its promise of justice, liberty and equality. It’s the Constitution that binds us. And so knowing all the twists and turns in the history of that document, and participating in keeping its ideals alive and real for as many people as possible–for ourselves and our posterity–that’s the thing that will keep this crazy, improbable, revolutionary, aspirational, idealistic union together.