Problem

The Constitution of the United States has often been called a “living document.” Why? Labeling it a founding document makes sense – the Constitution outlines our current government system. It’s equally vital and historic, but so is the Declaration of Independence, and that document has never been called “living.” How can the Constitution, a work created in the 1780s, be considered alive?

The Explanation

The American Constitution is considered a living document because of its ability to change with the times. This is done by passing Amendments. 

Definition of Amendment

An amendment, generally speaking, is any change added to improve something. More specific to this topic, an amendment is an article added to the US Constitution to improve and update the document. 

How It Works

The founding fathers were trying to create a nation that would last and prosper. They knew that in order for a nation to survive, it needed to be capable of adapting over time. Thus, they included Article V of the Constitution, a step-by-step process of amending the document.

There are two ways for an amendment to be proposed. Congress can directly instigate a change “if two thirds of both houses shall deem it necessary.” This means that two-thirds of the Senate and then two-thirds of the House of Representatives or vice versa need to vote “yes” on the amendment for it to even be considered being added to the Constitution. The second method of proposing an amendment is equally difficult. If Congress doesn’t want to make a proposal, a national convention can be held. If the convention is called for by at least two-thirds of the states and then the amendment is approved by gathered delegates, the amendment is considered proposed. 

The process isn’t over yet. The amendment has just been proposed. It still needs to be ratified. Either the legislatures of three-fourths of all states or state ratifying conventions in three-fourths of all states must approve of the proposed amendment to ratify it. The amendment is then officially part of the Constitution. 

Slow to Change

The process of amending the Constitution is very difficult. It requires that a large majority of the United States already agree that an amendment is absolutely necessary before it can even be proposed, let alone ratified. While our nation’s founders undoubtedly believed in change, they largely believed in slow, controlled change. They purposefully made it difficult for the Constitution to be amended. Hundreds of amendments have been proposed since the Constitution itself was made, but only twenty-seven have been ratified. The twenty-seventh amendment was ratified in 1992, 202 years after it was submitted. 

In general, there isn’t a deadline or expiration date for a proposed amendment to be ratified, unless it’s specifically stated within the amendment. The Supreme Court ruled that Congress can provide a deadline date for ratification, if it so chooses. Since the twentieth century, proposals usually have a seven-year ratification deadline, but it isn’t strictly necessary nor is there any Constitutional provision directly calling for ratification deadlines. This new custom has only made the ratification process more difficult.

Why Care?

Amending the Constitution is a huge undertaking – it’s specifically designed to be difficult so that only changes that are vital to the entire county are made. A fickle fad isn’t going to get ratified, let alone proposed. However, it’s also been argued that the requirement for such sweeping majorities lets small minorities easily block new amendments. There’s been plenty of debate over changing the amendment process so that its requirements are more manageable, but that would require its own difficult-to-pass amendment.

The idea behind the amendment process is that the states will take care of their own problems as they see fit. For the federal government to get involved and make sweeping changes that will affect the whole, a majority of the whole nation should be behind said changes. This unfortunately means that the battle for adding an amendment is a long, pain-staking battle, but it also means that the amendments that do get added are agreed to be fundamentally good and necessary to our nation.

    Learn More

    1. Anastaplo, George. The Amendments to the Constitution: A Commentary. The John Hopkins University Press, 1995. ISBN: 0-8018-4959-4. 
    2. Caplan, Russell L. Constitutional Brinksmanship: Amending the Constitution by National Convention. Oxford University Press, 1988
    3. Ervin, Sam J. Jr. “Proposed Legislation to Implement the Convention Method of Amending the Constitution.” Michigan Law Review, vol 66, issue 5, 1968.
    4. Martig, Ralph R. “Amending the Constitution Article Five: The Keystone of the Arch.” The Michigan Law Review, vol 35, no 8, Jun 1937, pp 1253-1285. DOI: 10.2307/1281642.
    5. Natelson, Robert G. Amending the Constitution by Convention: A Complete View of the Founders’ Plan. Goldwater Institute, Sept 2010.

    Think Further

    1. Do you think the requirements for amending the Constitution should be easier? Why or why not?
    2. Why do you think proposed amendments started coming with deadlines for ratification? What’s the benefit to adding them?
    3. Which option do you think most of the ratified amendments were proposed via: both houses of Congress or national conventions? Why?

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