Amendments to the Constitution

Standard 5.2: Amendments to the Constitution

Explain the historical context and significance of changes in the Constitution, including key amendments. (Massachusetts Curriculum Framework for History and Social Studies) [8.T5.2]

1870 Print Celebrating 15th Amendment
1870 Print Celebrating Passage of the 15th Amendment, Public Domain

FOCUS QUESTION: How has the Constitution Been Amended and What has Been the Impact of Those Amendments?

Article V of the Constitution deals with how to amend (change) the laws of the land.

The authors of the Constitution recognized that change would be needed from time to time so they established a rigorous amendment process. While the Constitution has been changed over time, it is not easy to do, nor has it happened often.

Since 1787, 11,770 amendments have been proposed but just 27 have been passed—the first 10 being the Bill of Rights. Here is an overview of Amendments 11-27. A summary of all Amendments to the Constitution is available from the National Constitution Center.

What amendment is most well-known and considered most important? A majority of Americans (77 percent) know the First Amendment and its protections of freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and the press; four in ten (41 percent) say it is the most important. One in four (27 percent) Republicans indicate the Second Amendment is most important (Moore, 2016,). A case can be made for the significance of the 19th Amendment, for as journalist Lynn Sherr observed, "In 1872, Susan B. Anthony was arrested for the crime of voting while female. In 1920, that "crime" became a right" (quoted in Matchin, 2020, p. B8). How you rate your knowledge of the amendments and which ones do you regard as most important and/or most historically impactful?

    1. INVESTIGATE: Prohibition and the 18th and 21st Amendments

    In 1919, the United States passed the 18th Amendment, prohibiting the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol. It began a period in American history known as Prohibition

    Agents Destroying Alcohol 1921
    Prohibition agents destroying barrels of alcohol, 1921, Public Domain

    The Prohibition era, noted historian Daniel Okrent (2011), is framed by a profound historical puzzle: “How did a freedom-loving people decide to give up a private right that had been freely exercised by millions upon millions since the first Europeans arrived in the New World?” (p. 3).

    One answer is that the United States emerged from World War I with “deep seismic faults in its society,” giving rise to “clashes” between urban and traditional society that would reverberate through the decade and beyond. Exploring Prohibition is a way to “help students grasp the era’s great complexity and give them insights into different cultural attitudes that still exist in our society” (Gifford, 1996, p. 3).

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    Prohibition was repealed by the 21st Amendment in 1933. For a brief overview of the entire period, see Unintended Consequences by Michael Lerner from the Ken Burns Prohibition website. 

    Media Literacy Connections: Deconstructing Social Works

    1. Ask students to imagine they were in 1919 and had to create an online video for and against the prohibition of alcohol, for social media campaigns, imagining Facebook, Twitter, TikTok, and other major social media outlets did exist in 1919. What would be the content of that video? What will they include, assuming the duration cannot be more than a minute. 
    2. Ask students to research news articles about how race is represented in alcohol advertisements. Ask them to write down their opinion of it. Choose the popular opinion and ask them to argue for or against it.

    Additional Resources: 

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Argue For or Against:  Should the drinking age be lowered to 18?
      • 21 is the legal minimum age for drinking alcohol in the United States, although 45 states allow underage consumption under certain circumstances (State-by-state rules)

    Online Resources for the Prohibition Era

    2. UNCOVER: Alice Paul and the History of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA)

    Suffragist, feminist, and women’s rights activist, Alice Paul wrote the Equal Rights Amendment (or ERA) in 1923. Originally called the "Lucretia Mott Amendment" (1921), the ERA "seeks to end legal distinctions between men and women in terms of divorce, property, employment and other matters" (EqualRightsAmendment.org, 2018, para. 1).

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    The ERA was widely opposed and remained so for 50 years until 1972 when it was passed by Congress and sent to the states for ratification. In the mid-1970s, First Lady Betty Ford was one of the amendment’s leading supporters.

    Alice Paul 1915
    Alice Paul in 1915, Public Domain

    The ERA needed to be ratified by 38 states within seven years in order to become a part of the Constitution. Conservative and Christian activists, notably Phyllis Schlafly led the movement opposing ratification of the ERA in the 1970s, claiming the amendment would lead to tax dollars being spent on abortion, civil rights for same sex couples, women being drafted into the military, and unisex bathrooms. The anti-ERA campaign was successful and the amendment was not passed by the 1982 deadline. Schlafly’s daughter Anne Schlafly Cori is an anti-ERA leader today.

    In 2018, Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the amendment; Nevada having done so in 2017 (NPR, 2017). That left the ERA one state short of the three-quarters of the states total needed for passage of a constitutional amendment. Virginia then passed the ERA in early 2020. 

    Equal Rights Map
    Equal Rights Amendment Map, 2007 with States That Seek to Rescind Their Votes in Yellow/Public Domain

    What happens now? The original deadline for ratification has long passed, although the 27th Amendment was first proposed in 1789 and was not ratified until 1992. Congress would need to vote to void its earlier deadline in order to confirm the result. But in the meantime five states (Nebraska, Tennessee, Idaho, Kentucky, and South Dakota) that originally passed the ERA have attempted withdrawn their support. Are the votes of those states now null and void? The issue is likely to go the Supreme Court for resolution.

    Media Literacy Connections: Analyzing the Equal Rights Amendment in the Media

    The Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) continues to be a sharply contested constitutional topic. A 2020 Associated Press/NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll found 3 in 4 Americans support the amendment, but that support has not translated into making the ERA part of the Constitution. Meanwhile, proponents and opponents make extensive use of the media, particularly social media, to build support for their side of the issue. In this activity, we explore how the ERA is being discussed and portrayed in the media.

    • Activity 1
      • Curate a collection of social media accounts and/or posts in support or opposition to ratification of the ERA (or more broadly, legal protections for women).
      • Choose at least 3 posts and explain how they convey their message and if they are effective in doing so. 
    • Activity 2
      • Are there more individual politicians or organizations that are using social media to promote their message? 
      • Is there more support or opposition present for the passage of the ERA on social media? 
      • What kind of language makes up an effective political hashtag?
      • On Twitter, review how politicians discuss their opinions on passing the ERA. Start by looking into hashtags like #passtheERAnow #equalrightsamendment and #ERANow. Consider the following: 
      • Then, choose two hashtags that are not listed above that you think effectively discuss support or opposition for the ERA and defend your choices.

    • Activity 3
      • Study how amendments were added to the constitution and then create a political advertisement to inspire political leaders to add the ERA to the constitution. Alternatively, create two political ads, one for and one against the ERA.
        • Use the claims from either side of the ERA debate over the past 100 years to support or oppose ratification of the ERA.

    Additional Resources:

    Suggested Learning Activities

    Design & Create

    • Activity 1:
      • Create a infographic or drawing that compares and contrasts the pros and cons of the Equal Rights Amendment.
    • Activity 2
      • Imagine you are a campaign manager for a politician in your state. Create a 1-2 minute political advertisement for or against the ERA. Use the claims from either side of the ERA debate over the past 100 years to support or oppose ratification of the ERA.
    • Activity 3
      • Pretend you are contacting a politician in your state, urging them to take action in support of the ERA. Create a 1-2 minute political advertisement for or against the ERA. Use the claims from either side of the ERA debate over the past 100 years to support or oppose ratification of the ERA.

    Research & Curate

      • Research Alice Paul's life and curate a collection of information about Alice and the Equal Rights Amendment in a wiki page, Wakelet wake, or Google slide deck. Include a least one primary source, one multimedia source, one interactive web resource, and one secondary source.

    Online Resources for the Equal Rights Amendment

    3. ENGAGE: What New Amendments to the Constitution Are Needed Today?

    More than 40 constitutional amendments are introduced in Congress every year. They range across the political spectrum from overturning the Citizens United Supreme Court decision (from the left) to repealing the 16th Amendment’s federal income tax (from the right).

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    Amendments to balance the federal budget, implement campaign finance reform, punish flag desecration, and institute the direct election of the President have been the ones most often introduced since 1999. Hardly any of these proposed amendments get voted on, but the ideas of the amendments are added to the overall public dialogue about national and state policy (Desilver, 2018).

    Media Literacy Connections: Deconstructing gender and Race in History

    Divide students into groups and ask them to research the US constitution’s initial draft and ask them to look at the gendered and racial language of the text and discuss their thoughts with the class. Amplify the fact that it was five white men who wrote the first draft of the constitution. 

    Suggested Learning Activities

    • Propose an New Amendment
      • What new amendment would you propose to the government?
      • Why is that amendment needed in today’s society?

      Online Resources for Amendments to the Constitution

      Standard 5.2 Conclusion

      The amendment process has produced highly consequential changes to the United States Constitution. INVESTIGATE looked at the Prohibition Era that began with the 18th Amendment and ended with the 21st Amendment. UNCOVER explored the long history of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) that began with Alice Paul and continues to be supported and opposed today. ENGAGE asked students what new amendments to the Constitution do they think are needed today.