Regents Prep: U.S. History: Government:
Amendments to the Constitution
Amending the Constitution
One of the most important features of the Constitution is the ability to amend or change the document in order to adapt it to changing times and conditions. Amending the Constitution should rightly be a difficult task, there are however a few methods to accomplishing these significant changes.

Method 1

Amendment Proposed by 2/3rds Vote in Each House of Congress


Ratified by 3/4ths of the State Legislatures
Ratified by Constitutional Conventions in 3/4ths of the States

Method 2

Amendment Proposed at a National Constitutional Convention


Ratified by 3/4ths of the State Legislatures
Ratified by Constitutional Conventions in 3/4ths of the States

The Bill of Rights
The most significant amendments to the Constitution are the first ten, also known as The Bill of Rights. These amendments were added to the Constitution at the insistence of the Anti-Federalist forces during the debates over ratification. The fear of a dominating federal government, such as the colonists had experienced under English rule, led many to demand assurances that specific rights and liberties were going to be protected. It is the Bill of Rights that stands till today as the greatest guarantee of these rights and liberties upon which America was founded. All of the amendments in the Bill of Rights were adopted together in 1791.

Amendment Right(s) Historic Roots


  • Freedom of Religion
  • Freedom of Press
  • Freedom of Speech
  • Freedom of Assembly
  • Separation of Church and State (no national religion)
The English gov't had suppressed speech, assembly and press rights in an attempt to quell the growing colonial discontent. Additionally, many early settlers (such as the Pilgrims) came to America in search of religious freedom.
Right to Bear Arms
  • Right to keep and bear arms
In the period prior to the revolution, the English attempted to limit militia activity, as they rightly feared preparations for a coming revolution.
No Quarter
  • Right to protection from troops being quartered in homes during peacetime
The Quartering Act passed by English Parliament required the colonists to house and feed British troops stationed in the colonies.
Search and Seizure
  • Right against unreasonable search and seizure
  • Warrants require cause and must be specific
British troops often search houses and property at will, in an attempt to suppress organizations working towards a revolution.
Rights of the Accused
  • Accused must be indicted by a Grand Jury
  • Cannot be tried for the same crime twice (double jeopardy)
  • Cannot be forced to testify against yourself
  • Right to a fair trial with all proper legal rights enforced (due process)
  • Right to fair compensation ($$) when the gov't takes your property for public use
Many accused under British law in the colonies, were jailed without being accused of a crime. It was also not uncommon for a person in the colonies to be tried under the laws of Britain, without regard to the local laws passed within the colonies.
More Rights of the Accused
  • Right to be informed of the charges against you
  • Right to a speedy and public trial
  • Right to an impartial jury
  • Right to face witnesses against you in court
  • Right to counsel (a lawyer)
  • Right to call witnesses in your defense
In the era prior to the revolution, British courts could keep a suspect in jail without accusing him/her of a crime or bringing them into a court of law. Many suspects sat in prison for years awaiting trial, only to be found innocent an released.
Rights in a  Civil Case
  • Right to a trial by jury in a civil case (non-criminal case)
This provision protected the idea of trial by jury (a fundamental notion in both English and American law) and extended it to all cases private or public.
Cruel and Unusual Punishment
  • Right to protection against cruel and unusual punishment
  • Right to protection against excessive bails and fines
Even given that English laws applied to the colonies, English run colonial courts did not enforce the law evenly or fairly in the eyes of many. Excessive fines were levied for small offenses and extended sentences were given colonists perceived as threats for even the most minor offenses.
Unenumerated Rights
  • Guarantee that rights not enumerated (listed) in the Constitution are still protected
The founding fathers wanted to be certain that rights articulated in the Bill of Rights were not thought to be the only possible rights.
Reserved Rights
  • Guarantee that the people and the states have all of the powers not specifically delegated the federal government (reserved powers)
Many of the founding fathers feared the domination of the people and the states by a powerful federal government. To insure the containment of this power, people and states are granted all the powers that the federal government is not.

Other Amendments
Outside of the Bill of Rights there are 17 other amendments to the Constitution. All of the remaining amendments are outlined in the chart below. Those amendments which are considered the most significant to review for the exam are highlighted with colored backgrounds.

Amendment Provisions/Rights Historic Roots

State Immunity

  • Limits the ability of a person to sue a state
  • Allows a person to sue if a state denies their rights
The judicial system was left up to Congress to create. As this was done, clarification was needed.
Election of President and V.P.
  • Electors to the Electoral College are to cast one vote for President and separate vote for Vice President
  • The House elects the President of no candidate gets an electoral majority (each state w/ 1 vote)
  • The Senate elects the Vice President of no candidate gets an electoral majority
In the election of 1800, confusion in the Electoral College resulted from the requirement that the runner-up for president become president. Further confusing was the fact that electors could cast votes for Vice Presidential candidates for President. The final result was the election of Thomas Jefferson and the 12th amendment.
Abolition of Slavery
  • Slavery is illegal
The end of the Civil War saw a series of three amendments designed to grant greater equality to former slaves.
Equal Protection Under the Law
  • Declares that all citizens are guaranteed equal treatment and protection under the law
  • Bars former Confederates from holding office
  • Declares Confederate debt null and void
This has proven one of the most significant amendments outside the Bill of Rights. Equal protection is the basis for all modern civil rights laws, disability acts and other actions designed to protect minority rights.
Right to Vote
  • Insures black males the right to vote
Despite this amendment, poll taxes and literacy tests would attempt to deny black males voting rights in the southern states for nearly 100 years.
Income Tax
  • Grants Congress the power to collect taxes on income
  • Money collected does not have to be reapportioned to states based on population
The Populists had long fought for the taxation if income as a way of leveling out the great economic disparity between rich and poor that developed during the Gilded Age.
Direct Election of Senators
  • Senators are to be elected by the people
The original Constitution provided for Senators to be elected by state legislatures. This was a Populist cause, designed to increase people's participation in government.
  • The sale, making or transportation of alcohol is illegal
The temperance movement had gained support in the rural areas of the nation, somewhat in reaction to the growth of urban areas and the temptations cities brought. This was repealed (overturned) by the passage of the 21st amendment.
Women's Suffrage
  • Women are granted the right to vote
Women such as Susan B. Anthony (for whom the amendment was named) fought for a voting right amendment for over 40+ years.
  • President and Vice President are sworn into office on Jan. 20th (moved from March 4th)
During the heart of the depression voters chose the New Deal policies of FDR over the policies of then president Hoover. The election occurred in November, but presidential terms began in March of the next year. As a result nearly 5 months went by during which the "lame duck" presidency of Hoover did little to alleviate the suffering of the Great Depression. This amendment shortens the "lame duck" time by moving inauguration up by 2 months.
Repeal of Prohibition

  • The 18th amendment (prohibition) is repealed
  • Alcohol is again legal
Prohibition was regarded as a huge failure. Bootlegging and speakeasies allowed liquor to flow freely, and created a huge network of organized crime. Many feared disrespect for the prohibition laws would cause disrespect for all law, and the 18th amendment was revoked.
Presidential Term Limits

  • No person may serve as President more than twice
George Washington had sent the precedent of two terms. All other presidents continued to serve no more than two terms, up until FDR was elected a record four times. After his administration ended, there was widespread support for a formal limit on presidential terms.
Voting in Washington D.C.

  • Grants Washington D.C. 3 electors to the electoral college
Residents of the capitol did not have any political voice in federal government. This amendment grants them the minimum number of electors. To today Washington D.C. has no Senators or Reps. to the House. 
Abolition of Poll Taxes

  • Poll taxes are illegal in federal elections
Many Southern states had used  poll taxes and literacy tests to limit black voting after the Civil War. Literacy tests were already illegal by the 1960's, but an amendment was required to outlaw the poll tax.
  • Establishes a clearer succession to the presidency and vice presidency
During the era of the Cold War and in the wake of JFK's assassination, a clearer chain of ascension to the nations' highest offices was needed.
Voting Age

  • The age of eligibility for voting is lowered to 18 
In the wake of protests over the Vietnam war, a fundamental hypocrisy in the American voting system became clear. 18 year-olds could be drafted and forced to fight in war, but could not cast a vote for the politicians who were determining their fate.
Congressional Pay Raises

  • Congressional pay raises do not take effect until after the next Congressional election
The process for this amendment was begun in the 1790's. It keeps a current Congress from raising their own pay.

Failed Amendments to Know
Of the hundreds of amendments to the Constitution that have been proposed over the past 200+ years, only 27 have become part of the Constitution. A few notable amendments that have gained popularity, but failed to become law are listed below.

Provisions/Rights Historic Roots

Equal Rights Amendment

  • Proposed a guarantee of equal rights for women
This amendment gained popular support following the feminism movement of the 1960's and 70's. It was eventually deemed unnecessary, as the Supreme Court has interpreted the 14th amendment's equal protection provision to apply to women and other groups of minority status, effectively accomplishing much of what the E.R.A. would have provided.
Flag Burning
  • Proposed to outlaw the burning of the US flag
In the Supreme Court case Texas v. Johnson (1990), the court ruled that burning the US flag was protected speech under the 1st amendment. As such, outlawing such speech would require an amendment. This proposal has come up many time in the 1990's and continues to be a proposal under consideration.