Civic Literacy Curriculum
Question 7 | How many amendments does the Constitution have?
How many amendments does the Constitution have?
A. Thirteen (13)
B. Fifty (50)
C. Twenty-seven (27)
D. Thirty (30)
The Founders recognized that their Constitution, while carefully crafted, may need to be modified at times, and thus made it possible to change it through the Article V amendment process, which has been used 27 times.
The first ten amendments to the Constitution, known as the Bill of Rights, were the result of the original deal ratifying the Constitution. These amendments explicitly clarified the limited nature of the federal government and were meant to ease the fears of constitutional skeptics. The first eight amendments guarantee individual rights and the Ninth and Tenth Amendments codified the limited powers of the federal government.
Some amendments have been adopted in response to certain technical issues. The Eleventh and Twelfth Amendments, for example, addressed certain procedures dealing with court cases and the election of the presidency. Other amendments have increased or decreased the powers of the government. The Fourteenth, for example, extended the first eight amendments of the Bill of Rights to also protect individual rights against state governments (not just against the federal government), while the Sixteenth gave the federal government the ability to implement an income tax, which the Supreme Court had ruled was banned by Article I, Section 9. Amendments have likewise been passed to correct injustices. The Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments, for example, ensured access to the ballot could not be blocked on grounds of race or sex.
Congress has proposed a total of 33 amendments, of which 27 were ratified by the people of the states. Many hundreds of other amendments have also been proposed in Congress, but these did not have enough popular support to even be sent to the states.
Once an amendment is passed, it becomes part of the Constitution and thus, in the words of Article VI, the “supreme Law of the Land.” This does not mean that an amendment must be permanent, however; an amendment that is no longer useful, or is determined to have been a mistake, can be repealed. This happened with the Eighteenth Amendment, which was proposed by Congress in 1917 and ratified in 1919. The Tenth Amendment establishes that states set most local policy, and indeed many states had banned alcohol within their borders already. But the Eighteenth Amendment modified this to impose a federal ban on the manufacturing, distribution, and sale of alcohol for beverage purposes, across the whole country. Soon after, Americans decided this had been a mistake, and that it was better to restore alcohol policy to the states, where it had been before under the Tenth Amendment’s usual rule. The Twenty-First Amendment thus repealed the Eighteenth Amendment in 1933, the first time an amendment was repealed.
State constitutions are amended far more frequently than the U.S. Constitution. Some states, especially in the West, allow for much easier processes to change their own state constitutions; in some of these states bare majorities of voters can make sweeping and permanent changes to their constitutions. But the Framers of the United States Constitution wanted to ensure that its changes could only be made with a strong and broad consensus: any change must be capable of achieving supermajority support and approved by most of the states.
This activity requires students to think about amendments from a slightly different perspective. Rather than just talk about what the amendment does (e.g. guarantee women the right to vote), they are asked to draw conclusions about what need the amendment addressed and how it changed America once it was ratified.
As the Bill of Rights arguably counts as a part of the original constitutional settlement, this exercise focuses on those amendments made after the Constitution had been in effect a few years. A companion document contains the list of amendments as well as the relevant sections of the original constitution for the student to compare it to.
Due to its complexity compared to the others, the 14th Amendment has been broken up into three assignments. One student or pair of students will do section 1 and section 5, the next will do section 2 and section 5, and the third will section 3, 4, and 5.
- Provide each student with a copy of the Constitution
- Provide each student with List of Amendments and Relevant Original Constitution Sections
- Provide each student with Amendment Worksheet
- Print a copy of the sample worksheet for personal reference if needed.
- If this is a graded activity, provide each group with a copy of the rubric.
The Teaching Materials for this exercise include a sample completed amendment worksheet and rubric.
- Assign each student an amendment or section of an amendment from the List of Amendments and Relevant Original Constitutional Sections. Depending on the size of the class, you may want to put the students in pairs.
- Explain that they are to complete the worksheet and prepare a short (2-3 minute) presentation that they will give to the class where they explain what the amendment is and how it affects life today.
- Once everyone has completed their worksheet, have them present their information to the class. Go in the order of the amendments, 11-27.
Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting.
- The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
- The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events, and historical events.
Since the Bill of Rights, only 17 amendments have been successfully ratified, often in waves. For example, Reconstruction’s push to abolish slavery resulted in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, while the Progressive Era resulted in the Sixteenth, Seventeenth, Eighteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments.
Article V describes the process of changing the Constitution. How are changes made to the Constitution? What are those changes called?
Passing a law normally requires majorities of both houses of Congress and the signature of the president. By contrast, before an amendment can be ratified by three-quarters of the states, it generally must be proposed by two-thirds of both houses of Congress. Why would the Founders want it to be more difficult to amend the Constitution than to pass a law?