The US Constitution: Why It is So Difficult to Amend

  • Noah Peterson
  • Dec 25, 2016 10:00AM

The Constitution of the United States of America is the supreme law of the land. It is the foundation for all government power and authority in the US, and puts limitations on the government to ensure that the fundamental rights of American citizens are protected. Along with its parent nation, the US Constitution has grown and evolved over the last 220 years, including amendments ratified allowing people of color and women to vote, as well as imposing strict limits on presidential terms.

In the history of the United States, many have sought to make major changes to the constitution to little or no avail. It seems that the Founding Fathers wanted many of these laws and rights set in stone, and within its pages constructed an Article that would make changes to the constitution incredibly difficult.

Shortly after the Declaration of Independence was written in 1776, the thirteen original colonies of the newly-founded United States needed an agreement to bind the territories as one sovereign nation. From this birthed the Articles of Confederation, the first Constitution of the United States. The Articles of Confederation provided a system for the Continental Congress to manage The Revolutionary War against the Kingdom of England, grow diplomatic relationships with other nations, and deal with the Native American tribes.

While this first-drafted constitution served its purpose initially, it allowed for only a weak government, and Federalist supporters desired a stronger national state. In March 1789, the general government under the Articles of Confederation was replaced with the United States Constitution. The updated document allowed for the creation of a federal government, a complex court system, taxation power, and establishing a president as a chief executive.

Within the US Constitution lies the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments that outline the fundamental civil liberties of American citizens. Within these amendments include the right to freedom of speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms, and the protection from being prosecuted or punished without due process.

There is a method in which the living document can be changed, as is outlined in Article V of the US Constitution. Successfully amending it is no easy task, but can be accomplished in one of two ways. It provides that an amendment may be proposed either by a two-thirds majority in both the House of Representatives and Senate, or by a convention called by Congress, upon the request of two-thirds of the US states. If an amendment passes through either process, it can be ratified by three-quarters of the states. Essentially, for an amendment to be ratified and implemented into the US Constitution requires it to pass through two supermajority votes – this is no easy journey, as state representatives regularly squabble over the smallest proposals.

The Founding Fathers likely made the US Constitution frustratingly difficult to change intentionally. These men were no ordinary “Joes” off of the street – they were scholars, inventors, scientists, advocates, and business owners. The founders recognized that for a new government to have stability and long-term success, its laws of the land also needed to be stable. Further, they desired to protect American citizens from a tyrannical future government, as many of these icons in American history have written about in the past. If the US government could be infiltrated by a foreign power, easier requirements for ratifying the constitution would allow for the potential to strip citizens of their rights and liberties. The Founding Fathers were fearful of the Federal government evolving into an oppressive state free of foreign influence, as well. One of America’s founders famously wrote:

"Experience hath shewn, that even under the best forms of government those entrusted with power have, in time, and by slow operations, perverted it into tyranny."
—Thomas Jefferson

It seems that the drafters of the US Constitution had good reason to make its pages so hard to amend and ratify. Over the course of American history, there have been a total of 27 changes enacted. While no proposals have been successfully ratified since 1971, during the 19th and 20th centuries important updates to the Constitution were made to the benefit of all Americans. These include:

15th Amendment

Ratified in 1870, this amendment states that no citizen’s vote can be discounted because of his race or color, or because he was once a slave. This helped put the United States on the track of equality for all of its people.

19th Amendment

This amendment was ratified in 1920, and gave all women the right to vote. Prior to this, only men over the age of 21 could cast a ballot.

22nd Amendment

Passed in 1951, this amendment limits a US president to two terms in office. After Franklin D. Roosevelt had won his fourth term during World War 2, Americans began to grow fearful that an extended position in the White House would give a president too much power.

26th Amendment

This amendment gave people from the ages of 18-20 the right to vote, and was ratified in 1971. Many Americans felt that if citizens could fight in the US Armed Forces at the age of 18, then they should be allowed to vote as well. With nationwide support, it passed in just four months.

As a foundation for everything that America is built on, the Constitution of the United States is the most important document in the nation. It allows freedom for its citizens and limits government power to ensure that the state never becomes too powerful. Article V allows the US to evolve its liberties and federal laws alike, but not without garnering the support of a vast majority of the country. This intentional requirement allows Americans to live their lives fearless of a tyrannical government, that once in power could strip citizens of their freedoms and liberties. The next time an outspoken person appears on national television in favor of easing Article V, question their intentions and motives.

Sources:
Whitehouse.gov: The Constitution
Scholastic: How the US Constitution Evolved Over Time
Exploring Constitutional Conflicts: Article V