The United States Constitution is one of the most significant and influential political documents in history. It set up the basis for the laws of the country, the branches of government and the means of a representational election. In honor of this significant achievement, September 17th is observed as Constitution Day and Citizenship Day (September 17, 1787 was the date of the signing of the Constitution). However, as enduring and powerful as this document was, there have been significant changes and additions to the Constitution throughout history. The first ten amendments, called the Bill of Rights, were some of the most basic and pervasive freedoms. These were ratified in 1789, only two years after the original Constitution, and are considered by many to be a part of the original Constitution. However, there have also been seventeen additional amendments since the original Bill of Rights. Below are five of the most important amendments:
1. 13th Amendment – The Abolition of Slavery At a time when the United States was still trying to end the Civil War, Congress passed the 13th amendment, prohibiting slavery and involuntary servitude. It was ratified by the end of the same year, after the close of the war. This amendment reinforced the Emancipation Proclamation, which has already ended slavery in the confederacy in 1862. Even though the official amendment occurred almost a century after the Declaration of Independence, the end of slavery is still one of the most important moments in U.S. history.
2. 19th Amendment – Women’s Suffrage Women did not secure the right to vote until the 19th Amendment, enacted in 1920. It may be surprising to realize that for a majority of its existence, the United States did not allow women to vote. The suffrage movement for women had been established for decades, since at least the mid-19th century. However, it was the industrial revolution, which saw more women in the workforce, and World War I, which necessitated even more women taking jobs, that finally made President Woodrow Wilson and Congress decide to support the cause. It should be noted that many other countries around the world had not established women’s suffrage until the early 20th century, as well.
3. 22nd Amendment – Limits President to Two Terms This amendment was a direct response to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected to the Presidency four times, starting in 1932. Although there were no laws preventing this many terms, no president had ever served more than two terms (and only once had a president ran for a third). FDR ran, and was elected, for a third and fourth term as he tried to guide the nation out of the Great Depression and then eventually lead it during World War II. However, with the country’s roots in independence and the obvious problems of dictatorship occurring in European nations, many U.S. citizens and politicians thought that a president should never lead for more than eight years.
4. 26th Amendment – Changes the Legal Voting Age to 18 Due to changing feelings about the government, especially during the Vietnam War, a quick groundswell lead to this amendment. Prior to the passage of this amendment in 1971, the minimum age of voting was 21. However, as the role of the United States in Vietnam became increasingly polarizing, many felt it was unfair to ask young men, at 18 and 19-years-old, to risk their lives in an unpopular war when they were unable to choose their governmental leaders. Another significant factor in the passage of this amendment was the killing of four college student war protestors at Kent State University in 1970.
5. 18th/21st Amendments – Establishment and End of Prohibition The case of Prohibition is the only time a Constitutional amendment has been passed to repeal another amendment. When the 18th Amendment was passed in 1919, it was lead by temperance advocates who thought that Prohibition would lessen drunkenness and crime. However, in many ways, quite the opposite happened during Prohibition, which lasted until 1933. Speakeasies became commonplace in major cities and the Mafia, which usually supplied their alcohol, became much more pervasive and powerful. Furthermore, outlawing the sale and consumption of alcohol hardly stopped people from drinking – it only made them find new places to do it. With the passage of the 21st Amendment, the nation decided to admit the original change had failed and once again allowed drinking.