Better Early Than Never

It is a fundamental human need, to be heard.  WHICH IS WHY WE SOMETIMES TALK IN ALL CAPS.

On a personal level, each of us needs that special someone to hear what we have to say.  On a social level, each of us needs to get a word in edgewise at big holiday meal gatherings.  On a societal level, each of us wants to have a say about who governs us and how.  And some societies actually give us that say, by way of that crazy little thing called voting.

Seeing as how voting is fairly important in a democratic republic, it’s not all that surprising that a few of the Amendments to our Constitution have centered around that subject.  Generally speaking, a series of Amendments over the past couple hundred years have expanded the number of people that are allowed to vote.  The last of these was the 26th Amendment, ratified in 1971, which lowered the minimum voting age from 21 to 18 years.

As you may have read in the last blog post, the 27th Amendment took the longest amount of time to ratify after approval by Congress – over 200 years. The 26th Amendment took the least amount of time – about 4 months.  What made this one such a slam dunk?  As with so many things in life, it’s all about timing.  The fundamental argument behind the 26th Amendment is “old enough to fight, old enough to vote”.   That point of view originated in World War II, when President Roosevelt lowered the draft age to 18.  It steadily gained momentum over the ensuing decades, but it wasn’t until the 1960’s that the United States was engaged in a war unpopular enough to move the needle:  Vietnam.

Like many Amendments before it, Amendment 26 also grew out of a dispute between branches of the government, and between the federal government and the states.  To address the “old enough to fight, old enough to vote” sentiment, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1970, which set the minimum voting age at 21 across the nation.  But a number of states objected, and the case went to the Supreme Court under Oregon vs Mitchell, also in 1970.  The Supreme Court subsequently ruled that Congress had the authority to set the minimum age for federal elections, but not for state and local elections.  While this sounds like a partial victory for the states, it was really a complete defeat, because any state that wanted to keep the minimum voting age at 21 now had to run two sets of elections, and wastes of money like that don’t go over too well at home.  And so when the 26th Amendment was approved by Congress, even states that didn’t like it fell in line rather quickly.

Old enough to graze, old enough to vote

Let’s get back to that underlying sentiment behind the 26th Amendment for a moment: “old enough to fight, old enough to vote”.  It appealed very viscerally during the Vietnam War, and it still does today.  But there were and are valid arguments against that notion.  The skills required to perform a narrow set of tasks during a battle are inarguably different from those required to make an informed decision about the political path of the nation.  In fact, I found myself having trouble taking a side on this one as I researched it.  So I figured I’d try something radical and think about what impact the 26th Amendment had via *me*.

I turned 18 in 1987, a year and a half before the next big round of elections, including that for the President.  Did I bring a new point of view into my votes during those elections?  The answer is a resounding no – I brought my parents’ points of view.  They were staunchly Republican throughout my upbringing (my mother continuing that general sentiment after my father passed away just 3 days before my 18th birthday).  And so, guess what, I was a Republican when I was 18.  In fact, I was a Republican when I was 21.

Now, I’ll be the first to admit I did not get the full college experience.  When my father passed, one of the countless repercussions was insufficient money to live on campus, and so I lived at home for my entire undergraduate education.  I had a fairly small circle of friends as well, so there weren’t a whole lot of external pressures to change my point of view.  But the bottom line is probably not all that different from a lot of other folks – 3 years of societally-defined adulthood is not necessarily enough time to shape your own new views on the world.  In cases where it is enough time, other factors probably cause that shaping to be radically different from what you learned from your parents.  So maybe half of us simply parrot what we were told and half of us go to the opposite extreme.  And therefore the net effect of lowering the voting age is a complete wash.

Despite that unassailable steel cage of logic I just constructed for you, I still find myself in favor of the 26th Amendment:

The right of citizens of the United States, who are eighteen years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.

Why?  Simple: “old enough to fight” can be reworded in any number of ways: old enough to be hit by a bus, old enough to contract a terminal disease, old enough to be struck by lightning…  every one of us, as soon as reasonably practical, should have the chance to say how the world should be run, at least one time before we are unceremoniously ushered out of it.

Better early than never.

Better Late than Never

I figured a series of posts about the Amendments to our Constitution, counting backwards, would start slow and steadily build up to Number 1. I had no idea what an amazing story Number 27 would turn out to be. To call it inspiring falls profoundly short. This was an infusion of hope for our country that I sorely needed.

Hope – the opposite of fear

First, a quick shout out to the number 27 itself. It’s a cube: 3 times 3 times 3. It’s also the number that was worn by Steve Atwater, who because he played for the Denver Broncos isn’t yet in the NFL Hall of Fame. And it’s the last two digits of the year in which our house was built. Could this one number be any more awesome? Yes… yes it could.

As I noted in my previous post (https://parallaxmachine.com/2018/12/05/making-amends/), it’s remarkable that there have only been 27 Amendments to our Constitution. The process of changing the document that underpins our republic was deliberately and understandably made extremely difficult. Unlike the cluster-fudge bills that are introduced on a routine basis by our Congress, Amendments require not just their overwhelming support, but also the support of three quarters of the states. It’s part of the delicate and underrated balance between federal and state government.

The idea of the 27th Amendment is pretty simple: if Congress votes themselves any change in their own pay (up or down in fact), it can’t take effect until after the next election. You can probably see why this is a good idea, and so it’s not too surprising that people could see that over 200 years ago. And so when James Madison submitted the first batch of twelve proposed Amendments to the Constitution in 1789, this was one of them. Ten from that batch became our Bill of Rights. Another still sits on a shelf somewhere, perhaps the topic of a future post here. And this one, even though it was approved by Congress, only got ratified by 5 states at the time, and so it didn’t become law.

Over the course of the next nearly 200 years, a state per century decided to ratify the 27th Amendment. The first was Kentucky, in 1792. But everybody forgot they had done that until over 200 years later (more on that below). The second was Ohio, in 1873. The third was Wyoming, in 1978. Talk about the quintessential slog. Of course, part of the problem here, especially with Ohio and Wyoming, was that these states weren’t necessarily looking to change the constitution, but they found this Amendment a nice way to make a point.

But that all changed in 1982, and if you ever question the power of the individual, you should read one of the accounts of this story (NPR has a nice one, in particular – https://www.npr.org/2017/05/05/526900818/the-bad-grade-that-changed-the-u-s-constitution). In that year, a student at the University of Texas named Gregory Watson was researching for a term paper, and discovered this Amendment. More importantly, he found that there didn’t appear to be any sort of time limit on its full ratification – meaning even over 200 years after being approved by Congress, it could still become law if ratified by enough states. He turned in his paper to that effect, and the teaching assistant gave him a C. He appealed to the professor, who agreed it should be a C. And then, where most of us would just throw up our hands and have another beer, he decided he would do something slightly different – he set out on the road to get the thing ratified.

Watson wrote letters to many in Congress – most of them did not respond, or if they did, they indicated why it wasn’t worth pursuing. But Senator William Cohen from Maine actually passed it along to the folks in his state, and they voted to ratify it. Colorado followed not long after. And each year a few more joined in. Finally, in 1992, Missouri became the 38th state to ratify the Amendment. But nobody knew that, because they forgot about Kentucky having done it in 1792. So Michigan was the state that got the pomp and circumstance as they ratified, with Watson himself listening in. 203 years after being introduced, the 27th Amendment became an official part of the Constitution:

No law varying the compensation for the services of the Senators and Representatives shall take effect until an election of representatives shall have intervened.

A few years later, Watson pushed Kentucky to ratify as part of a campaign to make it a unanimously ratified law. That’s when he and others discovered they had already done it back in 1792. But they went ahead and ratified it again. Which I suppose means that if the remaining four states (Massachusetts, Mississippi, New York, and Pennsylvania) ever ratify the 27th Amendment, it will stand for generations as the only Amendment that was ever ratified 51 times.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Watson later worked to get Mississippi to ratify the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, as a symbolic but powerful gesture.

And here’s my favorite part of the entire story: in 2017, 35 years after his turned in his paper, his grade was officially changed to an A. I didn’t expect to cry a little writing about the 27th Amendment.

So, the next time you find yourself feeling powerless, remember Gregory Watson. Just a student at a university who got a bad grade, who decided to do something about it, and now his legacy is etched in the greatest legal document ever written, as surely as that of our Forefathers who signed it over two centuries earlier.

Making Amends

Rarely does any of us ever get it right the first time.

A perfect example of “us” is “US” – our great nation, and more specifically our rightfully revered Constitution.

How sneaky to write the Constitution when Jefferson was in Paris

After completing the original Constitution, it didn’t take long for (most of) our Forefathers to realize they forgot a few things, hence the Bill of Rights, also known as the first ten “derps” of our Republic. The flip side of that characterization is that these are the things that apparently weren’t important enough to include in the original. It all depends on your point of view, and your mood.

Since 1789, there have been only 27 Amendments to the Constitution. 10 of which came almost immediately via the Bill of Rights. That’s not bad for getting most of it right in the first draft. I’ve amended this post 27 times and it hasn’t even been posted as of the moment I said that. Another way to look at that is, it takes a lot of work and wrangling to make an Amendment happen. That means each one ought to be pretty important. But as much as we universally revere the Constitution, we are remarkably selective about which Amendments we similarly revere.

I could ask you which Amendments you actually know in terms of matching a number with its content. But I’ll do one better than that and reveal my own ignorance, which is extreme. On a daily basis, as I go about my routine of wondering why my phone can’t peacefully transition from the WiFi at our house to LTE as I listen to Internet radio on the way to work, I know the following:

1) Amendment 1 is about free speech, free assembly, free religion, and some other free stuff.

2) Amendment 2 is about the inalienable right to have a musket so you can join the militia.

3) Amendment 5 is about not saying anything that might get you in trouble.

And that’s it. I know there are other Amendments – the abolition of slavery, prohibition and the subsequent prohibition of prohibition, and the right to citizenship if you’re born in the Land of Generally Unknown Amendments. But in terms of knowing which one is which, that’s a score of 3 out of 27. That’s 1 in 9, or 11%. There is no test in any venue at any time of year where 11% is considered a passing grade. People that were not born here, who have to take a test to become citizens, will score far better than 11% on the Amendment Challenge. And of course I scored far better than that in elementary school, which is the last time I was asked to remember any of our Amendments by heart.

Here’s another interesting tidbit. It’s entirely anecdotal, but it appears depressingly reliable. If you are passionate about Amendment 1, you are likely to be equally dispassionate about Amendment 2. And vice versa. That’s not a generalization. It’s a sad statement about how polarized our nation has become. Amendment 1 is almost always a top priority on the left side of the aisle, and Amendment 2 is a stronghold of the right. If you spend any amount of time talking about free speech and the importance of a free press, you probably don’t spend anywhere near as much time talking about the right to bear arms. And vice versa. Get mad if you like, but as far as I can tell, it’s simply true.

Now, I know people who consider both of these Amendments to be equally important. I can think of a couple in particular who are among my most treasured friends. But those people are rare. Thank you so much, two-party system. George Washington tried to warn us, but we wouldn’t listen.

So here is what I’m going to do. Call it a gimmick if you like, but I call it a way to avoid coming up with new topics for up to a year. The next 27 posts on this blog will be about our Amendments. And here’s the fun part. I’m going to start with Number 27. Think of it as the Ultimate Top 40 Countdown. Except for the 40 part. I will learn a great deal as I research the material that will go into these posts. You will also learn a great deal, simply by living life over the next year. If you happen to read anything I write along the way, great.

No, let me amend that: GREAT.

RSS
Follow by Email