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.
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.