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A guide to the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments

  • A guide to the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments
    1/ Ted Mielczarek // Flickr

    A guide to the Bill of Rights and other constitutional amendments

    For more than a decade after the Revolutionary War, America was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which provided for only a weak and minimal federal government while allowing states to operate like individual countries. That was until 1787 in Philadelphia, when delegates of the Constitutional Convention signed the Constitution of the United States of America.

    Since then, the document has been altered 27 times through the amendment process provided by Article V of the Constitution itself. Requiring a two-thirds majority vote by both the House and Senate, or by a constitutional convention called for by two-thirds of the country's state legislatures, amending the Constitution is no easy task.

    The first 10 amendments to the Constitution are collectively called the Bill of Rights. Written by James Madison, the Bill of Rights puts specific limits on government power and enshrines specific personal liberties.

    Here's a look at all 27 amendments to America's governing document, the Constitution.

  • Amendment XXVII: Compensation of Members of Congress
    2/ Lawrence Jackson // Wikicommons

    Amendment XXVII: Compensation of Members of Congress

    Year ratified: 1992

    Link to full amendment

    The 27th Amendment seems fairly straightforward, maintaining that members of Congress may not alter their salaries mid-term. But the so-called compensation amendment's bizarre 202-year, seven-month saga from original proposal to ratification was a meandering journey. It started during the first session of Congress in 1789 and didn't end until the dawn of the digital age. No other amendment languished in limbo for a longer period of time.

  • Amendment XXVI: Right to Vote at Age 18
    3/ Vox Efx // Flickr

    Amendment XXVI: Right to Vote at Age 18

    Year ratified: 1971

    Link to full amendment

    The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age from 21 to 18. Debate over the hotly contested amendment started during World War II and came to a head during the Vietnam War—the country was collectively outraged that 18-year-old men could be drafted for involuntary military service and foreign combat right out of high school, but were still three years away from being old enough to vote for their own leaders.

  • Amendment XXV: Presidential Succession
    4/ Cecil W. Stoughton // Wikicommons

    Amendment XXV: Presidential Succession

    Year ratified: 1967

    Link to full amendment

    The issue of presidential succession was addressed in Article II, Section 1, Clause 6 of the original Constitution. But flaws in the document's vague and convoluted wording were exposed in 1841 when President William Henry Harrison died, leaving Vice President John Tyler to fight for his claim to the presidency. One of the more complex amendments, the 25th Amendment clarifies the issues of presidential succession in four sections.

  • Amendment XXIV: Poll Tax
    5/ Cecil W. Stoughton // Wikicommons

    Amendment XXIV: Poll Tax

    Year ratified: 1964

    Link to full amendment

    Amendment 24 prohibits the use of the poll tax, a mechanism Southern states used to enforce white supremacy and disenfranchise black Americans for nearly a century following the Civil War and Reconstruction. With poverty rampant among both black and white Southerners, few could afford to pay to exercise their right to vote. Grandfather clauses, however, often exempted anyone whose ancestors voted before the Civil War, which allowed many poor whites to vote for free while excluding virtually all African-Americans living in former slave states.

  • Amendment XXIII: Presidential Vote in D.C.
    6/ Autopilot // Wikicommons

    Amendment XXIII: Presidential Vote in D.C.

    Year ratified: 1961

    Link to full amendment

    Washington D.C. has been the seat of government in the United States for nearly as long as America has been a country, but residents of the District of Columbia have only been allowed to vote in presidential elections since 1961. The 23rd Amendment granted that right. As a city with a black majority, newly acquired votes added even more steam to the escalating Civil Rights movement. In turn, the measure encountered fierce resistance in the South.

  • Amendment XXII: Two Term Limit on President
    7/ Chuck Kennedy // Official White House Photo

    Amendment XXII: Two Term Limit on President

    Year ratified: 1951

    Link to full amendment

    Few issues puzzled the framers of the Constitution more thoroughly than the process of choosing a president and determining the length of time for which a president should serve. After all, European monarchies offered no precedent on which to base the new executive office. While many of the framers wanted the presidency to be a lifetime appointment, President George Washington's decision to retire after his second term set the tone for a voluntary two-term limit. This lasted for 150 years, but the dual crises of the Great Depression and World War II led Americans to elect Franklin D. Roosevelt to four terms in office—stoking fears of future tyranny that led to the ratification of the 22nd Amendment.

  • Amendment XXI: Repeal of Prohibition
    8/ H. Michael Miley // Flickr

    Amendment XXI: Repeal of Prohibition

    Year ratified: 1933

    Link to full amendment

    14 years after the 19th Amendment made prohibition the law of the land, the 21st Amendment repealed it. It remains the only time in American history that the Constitution was amended to overturn a previous amendment.

  • Amendment XX: Presidential Term and Succession
    9/ Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class George Trian // Wikicommons

    Amendment XX: Presidential Term and Succession

    Year ratified: 1933

    Link to full amendment

    Few amendments have been passed with less fanfare, controversy, and discussion than the 20th Amendment, which modifies part of the Constitution and the 12th Amendment, mostly to clarify start dates for terms of office. To this day, it has never been the subject of a Supreme Court decision.

  • Amendment XIX: Women's Right to Vote
    10/ Public Domain // Wikicommons

    Amendment XIX: Women's Right to Vote

    Year ratified: 1920

    Link to full amendment

    Representing a watershed moment for equality and freedom in American history, the 19th Amendment was the crowning achievement of a nearly century-long active struggle for women's rights. The codification of women's suffrage with the ratification of the 19th Amendment was built on the shoulders of giants like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott, whose relentless protests changed the consciousness of the American patriarchy.

  • Amendment XVIII: Prohibition
    11/ Orange County Archives // Wikicommons

    Amendment XVIII: Prohibition

    Year ratified: 1919

    Link to full amendment

    More than a half century before Richard Nixon declared a "war on drugs," America established the 19th Amendment, which prohibited the manufacture, transportation, and sale of intoxicating liquors. But in reality, Prohibition did none of that. Americans kept drinking—and similar to the illegal drug trade, the act created a black market that fueled an unprecedented rise in violent crime and urban warfare as organized gangs battled for control of the lucrative underground trade.

  • Amendment XVII: Election of Senators
    12/ Brady-Handy Photograph Collection // Wikicommons

    Amendment XVII: Election of Senators

    Year ratified: 1913

    Link to full amendment

    It's been 105 years since the 27th Amendment empowered the people to directly elect the senators who represent their states. It's hard to imagine what Congress would look like today if senators were still chosen by state legislatures, as they were prior to 1913.

  • Amendment XVI: Income Tax
    13/ PxHere

    Amendment XVI: Income Tax

    Year ratified: 1913

    Link to full amendment

    The 16th Amendment was part of a wave of early 20th-century reforms that changed the relationship between the federal government and the citizens of the United States. The enabling of a nationwide income tax played a key role in the rise of the modern, powerful federal government, which would quickly come to rely on income tax as its chief source of revenue.

  • Amendment XV: Rights Not to Be Denied on Account of Race
    14/ Yoichi Okamoto // Wikicommons

    Amendment XV: Rights Not to Be Denied on Account of Race

    Year ratified: 1870

    Link to full amendment

    The 15th amendment gave black men the right to vote, although that right was largely symbolic for nearly a century after the Reconstruction era until major Civil Rights legislation was signed in the mid-1960s. When Reconstruction ended, white supremacist governments once again took over the South—as well as many other areas of the country. They used mechanisms ranging from the poll tax and literacy tests, to acts of violence and terrorism to keep black people as disenfranchised as possible.

  • Amendment XIV: Privileges and Immunities, Due Process, Equal Protection, Apportionment of Representatives, Civil War Disqualification and Debt
    15/ Karen Neoh // Flickr

    Amendment XIV: Privileges and Immunities, Due Process, Equal Protection, Apportionment of Representatives, Civil War Disqualification and Debt

    Year ratified: 1868

    Link to full amendment

    One of three amendments designed to protect African Americans in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the 14th Amendment guaranteed equal protection under the law without regard to race. Like the 13th and 15th Amendments, it created dramatic change during Reconstruction, but black citizens were quickly denied its protections when Reconstruction ended. Millions of newly freed slaves were left to the mercy of their defeated and enraged former masters who reclaimed control of local and state governments.

  • Amendment XIII: Abolition of Slavery
    16/ Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation — Jeff Kubina // Wikicommons

    Amendment XIII: Abolition of Slavery

    Year ratified: 1865

    Link to full amendment

    The 13th Amendment outlawed slavery—with one gaping loophole: "except as a punishment for crime.” When Reconstruction ended, every Southern state installed the brutal system known as convict leasing. For decades following emancipation, hundreds of thousands of black Americans who had committed no real crime were kidnapped off the streets by corrupt sheriffs. They were hustled through corrupt local court systems, convicted of vague crimes like vagrancy, issued fines they couldn't pay, and forced to work off those fines building railroads, mining coal, and picking cotton under conditions that were often worse than those endured by actual slaves.

  • Amendment XII: Election of President and Vice-President
    17/ Shealah Craighead // Wikicommons

    Amendment XII: Election of President and Vice-President

    Year ratified: 1804

    Link to full amendment

    The 12th Amendment was written in response to the peculiar and massively consequential election of 1800, which represented the first time in history that an incumbent—John Adams—was defeated. That defeat, however, resulted in an Electoral College tie between Aaron Burr and Adams' vice president, Thomas Jefferson. The tie was eventually broken by Congressional vote, but the fiasco revealed major flaws in the way presidents and vice presidents were elected under the original Constitution.

  • Amendment XI: Suits Against a State
    18/ Loren // Wikicommons

    Amendment XI: Suits Against a State

    Year ratified: 1795

    Link to full amendment

    The text of the 11th Amendment prohibits federal courts from hearing some specific lawsuits brought against states. The amendment has since been interpreted, however, to mean that state courts can't be forced to hear suits against the state, in many cases, if the case is based on federal law.

  • Amendment X: Rights Reserved to States or People
    19/ Lawrence Jackson // Official White House Photo

    Amendment X: Rights Reserved to States or People

    Year ratified: 1791

    Link to full amendment

    The final amendment in the Bill of Rights, the 10th Amendment, just like the 9th Amendment, reiterates the theme of popular sovereignty in the American form of government. The decision of whether or not to even include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution was hotly contested by its framers, some of whom were worried about the infringement of rights that weren't expressly guaranteed.

  • Amendment IX: Non-Enumerated Rights
    20/ John Nakamura Remy // Flickr

    Amendment IX: Non-Enumerated Rights

    Year ratified: 1791

    Link to full amendment

    The Ninth Amendment is one of the most ferociously contested of all the amendments in the Bill of Rights, and its legal effects are still widely disputed. Like the 10th Amendment, it deals with popular sovereignty and seeks to ensure that citizens do not surrender any rights that aren't specifically guaranteed in the Bill of Rights.  

  • Amendment VIII: Excess Bail or Fines, Cruel and Unusual Punishment
    21/ maveric2003 // Flickr

    Amendment VIII: Excess Bail or Fines, Cruel and Unusual Punishment

    Year ratified: 1791

    Link to full amendment

    The framers of the Constitution included the Eighth Amendment to ensure that American courts would not institute the hideous tortures associated with the Inquisition and other primitive justice systems suffered by their European ancestors. It is, however, one of the most controversial and contentious elements of the entire Bill of Rights, as "cruel" and "unusual" are both purely subjective concepts.

  • Amendment VII: Common Law Suits - Jury Trial
    22/ Airman 1st Class William Johnson // U.S> Air Force Photo `

    Amendment VII: Common Law Suits - Jury Trial

    Year ratified: 1791

    Link to full amendment

    The Seventh Amendment is one of the oddest and most loosely enforced entries in the Bill of Rights. Not only does it specify the seemingly arbitrary benchmark of $20, but it makes the United States one of the only remaining countries to require juries for civil trials, even though fewer than 1% of such trials are actually tried by juries.

  • Amendment VI: Criminal Prosecutions - Jury Trial, Right to Confront and to Counsel
    23/ Jason Risner Photography // Wikicommons

    Amendment VI: Criminal Prosecutions - Jury Trial, Right to Confront and to Counsel

    Year ratified: 1791

    Link to full amendment

    The Sixth Amendment contains a slew of protections that lay the groundwork for the American criminal justice system and the rights it guarantees to the accused. Among them are the right to be informed of the charges against them, the right to confront accusers, the right to call witnesses, the right to legal counsel, and the right to a speedy, public trial before an impartial jury.

  • Amendment V: Grand Jury, Double Jeopardy, Self-Incrimination, Due Process
    24/ Delanie Stafford // U.S. Air Force Photo

    Amendment V: Grand Jury, Double Jeopardy, Self-Incrimination, Due Process

    Year ratified: 1791

    Link to full amendment

    While watching a courtroom drama unfold on TV, you've probably heard a reluctant witness "take the Fifth." That's a reference to the Fifth Amendment, which guarantees the right to refuse self-incrimination, as well as other fundamental protections—like exclusion from double jeopardy and the guarantee to not be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process.

  • Amendment IV: Search and Seizure
    25/ Osbornb // Flickr

    Amendment IV: Search and Seizure

    Year ratified: 1791

    Link to full amendment

    The Framers of the Constitution could not have imagined smartphones, cloud storage, SUV glove compartments, or even organized police forces. Yet the Fourth Amendment they crafted, which protects citizens against unreasonable search and seizure, has been interpreted and applied to all those concepts and many more over the past decades and centuries.

  • Amendment III: Quartering of Troops
    26/ Public Domain

    Amendment III: Quartering of Troops

    Year ratified: 1791

    Link to full amendment

    Today, the Third Amendment has virtually no impact on our daily lives; it has been litigated less than any other amendment in the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court has never heard a case relating to it. When it was written, however, Britain's long history of forcing its subjects to quarter soldiers in Europe was fresh on the minds of the framers, as was the Boston Massacre: the deadly culmination of protests by Massachusetts colonists who were frustrated with their obligation to quarter and provide for British troops. 

  • Amendment II: Right to Bear Arms
    27/ Aldaron // WIkicommons

    Amendment II: Right to Bear Arms

    Year ratified: 1791

    Link to full amendment

    It's hard to imagine that any part of the Bill of Rights is more hotly contested than the Second Amendment, which provides that "a well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." The language of that statement has sparked fierce debate in a country that suffers tens of thousands of gun deaths every year—over whether the framers meant that gun ownership is an individual right or that gun ownership is guaranteed only for regulated defense organizations.

  • Amendment I: Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly, Petition
    28/ Ji Soo Song // Flickr

    Amendment I: Religion, Speech, Press, Assembly, Petition

    Year ratified: 1791

    Link to full amendment

    The First Amendment is the cornerstone of America's basic liberties. It guarantees both freedom of religion and freedom from religion, a free press, the freedom to peaceably assemble, to speak freely, and to petition the government for redress of grievances.

     

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